Foundation tied to group paid out-of-state speakers at hearings
By Erin Richards of the Journal Sentinel Oct. 31, 2013
The clamor over nationwide K-12 academic standards adopted by Wisconsin and discussed at four recent statewide hearings intensified this week with news that several out-of-state speakers critical of the standards received compensation through an arm of the conservative John Birch Society.
Leaders of the American Opinion Foundation, an independent nonprofit associated with the Wisconsin-based society, say they paid for about $5,500 worth of travel expenses for five Common Core State Standards critics to speak at the hearings in Fond du Lac, Eau Claire and Wausau this month. They said local citizens raised the money.
The latest select Assembly and Senate committees to re-examine the standards were spearheaded by Republicans, but many saw them as agenda-driven from the start because the highest-ranking education lawmakers in the state — Senate Education Chair Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) and Assembly Education Chair Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake) — declined to participate.
One Milwaukee lawmaker resigned from the Assembly’s review panel this week, calling the hearing process “deeply biased.”
“I cannot in good conscience sit on a committee that has involved the most extreme national interest groups on education in planning and executing official Legislative hearings,” Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) wrote in a resignation letter to chairmen of the Senate and Assembly Common Core review panels.
Other Democrats on the House and Senate panels criticized the compensation of speakers.
“What’s new here is the clear attempt to hide who they are representing and who is paying their way,” Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) said in an interview Thursday.
“The direction of the committee is clearly biased, but that’s exactly why I want to stay on it,” he said.
The Common Core standards for what students should know and be able to do in reading and math were adopted by most states because governors and state superintendents believed uniform K-12 guidelines could translate to higher student achievement. The standards also are aligned with new online state achievement tests coming down the pike.
Wisconsin was one of the first states to get on board, adopting the standards with little fanfare several years ago.
Implementation is already underway, and many teachers, principals and superintendents have praised the standards for being more rigorous than former state standards.
“Adopting these standards does not limit what content or skills might be taught, or with what materials,” Mary Ann Hardebeck, the superintendent of the Eau Claire Area School District, said at a hearing in her city last week.
Backlash against standards
Still, Wisconsin and other states have seen backlash from both far right and far left groups over the standards. Some progressive Democrats have joined hands with tea party activists to denounce the standards as being a national curriculum forced on schools by the federal government.
Education experts say that’s a myth.
Business groups have supported the standards, and other conservative outfits, such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, have been traveling the national circuit to explain why the standards are a good move for schools.
Michael Petrilli, Fordham’s executive director, spoke in favor of the standards at the select committees’ joint Wausau hearing Wednesday night. He said his employer, Fordham, paid for his travel expenses. The nonprofit advocacy group has received national grants to do Common Core work.
The out-of-state Common Core critics who received travel and lodging compensation were: Sandra Stotsky, a retired professor from the University of Arkansas; James Milgram, emeritus professor at Stanford University; Gary Thompson of the Early Life Child Psychology and Education Center; Ze’ev Wurman, a former U.S. Department of Education official in the George W. Bush administration; and Ted Rebarber, the CEO and founder of AccountabilityWorks, a nonprofit education group.
Alan Scholl, executive director and vice president of the American Opinion Foundation, Appleton, said Wisconsin citizens who knew of his group’s opposition to the Common Core asked if they could help bring out-of-state experts to the hearings.
“We began collecting the funds and had our accounting team put them in a separate fund,” Scholl said. “We just tried to make it easier for them to come by providing airfare and hotels and we bought a few meals.”
Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), chairman of the Assembly Common Core review committee, said in an interview Thursday that the hearings “have absolutely been on the up-and-up.”
He said school representatives who came to speak at the hearings — such as employees of the Department of Public Instruction and superintendents who spoke in favor of the standards — were technically being paid by taxpayers to speak at the hearings.
Thiesfeldt said the select committee members will now work on producing a report and recommendations.
Cullen said that likely means coming up with recommendations to delay further implementation of the Common Core standards, or to change them.
“Once you whet the whistle of these causes, the cause gets a hold of you,” Cullen said. “You feed this group four statewide hearings, and they’re not going to go away without demanding some legislation.”