If you didn’t think there could be a debate more irrational and misleading than the one over immigration reform (and the knee-jerk insistence on the misleading term “amnesty” by opponents) think again. Take a look at the arguments these days about Common Core.

A kindergarten student works on learning and identifying the letter "M" at George Buck Elementary School in Indianapolis, Tuesday, March 25, 2014. (AP Photo/AJ Mast) A kindergarten student works on learning and identifying the letter “M” at George Buck Elementary School in Indianapolis in March. (AJ Mast/Associated Press)

Opponents falsely call the Common Core a federal mandate (states developed it) and/or a curriculum (that is left entirely to the states and local school districts). It is, rather, one attempt, or one part of an attempt, to respond to the reality that U.S. kids wind up in remedial classes in college and do a lot worse than a lot of  international competitors, especially when it comes to the reasoning skills and proficiencies needed to compete in a global economy. (If nothing else, read Amanda Ripley’s “The Smartest Kids in the World,” but be prepared to be very upset about the state of U.S. education.) There are lots of reasons for this, but many of the excuses (e.g. stratified American society, not enough money, teachers’ unions) miss the mark. And while admirable, school choice is not a cure-all and sidesteps the question of what skills American kids must master.

Those who oppose the Common Core should consider whether their own state or local standards — which might produce results equivalent to those in places like Slovenia or Turkey or worse — are going to prepare their kids for the real world. In short, if we have not been demanding enough of students and teachers — in effect fooling our kids into thinking they are getting a decent education — what do they propose to do about it?

I don’t say this in defense of the Common Core as the end-all and be-all of education reform. But it is a good-faith effort to inject, as the experts like to say, “rigor” in K-12 education so that teachers, administrators and kids are focused on the right things and set their goals at an appropriately high level. (Yes, you still need, for example, teachers who can teach and parents who will not insist on social promotion, but it’s hard to improve when “success” is defined as getting a worthless diploma.) The critics should be asked for their alternative and held accountable for the results. (We’ll have a chance to do that with states that are opting out of the Common Core.) They may have better ideas, but simply opposing the Common Core isn’t going to fly with a lot of voters. (I’ll put aside for now legitimate concerns about the rollout of the Common Core and teacher preparedness.)

Common Core opponents have also overstated the popularity of their position, as Republican pollster John McLaughlin finds:

We surveyed 1,000 voters at large, but then over-sampled an additional 500 likely conservative Republican primary voters, as well as 500 more “swing” voters who are undecided or lean in their choice of state legislators. From what we can tell, this is the largest public survey conducted about Common Core attitudes.

The first interesting point is that almost half of the swing voters we asked had never heard, read, or seen anything about Common Core. Nada. The same held true for one-third of Republican primary voters. They had never heard a peep.

Initially, the reaction to Common Core among Republicans was mixed – 33 percent support the standards, and only 41 percent oppose them. However, if you believe that Common Core will be a polarizing issue for Republican voters, you are wrong.

After we read a neutral description of what Common Core Standards are – “a set of standards in Math and English which state what a child should know in both subjects by the end of each grade of school they complete” – support among all voters soared to 64 percent versus only 29 percent who were opposed. Among conservative Republican primary voters the numbers were 59 percent in favor, 35 percent opposed – a very solid majority.

That leads McLaughlin to some conclusions reminiscent of the ones we’ve drawn about anti-immigration reform and pro-government shutdown advocates: They talk a good game, but even Republicans don’t agree with them:

First, the power of standards is very strong. Americans want their kids to be smart, and they’re not afraid of holding both teachers and students accountable for what is taught in the classroom.

Second, there is a huge gulf between what some conservative groups are saying and what regular GOP primary voters are thinking. The activists may be noisy, but the regular primary voters are far more numerous, much less hostile to Common Core and very supportive of state standards. . . . Obamacare may be toxic, but Common Core is not.

Third, if you’re running for office and you’re in a competitive general election, anti-Common Core rhetoric could become a real problem for you. Regular voters don’t buy into the anti-Common Core rhetoric, and you may be setting yourself up for trouble if you’re not careful.

In short, instead of parroting the anti-Common Core rhetoric, politicians should consider: 1) If they really want to defend the status quo; 2) whether they think de-certifying unions and expanding school choice are sufficient remedies; and 3) how they propose to prepare kids for the 21st-century workplace. If they don’t admit there is a problem and/or don’t have a concrete idea about how schools will improve, voters might look upon them as being just as obstructionist as teachers’ unions. And their opposition to the Common Core will sound like paranoid know-nothingism.