Inside James O’Keefe’s Common Core Exposé Misfire

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Blake Neff Reporter
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Conservative activist and undercover filmmaker James O’Keefe has launched a new campaign against Common Core, with his Project Veritas organization releasing two hidden-camera videos he argues are proof of corruption at the heart of the controversial school standards. The two women featured in the videos have already been fired, but a close look at the transcripts of O’Keefe’s videos indicates that O’Keefe hardly found the smoking gun he claims he has.

O’Keefe’s argument, based on two press releases and a recent interview with the New York Business Journal, is that Common Core is “all about the money.” Textbook publishers, he suggests, have foisted Common Core on American schools, and the standards are proof that “crony capitalism is taking over America’s educational system.”

O’Keefe’s proof comes in the form of interviews with two (now former) employees of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a large textbook company. In the first video, West Coast accounts manager Diane Barrow admits she hates children and is only in the business to sell books (Barrow has since claimed she was joking about hating kids).

In the second video, strategic account manager Amelia Petties quips that curriculum sales are “never about the kids,” and remarks “there’s always money in it” regardless of how school standards change. In O’Keefe’s interpretation, this demonstrates that “Common Core isn’t about the educational welfare of children.”

The Daily Caller News Foundation obtained and analyzed a full transcript of both of the Project Veritas videos.

Superficially, O’Keefe’s summary is accurate. Common Core is “all about the money” … if one happens to be a for-profit textbook company. His videos haven’t exposed the rotten heart of Common Core, they’ve simply revealed the fact that textbook companies serve customers and try to make those customers happy.

“You don’t think that the educational publishing companies are in it for education do you?” Barrow says in O’Keefe’s first video. “No. They’re in it for the money. The fact that they have to align the educational standards is what they have to do to sell the books.”

In the press release accompanying the video, Veritas says Barrow’s comment was “explaining how Common Core is overwhelmingly profit driven.”

But transcripts reveal that Barrow was explaining how textbook companies are overwhelmingly profit-driven. For-profit companies’ focus on profit is not at all a revelation.

If Common Core was created by textbook companies, then O’Keefe would have a formidable attack. But it wasn’t. Common Core was created by the National Governors Association in concert with the Council of Chief State School Officers, who assembled a group of educators to craft the standards. Now that the standards have been adopted, companies like Houghton Mifflin, Pearson Education, and McGraw-Hill are racing to create Common Core-aligned materials, because that’s what the vast majority of their potential buyers are using.

As an analogy, O’Keefe’s attack on Common Core is like saying that gym class is “all about the money” because athletic companies compete to sell sports equipment to schools.

This isn’t a hidden subtlety Veritas might have missed. In the full transcript of the interview, Barrow says Common Core “was developed over 10 years by educators” based on “best practices for teaching.” She never says anything to indicate that Common Core’s content is financially driven. At another point, she very explicitly says her company didn’t facilitate the actual adoption of Common Core, but is instead simply adapting their businesses in response to its creation:

Veritas: But do the publishers lobby for those mandates to be put in place because they’re — because their materials are — that’s what their materials —

Barrow: No, they didn’t lobby for them to be put in place, but they lobby — but now they go after the money. They want to, you know it’s just like any business. If you’re selling t-shirts you want your t-shirts to fit everybody, right? So you can sell it to everybody.

Even if Barrow and Petties had said what Project Veritas claims they did, their words wouldn’t really prove much. While the group refers to both of them as “executives,” neither of them were high-ranking or long-lasting members of Houghton Mifflin.

Petties is barely involved with education at all, and is actually just a career saleswoman. According to her LinkedIn page, from 2000 through 2014 she worked in sales for Solimar Systems and Ameranth, both technology companies. She only entered the education world in February 2014 when she took a sales job with Apollo Education Group, the company that runs The University of Phoenix. Her stint at Houghton Mifflin only began in January 2015, meaning she is a newcomer to the world of textbooks and hardly a high-level actor.

Barrow has worked in education since 2001, but like Petties, her involvement is as a saleswoman. It was only in 2013 that she reached a higher position than “sales representative,” and she only took her job at Houghton Mifflin in April 2015. Neither of the two employees, then, are in much of a position to expose a Common Core, crony conspiracy, considering Common Core was created back in 2010.

When it comes to textbook sellers, the actual scandal isn’t that they masterminded Common Core. The scandal is that they’ve done such a poor job aligning textbooks to it. Close analysis of publishers’ offerings has found that many books have changed very little to accommodate the standards, with publishers instead slapping on a new “Common Core” label and then selling them as new textbooks.

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