Tuesday evening, in movie theaters around the country, right-wing radio host Glenn Beck spent about two hours broadcasting his live anti-Common Core event, “We Will Not Conform.” Beck has been heavily involved in the battle against Common Core from the far right. The people he assembled for the broadcast included some of the heavy hitters in the current right-wing war against Common Core and public education in general.
The Common Core State Standards for schools were developed by the National Governors Association and an association of state school superintendents. They were conceived as a way to promote U.S. competitiveness in an increasingly globalized world, increase educational equity and resolve issues resulting from No Child Left Behind (implemented during the George W. Bush administration). The standards, which are currently being implemented in some forty states, do not mandate the use of any particular text or course of study. Rather, they are designed to identify the literacy and math skills that children in every public school should master at each grade level.
To be fair, Common Core has received its fair share of criticism from across the political spectrum, and from leading education experts. Critics have raised legitimate issues that need to be debated, such as whether the standards were adequately tested, whether we have an education system that doesn’t just “teach to the test” and whether there has been ample time for teacher training and implementation. But these legitimate issues are being obscured by a cloud of fear-mongering and extremist propaganda, often pushed by the far right, and these attacks stand apart from legitimate criticism because of incendiary language, apocalyptic warnings, distortions, falsehoods, and antigovernment conspiracy theories.
To those battling Common Core on the far right, it’s some kind of nefarious plan to indoctrinate young children into any variety of right-wing bugaboos: homosexuality, liberalism, anti-Christianity, a New World Order (the belief that a one-world government is on the horizon and will soon oppress basically everybody). It is, to those fighting it, a scary example of a federal government run amok and bent on implementing “indoctrination camps.”
Two of the primary drivers of the anti-Common Core movement on the right include the American Principles Project (APP), which was founded by hardline anti-LGBT activist and Princeton professor Robert George. He’s considered a leading thinker on the Christian right, and is known primarily for having helped found the National Organization for Marriage and the Witherspoon Institute. The latter granted nearly $700,000 to University of Texas sociology professor Mark Regnerus for his now thoroughly discredited anti-LGBT study. FreedomWorks, a Koch-backed group that fueled the rise of the Tea Party, also works against Common Core. Both groups sponsored Beck’s event, as did Liberty University Online Academy, a homeschooling project of Liberty University, which was founded by the late Jerry Falwell. All of these organizations had representatives at Beck’s event.
Beck opened his live broadcast in his avuncular “we’re all in this together” style, then introduced his panelists – luminaries of the anti-Common Core movement, all of whom were seated at five tables in various groups. A live studio audience positioned behind the tables mirrored the audience in the Montgomery, Ala., theater where Hatewatch observed the event – overwhelmingly white and generally over the age of forty, though a few teens and some who looked to be in their early-mid twenties also attended.
Panelists included the ever-sniping, right-wing pundit Michelle Malkin, whom Beck credited as being instrumental in the anti-Common Core movement, and as the person responsible for “educating” him about it; Shane Vander Hart, editor at Truth in American Education/APP; conservative pundit and radio host Dana Loesch (pronounced “Lash”), whom Beck called “one of the smartest women I know”; Emmett McGroarty, APP Education Director; the right’s favorite pseudohistorian David Barton; Oklahoma state senator Josh Brecheen, who drafted the anti-Common Core legislation that eventually passed in that state (he’s also drafted anti-evolution legislation); Matt Kibbe, CEO and president of FreedomWorks; Jay Spencer of Liberty University’s online academy, a homeschooling program of Liberty University; Ellen Wheeler, director of messaging at FreedomWorks; Brian Glicklich, a behind-the-scenes PR man whose firm specializes in “exceptional digital management for crisis, and beyond” (he was also a Rush Limbaugh spokesman); and local Alabama favorite Becky Gerritson, leader of the Wetumpka Tea Party, whose introduction brought cheers and applause from the attendees gathering in the Montgomery theater.
For nearly two hours, the panelists primarily engaged in discussions about how to best organize against Common Core, which included tips on the kind of language to use when discussing it and calls to be persistent with legislators while audience members around the country were encouraged to text in their responses to poll questions like who some of the best national politicians are on this issue (most popular answers: Rand Paul and Ted Cruz).
Malkin made reference several times to a “cabal” that is behind Common Core. At one point, the crowd in the studio and the theater cheered when panelist Andrea Dillon, who blogs as “Lady Liberty,” said she’d just gotten breaking news that North Carolina governor Pat McCrory had signed Common Core legislation designed to review and change the standards.
Kathleen Jasper, of the self-proclaimed bipartisan blog ConversationEd, called for the boycotting of standardized tests, which she referred to throughout the event as part of “the machine.” In Jasper’s view, the tests are designed to make students fail, so they have to take them again, and the testing companies make more and more money. To beat the machine, she stated, boycott the tests. That was one of the “most powerful ideas” to come out of the event, Beck later stated.
Unlike decades past when education debates often revolved around ways to improve public education, critics of Common Core offer no suggestions for reform. Instead, they promote conspiracies about the federal government and liberal indoctrination and contend that public schools are secularized and somehow rotten to the core, and that the only thing to be done is to destroy Common Core and route children into homeschooling and private/charter schools.
This event was no exception, including dire warnings about the future of the nation, a “cabal” of big corporations forcing Common Core on the nation and children being used as “guinea pigs.” “I’m scared out of my mind,” Beck said at one point. Panelist Terrence Moore, principal of the new Atlanta Classical Academy, implored participants to “take back public schools” and stop the “progressive agenda.” “We will not conform, Glenn,” Malkin said. “We’re locked and loaded.”