When Gov. Rick Scott and Education Commissioner Tony Bennett met with school superintendents in April, Florida’s new education standards led the questions.
“Let’s start with Common Core," said Martin County superintendent Laurie Gaylord. “We recently held a Common Core workshop for our school board and our community and we got picketed...So I guess I’m reaching out so that we can have the same message for all of us throughout the state -- if there’s a marketing-type plan to be able to help us."
Common Core is supposed to prepare students better for college or a career. Teachers will cover fewer topics, but spend more time on each one. And students will spend less time memorizing facts and more time learning to analyze and explain things.
Florida is one of 45 states which has adopted new math, English and literacy standards known as Common Core.
A poll last year by the nonprofit group Achieve found just one in five people had heard at least “some” things about Common Core.
Common Core supporters are trying to educate parents about what’s new in the standards and why they will improve schools.
Opponents are trying to halt the new standards before they are used in every state classroom when the school year begins in 2014. They say the standards are no improvement and worry the multi-state project will mean the loss of local control. Others worry Common Core will increase testing and cost more.
Both sides are in a public relations race to reach those who don’t know about the standards first.
Bennett understands bad public relations. Common Core’s unpopularity in Indiana is one reason why he lost a reelection campaign there last November.
He told the superintendents at the April meeting that his agency was working on it.
"We will be getting out talking points," Bennett said. "We will be working with the governor on a full-blown communications plan.”
Three months later, Common Core critics said they are seeing that plan every time they meet with a state lawmaker or school board member.
“The first thing they do is pull out this information sheet from the Florida Department of Education," said Laura Zorc, an organizer with Florida Parents Against Common Core.
Zorc wants the state to pause Common Core so parents can study the standards. She wants legal experts to review the standards and decide if they violate the state constitution.
She's found elected officials are ready when asked to reconsider Common Core.
"The Florida Department of Education has taken our fact sheet and has attempted to dispute our concerns," she said, citing a set of talking points called “Demystifying the Movement: Answers to Common Core Myths About the Common Core State Standards.”
Two nonprofits founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush are also helping with the public relations effort.
The Foundation for Florida’s Future and the Foundation for Excellence in Education believes Common Core will mean a better education. Director Patricia Levesque said her group can help explain why.
“A lot of parents don’t know yet, really, what’s coming next year," she said. "I’m a parent with a child in the public school system. We’re not getting enough information yet. So that’s why our foundation is trying to play a role in educating the public and educating parents.”
The Foundation for Excellence in Education is posting Common Core information on its website and sending out rapid-response email blasts debunking false claims about the standards.
At the time, only one person had falsely connected iris scanning with Common Core. It was a reader who left a comment on the Lakeland Ledger website.
The foundation’s quick-fire capabilities are helped by eyes and ears all over Florida. Allies monitor Common Core chatter and send Levesque every gripe and rumor.
“There is a level of coordination – loose coordination that’s going on," Levesque said, "but there are many groups that really are dedicated to making sure that parents and the public understand Common Core State Standards."
That includes ExxonMobil, which has aired television ads supporting the Common Core. The national PTA supports the standards. And the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is spending millions backing Common Core. That includes $151,068 to the Foundation for Excellence in Education for a statewide communications campaign -- part of $1.7 million Gates has given the foundation since 2010.
Florida Parents Against Common Core leader Zorc said if Common Core supporters need to coordinate their message, it’s a sign her group is making progress.
“If they can’t talk to us without their cue cards, there’s a problem here," Zorc said.
Florida’s Senate President expects a debate over the standards when lawmakers meet next year. Zorc said Florida Parents Against Common Core will have their arguments ready.