Future unclear for Massachusetts Common Core opponents after court ruling
By Evan Lips | July 8, 2016, 4:08 EST
BOSTON — A week after a Supreme Judicial Court ruling delivered a fatal blow to their efforts to put the future of Common Core educational standards into the hands of voters, the woman who spearheaded the doomed ballot initiative said she’s only just begun to consider what the next step will be.
“Even though the wound is still fresh, and you would think people would not want to go through this again, I’ve received hundreds of emails and messages from parents who don’t want to quit,” said Donna Colorio, a member of the Worcester School Committee, who along with an army of volunteers gathered more than 100,000 signatures – more than enough to secure the question on the 2016 ballot.
On July 1 the SJC derailed the citizen-backed petition, which would have given voters the opportunity to reverse the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s 2010 decision to adopt federally-backed Common Core standards. In a ruling issued by Justice Margot Botsford, the SJC stated that one of the four sections of the proposed question failed to meet a state constitutional requirement that only matters “related or mutually dependent” are permissible ballot questions.
Immediately after the decision was announced, Colorio released a statement brimming with disappointment.
“The special interests behind Common Core do not want an open and fair debate about education in Massachusetts, so they rely on legal maneuvers and technicalities to control public education in Massachusetts,” Colorio wrote at the time.
On Thursday Colorio said any and all legal options have been “exhausted.”
Blame the AG?
Colorio noted that questions regarding the legality of the petition were addressed as far back as last August and that Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office approved the petition’s language, is not deserving of blame.
“It may disappoint people because, of course, they want to blame somebody,” she said. “They should blame the SJC. We tweaked that question. We worked through a time period going back and forth.”
Colorio acknowledged that she’s not a lawyer but said she collaborated with the initiative’s pro-bono legal team. The question-vetting process, she pointed out, featured “a great deal of interaction with the attorney general’s office.”
“They were readily available to work with us,” Colorio said of Healey and her staff of attorneys. “They never stonewalled us in any way. When they had to defend themselves, our legal team felt their argument was in fact outstanding, and I have to side with my legal team on that.”
Transparency of testing standards
Sandra Stotsky, a former senior associate commissioner for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (who also played a key role in drafting the state’s nationally recognized pre-Common Core standards), agreed Thursday with Colorio’s assessment of the vetting process, blaming Justice Botsford, who authored the SJC opinion.
Botsford’s specified that section four of the petition, which called for releasing all testing literature to teachers and administrators prior to the start of the school year, including questions and responses.
Botsford sided with the filers of the lawsuit, who argued that section four lacked a “common purpose” with the rest of the petition and was not “related or mutually dependent” upon sections one through three.
“The apparent goal of section four is to make more transparent the standardized diagnostic assessment tests and testing process required to be used in public education, and it is a goal that comes with a significant price tag: as the Attorney General agreed in oral argument before this court, implementing section 4 will require the development and creation of a completely new comprehensive diagnostic test every year, which means a substantial increasing annual expense for the board — an expense to be borne by taxpayers and to be weighed by voters in determining whether increased transparency is worth the cost,” Botsford ruled.
Stotsky claimed that the cost of replacing released test material, as was the state’s practice when she was working with DESE, was never problematic.
“I was at the Department of Education from 1999 through 20013 and nobody in those five years ever talked about the cost of replacing used test items,” Stotsky said. “We annually released everything. All of the used test items were released for the people’s benefit. Clearly the release of items is related to the transparency of the test — how else do you know what’s on the test if you can’t see the items?”
Stotsky also noted that Botsford’s ruling mimicked the same argument MBAE officials expressed — a “lack of connectivity” — in a memo of opposition released last year, which Healey’s office ultimately dismissed.
“Then the MBAE used the same argument with the SJC, only this time Botsford snapped up the argument and used it,” Stotsky said. “But she added something extra — she talks about the cost of releasing items, and then that makes it another issue, so now it’s not part of a coherent public policy.”
“Plutocrats crushing dissent”
Jane Robbins, an attorney and senior fellow with the American Principles Project in Washington, D.C. — an organization that bills itself as committed to backing the Founding Fathers’ advocacy of liberty and unalienable rights — said she too has read Botsford’s decision.
Robbins, who lives in Georgia, acknowledged she’s not an expert when it comes to Massachusetts law, but noted that the most interesting part to her about the saga is “how this was a very direct and concerted effort to make sure a scheme stays in place.”
Robbins pointed out that the petition launched in Massachusetts was “the most direct legal challenge to Common Core” she has witnessed.
“Common Core supporters do not want to see this put to a vote, especially in a place like Massachusetts, which has been the crown jewel of American public education,” Robbins said. “If this had gone to a vote then that would have been a tremendous blow to the marketing of Common Core.”
The most recent polling data, compiled and released in March by the University of Massachusetts in conjunction with WBZ-TV, showed that 53 percent of potential voters supported the repeal of Common Core, compared to the 22 percent opposing repeal and the 25 percent who listed themselves as unsure.
“You look at the plaintiffs in this lawsuit — MBAE was not specifically represented but one of their board members was (Bill Walczak) and so was the president of the Massachusetts PTA (Stephanie Gray),” Robbins said.
Robbins noted that it was the MBAE which bankrolled the international Boston-based law firm Foley Hoag, whose partners charge an average of $670 per billable hour, according to a January 2015 Boston Business Journal report.
“The point is that the special interests of the wealthy and powerful got what they wanted,” she added.
Robbins also pointed out that the National PTA has been big beneficiary of Gates family wealth.
“That money buys a lot of support,” Robbins said. “Whatever comes out of the national office is the line that all of the local PTAs take.”
What the other side is saying
Gray, the outgoing president of the Massachusetts PTA, said in an interview in February that one of her roles as a plaintiff in the lawsuit was to serve as a quasi-spokesperson for the group. Gray could not be reached for comment Thursday, however, as she is currently out-of-state.
A perusal of social media shows that Common Core backers are indeed happy with the outcome.
In a tweet fired off on the day the SJC handed down its decision, Walczak lauded the MBAE’s efforts:
SJC has determined that the ballot question to repeal the common core is not legal. Congratulations @MBAENews for taking this on.
— Bill Walczak (@BillWalczak) July 1, 2016
Walczak also released a formal statement.
“The current standards focus on the skills and knowledge students need for success after high school. Superintendents, principals, teachers and parents support these standards and tell us they are working for students,” he said. “The SJC decision will not only save teachers and students from unnecessary upheaval, but also means cities and town will not incur the significant costs that the ballot proposal would have created.”
Dianne Kelly, a listed plaintiff and the superintendent of Revere Public Schools, also praised MBAE following the outcome:
— Dianne Kelly, Ed.D. (@RPS_Super) July 1, 2016
The Massachusetts wing of the Democrats for Education Reform, a New York-based political action committee committed to reforming public education, appeared to paint the outcome as a partisan victory:
Today’s SJC ruling against Tea Party-led ballot initiative against Common Core is a step in preserving & building on Obama #Edreform Legacy
— Dems for EdReform MA (@DFERmass) July 1, 2016
As for the petitioners, Robbins offered some encouragement.
“The people on the other side with mountains of money are counting on just wearing people down,” she said. “But if the parents in Massachusetts can be the little engine that could and keep going eventually they’ll get it on the ballot. I hope that they’ll keep fighting.”