COMMON CORE: Odd political allegiances are rising
• EDITOR’S NOTE — This is the third in a package of three stories exploring how teachers are incorporating Common Core State Standards, academic benchmarks adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, in the classroom, why those standards are being criticized and how they’ve created strange bedfellows.
WASHINGTON — To say that new academic standards have yielded strange bedfellows would be an understatement.
Republican-on-Republican infighting? Teacher unions linking arms with tea partyers? President Barack Obama working in tandem with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and energy giant Exxon?
When it comes to Common Core, forget the old allegiances.
Traditionally Democratic-leaning groups don’t like the standardized tests and are finding allies among small-government conservatives. The Obama administration wants more students leaving high school ready for college courses or their first jobs, a goal shared by big corporations.
“That wonderful old line (is) that the problem with national standards is: Republicans don’t do ‘national’ and Democrats don’t do ‘standards,’” said Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University and former Republican governor of Indiana. “So the Common Core kind of gets it from both ends a little bit.”
The standards, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, essentially exchanged state-by-state benchmarks for one uniform guide about what skills a student should have at each grade level. For instance: all third-graders should know how to find the perimeter of a shape. How an educator at the front of a classroom teaches that is up to each school.
The goals were based on international standards and tests, which on Tuesday again showed American students lagging behind many of their peers. Supporters said the updated standards would help the United States regain its footing, better prepare high school graduates for college or their first jobs, and help the U.S. economy be more competitive.
But all of this was set in motion before the tea party rose to power. Once the small-government activists established a foothold in politics, they targeted the standards and forced lawmakers to choose between the business wing of the Republican Party and them.
Look at the two potential contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Says Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal: “We need Louisiana standards, not Washington, D.C., standards.”
Counters former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: “If you’re comfortable with mediocrity, fine. I’m not.”
Both see their education records as a political asset. Each has placed a bet on whether the standards keep enraging small-government activists or whether they fade by the time Iowa and New Hampshire start the nominating process.
Jindal’s state adopted the standards in 2010 without much fanfare. But he faces growing opposition, with Stop Common Core Coalition of Louisiana lobbying against them.
“We support rigor and high academic standards that help ensure Louisiana students are getting the best possible education,” he told reporters. “What we do not support is a national or federalized curriculum.”
Common Core is not federal; it is not a curriculum. But Jindal isn’t going to tell that to the activists because, if he makes a presidential run, he’ll need their backing.
At the other end is Bush, the son of one president, the brother of another and perhaps a presidential candidate himself someday.
Jeb Bush has little patience with the criticism. “This should be above and beyond politics,” he said.
But he acknowledges the strong opinions.
“This is a fight on the right. This is not a happy, little place where we’re having a debating society. This is a fight. And not enough people are stepping up,” he said at an education forum this fall.
“Right now, I would say, it’s a draw at best,” Bush added.
At the moment, his is a party that does not care for the benchmarks.
The Republican National Committee has branded them an “inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.” The California Republican Party said the standards are “national efforts at one-size-fits-all uniformity.”
And conservative personality Glenn Beck warned his millions of listeners: “If you don’t stop it, American history is over as you know it.”
Democrats aren't spared the intra-party strife, either.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan says critics of the standards engage in “political silliness.” The head of the American Federation of Teachers, meanwhile, compares the implementation of the standards to the rollout of the federal health care law.
“You think the Obamacare implementation is bad?” said Randi Weingarten, who supports the standards’ goals but has been vocal about the role of testing. “The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.”
Such divisions are as common as unusual alliances.
Obama is getting a hand from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $36 million to help Republican candidates in 2012. For the chamber, the nation’s largest business coalition, a skilled and educated workforce is good for the bottom line.
“We’ve been dishonest for years when we told parents that the standards were working,” said Cheryl Oldham, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a former official in President George W. Bush’s Education Department.
Energy giant Exxon, too, supports the benchmarks and is running television ads to introduce them to a public that isn’t entirely sure what they are.
There have been efforts to roll back the standards at statehouses in Florida, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Voters in Maine could decide next year if they will keep the standards. And several states are revisiting the decision to partner with other states to develop tests.
Yet opponents have yet to be successful. Anti-Common Core legislation failed in conservative Alabama, Georgia, South Dakota and Kansas. Only one state, Indiana, has included a review of the standards in a successful education bill.
Some of the nation’s most conservative states are not rushing to yield to anti-Common Core activists. Both Arizona and Idaho overwhelmingly voted against Obama’s re-election but are sticking with the standards for now.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, issued an executive order renaming the new benchmarks “Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards.”
And in Idaho, the Republican chairmen of the state House and Senate education panels are urging colleagues to stick with the benchmarks, rebranded the “Idaho Core Standards.”