The Common Core Heats Up

May 1, 2015

By Sarah Galey

With the recent announcement of Hilary Clinton as the leading Democratic nominee for the next presidential election, we are already “off to the races” for 2016. Even though just a few years ago the Common Core was enacted in most states with little political fanfare, early analysis suggests that the standards are positioned to be a high profile issue in the 2016 presidential election.  According to a recent article from the Brooking Institute, “Over the past year, the Common Core State Standards have risen from a topic of interest mainly to educators and school reformers to a top-tier issue in national politics.” How might the growing salience of the standards impact public opinion and election politics? More importantly, are we doomed to repeat past failures? Two decades ago, political conflict gutted the last major attempt to create a national curriculum, now known as the infamous “curriculum wars” of the 1990s. Is the Common Core doomed to a similar fate – to be “just another reform” with little substance and no follow through?

The Common Core in Presidential Politics

Although the Common Core was once a bipartisan effort to improve mathematics and literacy education, it is now a political football, particularly for members of the Republic Party.  When it comes to nominating a president for the 2016 elections, Republicans already look disorganized in comparison to Democrats, who seem firmly resolute in their backing of Hillary Clinton. Looking to distinguish themselves from the rest of the field and, most importantly, to prove they are politically viable against the rising Clinton tide, the potential GOP presidential candidates are jockeying for position. According to analysis from Politico, the standards will figure prominent in how this Republican primary plays out. Taking a strong stance on the Common Core has been one important way to do that – serving as a kind of “litmus test” for whether or not someone is “conservative enough.”

Taking a position on the standards has been particularly problematic for presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, who many believe, like his brother George W. Bush in the past, will run for the Republican nomination. According to another Politico article, the Common Core is Jeb Bush’s “No. 1 problem.” Jeb Bush has been a long-time support of the Common Core and has indicated he has a “backbone” concerning the standards. At a recent event, Jeb Bush said, “you don’t abandon your core beliefs” when your positions become unpopular.

In a weekly bipartisan survey of key political operatives and activists in Iowa and New Hampshire, respondents indicated that Bush’s stance will hurt, but not kill, his presidential prospects. When participants were asked to rank on a scale of zero to ten how politically problematic the Common Core was for Bush – with zero being totally inconsequential and 10 being disqualifying – the average response was 6.

Looking Forward

Like so many education reforms, it seems that the fate of the Common Core is being hijacked by national politics.  In a politically polarized atmosphere, where the ideological middle is disappearing and moderate voices are drowned out by extremes at the left and right – a pattern that has accelerated substantially over the past twenty years – controversy over the standards is likely to worsen. This is not to say that the Common Core should not come under scrutiny, but the major criticisms against the standards appear to be ideological, not educational, as recent research on the discourse surrounding the standards shows. Indeed, many state governments have already experienced “buyer’s remorse” in the growing controversy over the standards, causing a number of states legislatures to pass laws that significantly modified the standards or backtracked on them altogether. It looks like this may be beginning.