A rising Republican star named Rob Astorino just blew his reelection in the New York suburbs, compromised by the presence of swampy dark money donors, including billionaire Robert Mercer who is now enmeshed in an ugly racism scandal. It may have been Astorino’s reversal on Common Core tests, however, that enabled his opponent to rocket past him by 14% points.
Astorino’s bid for a third term as Westchester County Executive got major financial backing by billionaires and dark money PACs who support school privatization and expanding charter schools based on Common Core test scores. John Thain, former CEO of Merrill Lynch during the financial crisis was one pro-charter donor, but not the largest.
Astorino had over $1 million spent on his behalf by “consultant” Scott Howell, a disciple of Nixon’s infamous dirty trickster Lee Atwater who later worked for Karl Rove on the Bush/Cheney campaign. In this cycle, Howell’s ad agency was used to anonymize the wealthy donor actually supplying the money.
The Racist Problem
We do know at least $400,000 was spent attacking Astorino’s opponent by billionaire hedge funder Robert Mercer, a Trump campaign donor and strategist who proved crucial to Trump’s victory. Mercer also runs a charter school network.
A blockbuster Buzzfeed article recently revealed that Mercer along with his daughter Rebekah were funding the “alt-right” website Breitbart.com, run by Steve Bannon, while author Milo Yiannopoulos was collaborating with white supremacists and other hate groups. Since the revelations, Mercer issued a terse statement, describing a weeks-long process of trying to sever ties with Yiannopoulos:
Did Mercer’s ongoing tax avoidance and white nationalist scandals derail Astorino’s campaign? Or was it perhaps because Astorino stopped speaking out against Common Core?
Westchester County has some of the best schools in New York state, so when Astorino first came out against the state testing mandates, he quickly raised his profile. Trying to unseat Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014, Astorino’s campaign became surprisingly competitive when he announced his three school-aged children would “opt out” of Common Core testing.
Cuomo had imposed the nation’s most draconian standardized testing regime, leading to a statewide boycott that saw one in five New York families opt out. Astorino gained traction on this issue, starting up a third party called “Stop Common Core,” to ensure those words were printed on every ballot in the state.
Cuomo survived the 2014 election, but the unexpectedly close 54-41% victory put Astorino on the map and made Common Core a political third rail. Almost every state had committed to the controversial Common Core standards, forcing them into U.S. classrooms in exchange for a chance to win federal grants and obtain waivers from the bungled, unachievable federal regulations of No Child Left Behind.
During the 2015 Common Core testing, Astorino would again send his kids to school with refusal letters, publishing op-eds that accurately blasted Common Core as “experimental, conceived in secrecy, with no public hearings” and “developmentally inappropriate.”
A year after this, Astorino again made headlines denouncing the 2016 tests. By now NY state had invoked a moratorium on the tests, banning their use in student or teacher evaluations, but Astorino said the changes were merely “window dressing.”
Astorino did support charter and voucher schools to replace “failing” public schools, but this begged the question – how can someone simultaneously boycott the tests and also use them to rank and compare schools?
When we asked New York’s #2 Republican, State Senator John DeFrancisco, he said he also supported the opt-out parents, but he simultaneously supported the use of Common Core tests for comparing charter schools to public schools. One wonders, did they think this through?
The Trump Effect
Throughout his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump vowed repeatedly he would “put an end to Common Core.” Trump knew, or should have known, that the decision to continue using Common Core standards and aligned testing shifted to the states as of December 2015. So was Trump lying or ignorant?
This video suggests he was lying, to deceive the many opt-out parents. Trump said he will “terminate Common Core out of Washington” when no such authority existed. Once elected, Trump shifted his focus to expanding charter schools and private vouchers, but in states like New York, higher-than-average Common Core test scores are the #1 marketing tool used to justify more charter schools, manufacturing a widely believed “public schools are failing” narrative.
After Trump won, he tapped Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, who was a huge Common Core supporter. To date, Trump has reneged on his vow to end Common Core, dropping the issue entirely. And just like that, Republicans around New York state also forgot their stances on the issue.
Astorino forgot, falling totally mute after yelling from the mountaintops in 2014, 2015 and 2016. He did not tell the papers whether or not his kids opted-out of Common Core tests in the Spring of 2017. Astorino’s website, which proudly railed against Common Core tests was scrubbed of any mention.
His opponent never let go of the standardized testing issue, prominently opposing Common Core on the landing page of his website. State Senator George Latimer spoke out in support of “opt-out parents” for years, and throughout his primary as well. Astorino was trounced 57-43% by Latimer, surprising pollsters who had the race in a dead heat.
Only days after Astorino’s defeat, a public school teacher and anti-testing activist has announced she will be running for Latimer’s vacant State Senate seat in Westchester. Kat Brezler, who teaches second grade in the Bronx, seeks to bring forward the opt-out issue in a special election, following the lead of Christine Pellegrino, a Long Island teacher and “opt-out mom” who won an Assembly seat in a deep red district this past May.
Another outspoken Common Core critic Democrat Todd Kaminsky won a seat in the New York State Senate, gaining popularity by sponsoring legislation to sharply scale back the use of Common Core at the state level. Long Island has an astounding 50% opt out rate.
When Common Core tests were an Obama policy and Hillary Clinton was favored to beat Trump, Rob Astorino told Westchester’s opt-out parents “this issue should not go away.” But then Trump won. The issue went away.
Following a resounding loss, Astorino has announced he will not run for governor next year. Echoing Trump, Astorino promised an “end to Common Core” at the state level, but went radio silent after Trump broke his promise to eliminate Common Core at the national level.
If you want more independent reporting like this, please support Jake and TATM with a donation– Every $1 helps us grow!