illustration by Angelina Aragon

Rotten to the “Core”?

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: Valley News Issue: December 2015
Group Free

A recall effort seeking to oust school superintendent Diane Douglas has Douglas doubling down on her efforts to repeal Common Core standards. Can she suspend the standards before voters suspend her?

It’s a Monday afternoon in late October, and Max Goshert is glued to the news – on TV, on Facebook, on Twitter – watching his arch nemesis, Arizona state superintendent of public instruction Diane Douglas, celebrate a surprise vote by the Arizona Board of Education. She immediately claims the vote as a victory in her single-minded goal to repeal Common Core.

Defeating the White House-backed educational initiative, harshly viewed by conservatives as government overreach, was Douglas’ sole campaign promise in 2014, but one the Tea Party-backed Republican has yet to fulfill since being elected last November. (The limitations of her office are a big reason – she is just one of 11 state Board of Education members who must vote on a repeal.) Now, following a 6-2 vote approving the hastily-introduced motion Douglas claims opens the door for a repeal, she appears ready to deliver her “Mission Accomplished!” speech.

“It’s a great victory for the people of Arizona, and especially for our children, because they are the ones who deserve it most,” the normally press-shunning Douglas says before the microphones outside the state capitol. The spin travels quickly. “Superintendent Douglas makes good on a campaign promise,” leads KPHO-TV’s report. “Common Core out!” proclaims KTAR.com.  

Goshert, the 25-year-old University of Arizona grad behind the Recall Diane Douglas effort – a Facebook-driven campaign with more than 1,100 volunteers which seeks to collect roughly 365,000 valid petition signatures by December 31 to force a recall election (it claimed to gave gathered over 100,000 by early October) – watches the rushed-to-air reports with astonishment and outrage. “They’re reporting it like this repeals Common Core. But what happened was more of a technicality. They’re removing the copyright,” he says, referring to the licensing agreement that limits modification of the language in Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, the state-crafted version of Common Core. “So essentially there’s very little practicality. It was much more of a symbolic thing.”

His friend Erik Francis, who runs a Phoenix company that instructs teachers on how to implement the performance objectives of the Common Core standards, puts his distaste for Douglas’ celebration more bluntly. “She’s grandstanding, like she’s Rocky at the end of a prizefight: ‘Yo Adrian, I did it!’”

In fact, the October 26 vote – which marked only the second time the controversial superintendent attended a board meeting since winning the election – did little to directly change the teaching standards in place since 2010, when the state board voted to adopt Common Core. Arizona always had the option to opt out of the copyright – a move that merely allows the board to revise more of the program than the 15 percent previously allowed by the state’s licensed affiliation.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” board president Greg Miller, who voted against the motion, told the press after the meeting. “It doesn’t mean a thing to any kid going to school tomorrow or any teacher showing up for work.” Miller has clashed hard and often with Douglas, including battles over her illegal firing of two Core-supporting board staffers and her attempt to rewrite the rule books by forming a special committee.

Goshert is concerned by Douglas’ growing influence over the board, which has lost some key members since her election, due partly to her hostile actions toward staffers she ideologically opposes, he says.

“She really hasn’t had many allies on the board,” says Goshert, the son and grandson of teachers and a participant in the International Baccalaureate program, another global-oriented educational system Douglas opposes. “If you look at how her votes break down, if there’s something on the agenda that she wants, a lot of times she’s the only one who votes for it.”

Republican State Senator David Farnsworth is among her supporters. “Superintendent Douglas ran a vigorous campaign revealing the serious issues that exist with Common Core and promised the people of Arizona to fight to remove Common Core from our schools,” he says in an emailed statement. “She represents every single Arizonan and their desire for an excellent education for all students.”

Douglas did not respond to interview requests for this article.

Recall supporter Francis suspects that Douglas’ continued efforts to expand her authority and champion conservative causes, if only symbolically, point to political objectives that may lie beyond working in education.

“Superintendency is often a launching pad to an executive position,” he says. “People use that to move on to greater aspirations, like becoming governor. If she has greater aspirations, you know what? I wish she’d move on to them!” he adds, with a laugh. “The sooner the better!”