The crowd of nearly 100 parents and activists gathered at Wellington High School last week was restless.
The three-hour town hall to discuss new Common Core State Standards, arguably the hottest education issue in the state — and country — was late getting started and few in attendance appeared in the mood to listen.
“Give us the facts, not spoon feeding us garbage!” shouted one.
Before long, state Sen. Joseph Abruzzo and the education officials he brought along to help explain the new standards, knew they had a tough sell.
As Florida education officials seek public input from across the state this month about its use of the controversial Common Core standards, such scenes are likely to be common. Local anti-Common Core activists say the heaping helping of mistrust officials got last Wednesday shows there are no longer any answers the state can give that will make some parents buy in.
“Nobody in this room will agree with what we just saw!” someone shouted from the audience after Mary Jane Tappen, deputy chancellor of the state Education Department, and district Assistant Superintendent Keith Oswald began answering questions.
“The only thing they can do is scrap it,” said Lynne Sherrer, one of the organizers of Parents Against Common Core Palm Beach County.
But the Common Core standards were developed by governors and state school officials and are promoted by the Obama administration as part of an effort to raise the bar for U.S. students in science, math and communications in order to compete in a global marketplace.
Florida is among 45 states that have been phasing in the standards in recent years, with the new national system set to fully replace the state’s own system in the 2014-2015 school year. But the move is being battered by tea party groups and parent organizations who say it undermines local control of schools.
Abruzzo, who represents the Wellington area, said he brought in Tappen and Oswald to try to answer questions about the standards. And for more than two hours, they attempted to do just that, as he read some of the 150 questions submitted by audience members.
But the answers did little to soothe the anger from opponents, who responded that they didn’t believe what they were being told.
“This is bad. Please look at the textbooks,” said Wellington parent Julie Mauck. “It is bad, trust me.”
But Oswald told Mauck and others that teachers have the freedom to design their own classroom curriculums. Mauck, who has four children at Equestrian Trails Elementary and Wellington High School, disputed that and said teachers have told her “twice” they are not at liberty to change anything.
Tappen told parents the Common Core standards, which deal with only math and English, were developed by studying other states and nations whose students perform better on tests than Florida. They attempt to focus teaching on critical thinking and problem solving more than the current Next Generation Sunshine State Standards, she said.
Still, parents disputed the research that went into developing Common Core, and called it biased. “How do we know they work?” asked Marie Lynch, a mother from Boca Raton.
Lake Worth parent Shannon Armstrong told Tappen she wanted to see examples of where Common Core has worked in the United States, not other countries. “You’re experimenting on our kids,” she said.
Tappen told parents that one of the biggest concerns voiced by Common Core opponents nationwide is that the federal government will gather personal data on students.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan has said that Common Core does not call for the federal government to collect personal student data.
“We’re not sure how this is being tied to the Common Core,” Tappen said. “Student data is a very separate issue.”
Not everyone who attended was against Common Core. Wellington parent Lisa Zucker did not get up and speak during the meeting, but afterward she said that while she has questions about how it will be applied to special needs students, overall she supports using Common Core.
“We need to be setting the bar higher for our children,” she said.
Many of the most vocal Common Core opponents at the meeting, like Campbell and Mauck, said they were affiliated with Parents Against Common Core. Sherrer said the group has 86 members, but works with other anti-Common Core groups statewide.
A three-day conference on the issue in August — attended by three-dozen educators, parents, lawmakers and association leaders — seemed to endorse continuing the state’s participation in the Common Core standards. And most conferees seemed eager to tamp down such criticism.
But while the state already went through a public comment period on Common Core online and adopted the standards in 2010, Tappen said state officials are again taking public comment online through Oct. 31 to see what changes parents want to see. The state education department will also hold three official public hearings this month, she said.
Despite the vitriol she witnessed at Wednesday’s meeting, school board member Marcia Andrews said she was pleased that the state is at least showing a willingness to take public input. “We just have to keep working together,” she said.
Staff writers John Kennedy and Allison Ross contributed to this story.
To comment on the Common Core State Standards go to www.flstandards.orgthrough Oct. 31.
The state will also hold three public hearings in Tampa Oct. 15 and Oct. 17. The closest is in Broward Oct. 16 at the Davie campus of Broward College from 5 to 8 p.m.
Source: Florida Department of Education.
WHAT IS COMMON CORE?
The standards, which only deal with math and language arts, are a set of skills taught at each grade level so students are either college- or career-ready after high school. They are uniform with standards in every state that participates.
The state Department of Education says on its Web site that local school districts have the flexibility to design their own curriculum, though opponents dispute this.
Florida adopted the standards in 2010, followed by 40 more states in 2011.