Common Core has emerged as the newest Republican litmus test for gauging candidates’ conservative bona fides, and experts say the controversial national education standard will help shape elections from school boards to the White House for the foreseeable future.
Whether prompted by pressure from grassroots groups and well-funded political action committees, or simply by a realization of what is involved in the sweeping K-12 reform, Common Core has become a hot button issue within the GOP. Several Republican governors, including some rumored to be considering 2016 White House runs, have turned against the plan and critics have coined a loaded term for it that lays bare the political divide: “ObamaCore.”
“The center of gravity on the right has clearly shifted in recent months,” said Frederick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute. “The Common Core is now like comprehensive immigration reform: there are respected leaders who endorse it, but they’re clearly crosswise with mainstream conservative sentiment.”
The issue's prominence is expected to rise as Common Core is widely implemented next fall, and as fellow Republicans at the local, state and federal levels battle it out in primaries. Experts predict it will become a potent issue in November's midterm elections, and eventually, in 2016.
Earlier this week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a onetime backer of Common Core, issued an executive order designed to block its implementation in the Bayou State. Although Louisiana was one of 45 states that initially adopted the plan, Jindal has since turned against it, as criticism mounted around the nation. The move by the high-profile Jindal was seen by many as a tipping point in the mainly conservative battle against Common Core.
Political Action Committees are pouring money into state legislative races in an effort to bounce lawmakers who back the national standard.
“The ultimate goal of Common Core is to have every school district follow the same national standards,” reads a statement from the Alabama Foundation for Limited Government’s website, which poured $200,000 into Stop Common Core, a PAC that has spent nearly $1 million on ads attacking proponents. “This is a failed educational approach that will undermine educational quality and choice."
PACS, nonprofits and Facebook pages with names like"Stop Common Core in New York," "American Against Common Core," and "Repeal Common Core Now" have exploded in recent months, and politicians who trust their futures to polls and focus groups cannot ignore the groundswell.
"Common Core has become a flashpoint election issue," said Emmett McGroarty, education director at the American Principles Project."Voters are increasingly realizing that the Common Core is of poor quality and locks children into an inferior education.
"Candidates are beginning to understand that they must demonstrate courage and stand up against the federal government and special interests like the Chamber of Commerce," he added.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative was originally commissioned by the National Governors Association in 2009 to clearly outline what students are expected to learn and know by each grade level. The idea was to ensure that all states established a baseline of math and language standards, to be assessed by standardized testing throughout students’ K-12 years.
It has since been wholly embraced by the Obama administration’s Department of education, though several prominent Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate, are vocal supporters. The standards and their wide-scale adoption flew under the radar until the Obama administration began offering federal money to states that began to implement them.
While Common Core advocates insist that it provides assessment, and not curriculum, critics say the lesson plans will necessarily track the tests. Indeed, companies that generate curriculum have rushed to brand their text and workbooks as “Common Core-aligned.”
The program is to begin implementation in most states next year, but school districts around the nation have already phased in lessons in anticipation of the tests. That, in turn, has riled parents who went from having a vague idea at best of Common Core to experiencing it first hand at kitchen tables.
The web has exploded with testaments from parents blasting curriculum changes they blame on Common Core. The tests’ emphasis on nonfiction will result in kids no longer reading the classics, they say. Social and political agendas are creeping into lessons taught to school kids, claim critics.
And new methods of teaching mathematics, many rooted in the controversial Everyday Mathematics curriculum devised more than a decade ago at the University of Chicago, have caused frustration for parents who know how to help their children get the right answer, but not how to do it the right way.
“My kids used to love math,” comic Louis C.K. tweeted in April. “Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!”
In addition to angering parents, Common Core has drawn the ire of conservatives who believe it cedes local and parental control of what kids are taught to Washington, a line of argument that puts Common Core’s Republican backers on the defensive.
Jindal's bid to strike down Common Core was an indirect maneuver using the state’s contract bidding rules to pull Louisiana out of the reform. Other states including Indiana, South Carolina and Oklahoma have backed out of the program with the support of both the executive and legislative branches.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill earlier this month to repeal the Common Core education standards, getting rid of the new guidelines for math and English scheduled to go into effect in Oklahoma schools in the upcoming school year. That bill, overwhelmingly passed in the House and Senate on the final day of the 2014 session, requires the state to return to old standards in place before 2010 and directs new ones to be developed by 2016. It requires all new standards and revisions to be subject to legislative review.
Also earlier this month, another Republican governor, Nikki Haley, of South Carolina, signed a bill requiring the state to adopt new standards to replace Common Core by the 2015-16 school year.
In March, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation making his state the first in the nation to pull out of the controversial K-12 guidelines. Four states, Nebraska, Texas, Virginia and Arkansas, never signed on, and Minnesota only agreed to partial participation. Nine more states have legislation in some stage of the process that would repeal Common Core participation.
“Regardless of whether or not these Governors are motivated politically, we are thrilled to see so many states taking bold stands against the federal government by beginning to exit the Common Core,” said Glyn Wright, executive director of The Eagle Forum, a conservative think tank that has been critical of Common Core. “If governors and state legislatures are truly representative of the people, then we certainly expect to see more states exiting Common Core.”
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant hinted this week that he could be the next Republican state executive to move against Common Core.
"I think Common Core is a failed program, and the United States is beginning to realize that," Bryant said. "Governors all across America are realizing states can do it better."
But not all red state, Republican governors are turning on the program. Much of the groundwork has been laid and money spent to implement Common Core, and governors such as Tennessee’s Bill Haslam are not wavering.
“We’re three years into implementation, and we’re making great progress,” said Haslam spokesman David Smith. “To back up on these higher standards now would be a big mistake for our state.”