The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fresh attacks on Common Core ahead after GOP wave

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, center, speaks at an education forum with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, left, and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Bush urged politicians to make the case to their constituents in favor of Common Core education standards. (AP Photos/Erik Schelzig)

New Republican majorities in state legislatures across the country are preparing to launch a fresh assault on Common Core education standards after sweeping to power in November’s midterm elections.

Strategists involved in the state-by-state fight against the national K-12 math and reading benchmarks say conservative legislators will introduce or have introduced legislation in dozens of states that will target individual components of Common Core standards, rather than single bills aimed at dismantling the whole program all at once.

In Maine, conservative legislators are crafting legislation likely to be filed next week that will attack Common Core in three chunks: One would formally withdraw the state from the national standards. A second would change testing requirements imposed by an earlier legislature. Another would prevent the state from sharing education data with federal statisticians. Similar bite-sized measures are likely to appear elsewhere.

“Most of this legislation is being broken up,” said Noah Wall, director of grassroots at the conservative FreedomWorks, which opposes Common Core. “There’s been a tremendous amount of movement that we’ve seen in a number of states.”

Legislators and governors in 46 states, plus the District of Columbia, initially adopted the Common Core standards. In the past year, Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina have dropped out of the national standards.

The education standards, initially a product of the bipartisan National Governors Association that was then embraced by the Obama administration, have split Republicans outside the Beltway. There are few issues — perhaps even including the Affordable Care Act — that angers the conservative base as much as Common Core, which most Republican governors still support.

“It has divided the party. You’ve got [former Florida governor] Jeb Bush and [former education secretary] Bill Bennett on one side supporting Common Core, good conservative Republicans, and you’ve got [Louisiana Gov.] Bobby Jindal and others on the other side saying this is the devil’s spawn,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), a Common Core backer, said in an interview. “If there’s ever been a program that’s been more poorly rolled out than Obamacare, which didn’t have a very illustrious beginning, it’s Common Core.”

The vast majority of school superintendents — about nine out of 10 surveyed by the pro-Common Core Center for Education Policy in a recent poll — say the standards are more rigorous than their earlier ones. Three quarters said they expect student skills to improve under the new regime.

But Herbert says he routinely hears from Common Core opponents who believe the program is an effort to make money for Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder whose foundation is supporting the higher education standards.

“Is this the guy who’s worth $60 billion you’re talking about?” Herbert said he asks the activists.

Nonetheless, Herbert is one of the governors who will be playing defense on Common Core this year. Conservatives in the Utah legislature, and in states like Ohio, Tennessee, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia and Maine, are likely to try to repeal all or part of the standards. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) both said they expect to see conservatives try their own repeal bills.

Republicans who support the tougher standards have been taken aback by the response from conservatives both nationally and in their own states. Some have attempted to rebrand the standards to escape the stigma of a national education program: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) stripped the words “Common Core” from her state’s education standards. Iowa renamed the program the “Iowa Core,” though the standards remain identical.

“I don’t care if it’s Common Core, Wyoming Core, Rocky Mountain Core or Idaho-Wyoming Core, when we think about the republic, when we think about our country, when we think about our workforce, it’s not acceptable to me to say that we’re going to accept middle-of-the-road in terms of education,” Mead said. “The idea of high standards is universally accepted. It’s how do we do it.”

Even supporters have bowed to pressure from Common Core opponents. Herbert said there is legitimate concern about sharing education data with the federal government; Utah will take steps to protect student privacy and data, he said.

Wall said establishment Republicans who have defended Common Core standards are trying to avoid debate. In Utah, Herbert ordered a review of Common Core standards, which was conducted by the state attorney general. That, Wall said, allowed heat from the debate to dissipate.

“A lot of state House Speakers and governors have more been trying to sweep it under the rug, to avoid discussion of Common Core,” he said.

Elsewhere, Republicans who back the program are taking a more active role. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R) has brought both Bush and Bennett to his state to help educate legislators on the importance of Common Core. He also touts a letter from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in which Duncan said the Education Department was not involved in crafting the standards.

There have been electoral consequences for Republicans who back the standards. In Arizona, former Peoria school board member Diane Douglas (R) ousted incumbent state Education Secretary John Huppenthal (R) in the Republican primary. Douglas narrowly defeated the pro-Common Core Democratic nominee, David Garcia, in November.

Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi (R), who spent more than $1 million of her own money seeking re-election, lost her job to former state Board of Education member Joy Hofmeister (R), in a race that revolved around Barresi’s support for Common Core.

The debate is likely to play a role in the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, too. Jindal, who said as recently as 2012 that Common Core would “raise expectations for every child,” now calls the standards an example of “big government.” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has gone from favoring another look at Common Core standards to backing outright repeal.