Massachusetts Court Thwarts Parent-Led Effort to Put Common Core on Ballot

Massachusetts State House entrance in Boston, Mass. (photo credit: Matt Kieffer via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Massachusetts State House entrance in Boston, Mass. (photo credit: Matt Kieffer via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Last week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) threw out an initiative petition signed by over 130,000 Massachusetts citizens to challenge the adoption and implementation of the Common Core national standards and assessments scheme in Massachusetts. The petitioners sought to overturn the decision of the Massachusetts education establishment to ditch the state’s stellar K-12 standards in exchange for $250 million in federal money. After the petitioners gathered the signatures necessary to place the question on the ballot, the state attorney general certified the petition and cleared the way, finally, for citizens to vote on the usurpation of the state’s education system.

The SJC thwarted this citizen-empowerment effort based not on the substantive issues presented by the petition, but rather on the technical question whether the different provisions of the petition were sufficiently “related” to satisfy the statute governing such initiatives. The opinion was written by Justice Margot Botsford, who was appointed to the court by the governor (Deval Patrick) who brought Common Core to Massachusetts.

Regardless of technicalities, the most significant — and depressing — aspect of this case is that the powerful interests behind Common Core were able to crush a citizens’ revolt against the scheme. Money apparently was no obstacle to the ten individual plaintiffs who sued to derail the petition. The law firm representing them, Foley Hoag, is a silk-stocking firm that doesn’t come cheap, but the towering legal bills didn’t seem to be a problem. Wonder why?

Maybe the money came from somewhere other than the plaintiffs’ retirement savings. Several of the plaintiffs are connected to either the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) or the Massachusetts PTA (one MBAE board member, two MPTA board members). Like other big-business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which prefer workforce-development training to genuine education, MBAE has been a strong supporter of Common Core. Similarly, the National PTA has been cheerleading for Common Core since the beginning.

And sure enough, one thing these groups have in common is boatloads of money from the ubiquitous Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Education blogger Andrea Dillon has followed the money trail and discovered that since 2012, Gates has poured over three quarters of a million dollars into MBEA. The largest donation, $350,000, came as the anti-Common Core petition was being circulated and certified. As Ms. Dillon asks, could a lawsuit be part of the “operating expenses” for which this generous sum was given?

As for the Massachusetts PTA, its national parent accepted $1 million from Gates specifically to fund a pro-Common Core propaganda campaign among parents.

Given that the Massachusetts petition was the nation’s most direct legal assault on the flimsy Common Core house of cards, it’s reasonable to ask if Gates or other private interests that benefit from and therefore promote Common Core financed the operation to defeat the forces of democracy. Before Common Core, Massachusetts had perhaps the best track record in the nation in public education. A decision by that state to reverse course on Common Core could deal a death blow to the already reeling standards-and-assessments scheme. And even if the referendum were to fail (an unlikely outcome, given the undisputed superiority of the state’s previous standards and the depth of parental anger at the hijacking of their education system), the optics, as they say, of thousands of plucky parents taking on the monolithic education establishment and its plutocrat backers would be bad for marketing.

So for now, the Billionaire Boys’ Club and its Massachusetts surrogates have succeeded in protecting their experimental project from the angry parents of the children serving as guinea pigs. This sordid episode illuminates the growing problem that, in too many areas of our republic, the voices of the people are silenced while special interests, colluding with unresponsive government, install the policies that fit their agenda.

A burning question now is whether Gov. Charlie Baker will finally step in and offer real leadership to reverse the hijacking of his state’s education system by Common Core. Gates and his cronies have bought a respite by defeating the petition effort. Will they buy the governor too?

Regardless, Massachusetts parents may not go quietly away. They have other ways to attack this rotten scheme. They could circulate a narrower petition that would satisfy the court’s alleged concerns. They could hit the education establishment where it hurts by pulling their children out of the schools that will inevitably decline under Common Core. And their volleys in defense of freedom and self-determination may play a role similar to their ancestors’ at Lexington and Concord. In the long run, our money’s on them.

Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project.