Johnnelle Raines was a first-grade teacher for 29 years, and for most of her life she didn’t consider herself “political.” That changed a few years ago, and since then she’s become the kind of activist who makes elected officials cringe.
“I wasn’t that interested in politics, so I didn’t pay that much attention to No Child Left Behind when it passed,” she says, referring to the 2002 law expanding the federal government’s role in education and, in exchange for large grants, imposing a new regime of assessment tests on schools. “But then I noticed something weird. Over time, the administration became more and more obsessed with testing. It got to the point where everything we were doing had to do with preparing kids for tests. Our meetings weren’t about children anymore. They were about test scores. It was crazy. It reminded me of the job I had years ago, working on an assembly line in a textile mill – just mindless work, with no creativity, no attempt to do the job better.”
So around two years ago, when Raines read about Common Core Curriculum, she paid close attention. It all sounded familiar. Common Core, as it’s known, is a national set of academic benchmarks initiated by the Bill Gates Foundation, the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Although originally envisioned as a state-based effort, Common Core now receives heavy federal funding – through the “Race to the Top” fund as well as No Child Left Behind – and looks more and more like another federal expansion into the states’ education responsibility.
The vast majority of states, including South Carolina, have signed on to Common Core, although Alaska, Texas, Nebraska, and Virginia have not. In July, Georgia, too, opted out of the program.
“When I actually read Common Core,” Raines says, “I couldn’t believe it. It was like No Child Left Behind on steroids. More ‘testing,’ more ‘benchmarks’ handed down from on high.”
That’s when Raines, 62, made it her mission to talk about Common Core to every elected official she could find who had anything to do with education policy. She organized the Upstate chapter of South Carolina Parents Involved in Education, whose members watch closely for any news of Common Core’s progress.
“I’m retired now,” she tells me, “so there’s really no professional danger for me. I tell them exactly what I think.”
And what’s been the response?
“That’s the revealing thing,” she says. “With a couple of exceptions, they’ve all told me how it’s not in their hands and I should talk to somebody else. Or they’ve just dismissed me.”
Raines has a trove of email correspondence with elected officials. What’s surprising about the responses is how condescending many of them are. True, Raines can be pretty direct in her correspondence – she’s not easily put off by canned thanks-for-your-concern responses – but it’s surprising to see how quick many officials are to talk down to people.
Raines gives us one email response from a member of the Pickens County School Board. The school board member goes to some length to tell her of his efforts to control the district’s spending, then writes, “I didn’t see you coming to the last school board meeting to take a stand with conservatives on that. Why not? Well, you are busy fighting another battle. I totally understand that and unlike you, I’m not critical for your absence on the issue.” The official went on to offer this advice: “You need to focus on the state legislature. They have created this mandate. Only they can change the mandate. You need to use a targeted approach putting as much pressure on them as you can, not a shotgun approach going off in all different directions.”
Putting pressure on state legislators? Raines has done her best.
She recently had another exchange with Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg). Hutto responded efficiently: “I support the Common Core and oppose S.300.” (S.300, sponsored by Sen. Larry Grooms, would block Common Core’s implementation.)
Yet when Raines pushed back with further emails, Sen. Hutto cut her short: “I appreciate your zeal and commitment (and daily emails) but like Obamacare the Common Core is a fact of life and here to stay. You may want to consider getting ahead of the next pitch. Because right now you are swinging at a pitch in the catcher’s mitt. Be progressive.”
“It’s funny,” Raines says that “swinging at a pitch” comment. “I don’t remember anyone inviting us to the game. At least Obamacare was debated. This wasn’t. It was just a done deal before anyone knew about it.”
The other kind of response Raines gets could fairly be described as mystification – a paragraph or two with a lot of important-sounding words that don’t amount to a response at all. When Raines sent the South Carolina Policy Council’s analysis of Common Core to Sen. Larry Martin (R-Pickens), the lawmaker responded: “My only comment about this article is regarding the Policy Council’s quick and ready solution of placing all of the decision making under the governor. That’s rather odd because when the decision was made to implement the standards by the State Board of Education & the EOC [Education Oversight Committee] it was consistent with Governor Sanford and Superintendent Rex’s joint application to join.”
To simplify: The Policy Council contends that the governor and superintendent should have final say over Common Core implementation, not the unaccountable and practically anonymous State Board of Education and EOC. But since all these entities were apparently okay with Common Core in 2009, the Policy Council’s argument is “rather odd.”
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Raines says, with some justification.
These three responses nicely represent the attitudes Raines feels she’s up against. “They either pass the buck and tell you all the things you should be doing other than pestering them, or they put you down, or they try and talk over your head. It’s one of those three.”
Raines is not a widow, but our conversation turns to the parable of the widow in the 18th chapter of Luke: “There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.”
“She had it right,” Raines says.