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Education Sec. Duncan under fire for comment about 'white suburban moms'

By Rene Marsh and Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
November 19, 2013 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: In remarks to CNN, Duncan apologizes for his choice of words
  • The "white suburban moms" comment came in a meeting with state education chiefs
  • He was talking about the Common Core State Standards, a controversial effort
  • Writes one commentator: "This Obama educrat has stepped in it. Big time"

Washington (CNN) -- Proving once again that any controversy will be intensified -- if not illuminated -- by random references to race, class, and gender, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has ignited a storm of protest by noting opposition from "white suburban moms" to one of his prized educational initiatives.

In a meeting with state education chiefs Friday, Duncan said some opposition to the Common Core State Standards -- a controversial effort to standardize education -- has come from parents displeased that test results have exposed local weaknesses. Duncan said he found it "fascinating" that opponents include "white suburban moms who -- all of a sudden -- (discovered that) their child isn't as bright as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were."

Duncan apologized for the remark Monday afternoon.

Speaking to CNN, he said: "My wording, my phrasing, was a little clumsy and I apologize for that."

Duncan said his point was that the goal is to prepare U.S. students for a "globally competitive work force" and to challenge education leaders to better explain to parents why higher standards are needed and what it takes to achieve them.

"I didn't say them perfectly, and I apologize for that," he added. "My point is that children from every demographic across this country need a well-rounded, world-class education and frankly we have challenges not just in our inner cities but in our suburban areas, too, and we need to have honest conversations about that."

The "white suburban moms" remark was first reported Friday by Politico, which later reported that Duncan backpedaled, saying that he "didn't say it perfectly."

The incident, if nothing else, is thrusting Common Core State Standards into red-hot glare of politically oriented social media.

Duncan has pushed the initiative, which seeks to establish a single set of educational standards for kindergarten through high school for math and English.

Advocates say the standards are essential to improve student skills, prepare them for college, and make the United States competitive with other nations.

But opponents say the standards instill students with elitist values and rob communities of local control of schools.

The remarks triggered a barrage of online comments, and a WhiteHouse.gov petition. As of noon Monday, 1,800 people had signed the petition to remove Duncan as secretary of education. A separate '"National Don't Send Your Child to School Day," protest over the standards has gained thousands of supporters on its Facebook page, though the number of children who were kept from school is unclear.

Conservative commentator and Common Core foe Michelle Malkin scolded Duncan.

"Ohhhh yes, the red blood underneath my brown skin is boiling. This Obama educrat has stepped in it. Big time. Race card-wielding Education Secretary Arne Duncan is nothing but a corrupt and bankrupt bigot," Malkin wrote.

Tweeted Randi Winegarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers: "Arne-if u are reading- you shld walk this back..very insensitive-and not right-moms care abt their kids!!

One Virginia-area mother posted a personal response on the left-leaning DailyKos arguing that Duncan missed the point. She said her own son was late to focus and achieve, and standardized testing would have marginalized him.

"I don't fight the Common Core because I think my child is brilliant, but because I'm tired of these one size fits all educational solutions," wrote Gretchen Moran Laskas. "So yes, I'm opposed. Not because I don't understand it. Not because I think it will make my children look bad. But because I know that children already look bad -- and by the time they might get it together and look good the way (my son) could, it might be too late."

A Department of Education official said in an e-mail that, in making his remarks, Duncan was encouraging state education chiefs to better communicate why higher standards are so important.

"The far right and far left have made up their minds," spokesman Massie Ritsch wrote. "But there's angst in the middle -- which includes many open-minded suburban parents -- that needs to be addressed."

"Arne -- a white suburban dad married to a white suburban mom, with two kids in public schools -- has always been clear that test scores are an imperfect measure of student achievement and school quality, but tests are an indicator nonetheless," Ritsch wrote. "And when that indicator conflicts with parents' notions of their child's abilities or their school's quality, it's understandable that some parents would be concerned."

The White House spokesman also defended Duncan, though Jay Carney said he had not seen all the comments.

"His point was that we need to be honest with kids and parents -- all can agree on that," Carney said on Monday.

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