Until recently, the Common Core initiative looked to be the most successful assessment-based education reform effort in many years, with 45 states plus the District of Columbia signing onto set of English and math standards and assessments due to be implemented beginning in the 2015-16 school year. Its most important political secret was its careful sidestepping of conservative hostility to national educational standards (which eventually made the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind initiative toxic on the Right). Drafted and promulgated by the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, Common Core had powerful backing from business interests and most Republican governors.
But for a variety of reasons, ranging from right-wing conspiracy theory agitprop to the Obama administration’s highly visible efforts to encourage Common Core via relatively lavish federal grants, Common Core is in trouble at the very moment it is on the brink of its intended implementation. Yes, some of the trouble it is encountering comes from the Left, via teachers unions who formally support Common Core but don’t like how it is being implemented, and more generally from teachers, parents, and educational specialists who don’t like high-stakes-testing- based education initiatives. But the bigger problem is that despite its state-based origins, opposition to Common Core is rapidly becoming a “true conservative” litmus test, and a major factor in the “invisible primary” leading into the 2016 presidential cycle.
Over the last year, potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates have quietly — and more recently, not so quietly — been lining up against Common Core, in many cases flip-flopping or rationalizing prior support. In April of last year, nine Republican senators led by Chuck Grassley (and notably including Ted Cruz and Rand Paul) signed a letter asking appropriators to kill funding for federal grants that “put a heavy hand on states to adopt the Common Core State Standards Initiative.” Marco Rubio joined the opposition in June, in what was generally interpreted as part of a comprehensive effort to embrace every “true-conservative” shibboleth in sight after the debacle of his role in the immigration reform debate. (Paul Ryan is the one possible Washington-based 2016 candidate who has apparently avoided taking a firm position on Common Core).
Ambitious Republican governors and former governors have been defecting lately. Scott Walker disassociated his own state’s standards-and-assessment system from Common Core in January in what mainly seemed a change in labeling. Mike Huckabee put out a statement in February declaring Common Core “dead” thanks to alleged federal meddling. In March Indiana’s Mike Pence (a past chairman of the right-wing House Republican Study Committee before becoming a governor) made his state the first to formally repudiate its adherence to Common Core. And perhaps most spectacularly, earlier this month Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, who has been casting about even more aggressively than Rubio for movement-conservative traction in preparation for a presidential bid, abruptly flip-flopped on Common Core, offering last-minute support for doomed legislation to take his state out of the standards and then boasting he’d just take care of it himself. One other governor, Rick Perry, is from one of the handful of states that rejected Common Core from the get-go.
After this slow-motion riot against Common Core, two potential 2016 candidates stand in splendid isolation in favor of the once noncontroversial initiative: Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. Neither has wavered on Common Core, and Bush in particular has made defense of the initiative a signature position. While this has strengthened Jeb’s already stout relationship with the corporate wing of the GOP, and with the perpetually embattled “Republican Establishment,” it may have fatally wounded his once-strong movement-conservative credentials, or at least eliminated any chance for him to put together the kind of right-to-center primary coalition that lifted his older brother to the nomination in 2000 after a speed-bump in New Hampshire.
Some observers have argued that Bush’s Common Core problem is not as troubling as the “Obamneycare” albatross that Establishment favorite Mitt Romney carried around in 2012, and predict that Bush (or for that matter Christie, if he somehow overcomes the damage his “electability” has sustained during the Bridgegate controversy) can defeat weak and divided conservative opposition just like Mitt did. But Republicans defending Common Core, federal encouragement and all, have foreclosed the kind of defense Romney deployed in attacking Obamacare as a federal initiative even as he refused to disclaim his similar state-level health reform legislation. And both Christie and Bush have other handicaps, and will face a 2016 field that may look weak in trial heats against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but is downright — well, presidential — in comparison to the Gingrich-Cain-Bachmann-Perry-Santorum “clown car” parade.
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver recently argued that Common Core is simply not so well known among voters and not so unpopular among Republicans to serve as a fatal problem for Christie or Bush. But most of the polling data he cites predated the recent avalanche of Republican opinion-leader opposition, and by the time the Iowa Caucuses roll around, held in Chuck Grassley’s state, one where Christian right hostility to public education, much less national education standards, is pretty high — it’s likely to be a very big deal. And indeed, that’s what Bush and Christie’s opponents seem to be assuming in positioning themselves. I would not bet an Iowa farm on the proposition they are all wrong.