The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservatives hate Common Core. The rest of America? Who knows.

The conservative base hates -- hates, hates, hates -- the Common Core education standards. And we're about to have a healthy discussion about them now that pro-Common Core Jeb Bush is likely to run for the Republican nomination for president.

But just how popular are the Common Core education standards more broadly? That simple question has proved surprisingly difficult to answer.

Support for the Common Core ranged from 33 percent to 59 percent in a single month last year. But even the most disparate surveys align on a key finding that bodes poorly for the program’s future: Americans who are most engaged on the issue oppose Common Core.

A brief bit of background: Common Core is a set of standards on what kindergarten-through-12th-grade students should learn -- and when -- in English and math. By 2011, 45 states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards, whose creation was largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Obama administration helped fund the creation of two different online tests designed to provide direct comparisons across states. Despite the broad initial acceptance, the program has faced growing criticism and implementation issues. Just 30 states have decided to administer either of the tests developed with Obama administration support, while others are sticking to separate metrics.

The issue has also become a political football, with conservatives arguing that Common Core’s standards interfere with the way local schools operate. For more details, read Post education reporter Emma Brown’s excellent story.

Four independent national telephone polls last year asked about support of Common Core. Here’s what they found:

Support was highest in a June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (59 percent), and lowest in a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll the same month (33 percent, with 60 percent opposing). A March University of Connecticut/Hartford Courant poll found a narrow negative result (38 percent “good policy” vs. 44 percent “bad policy”), while a Pew Research Center poll found opinion tilting the opposite direction, 45 to 39 in favor.

A separate Gallup poll of public-school parents in September found about one-third in support, one-third opposed and the rest having no opinion or unaware of the program. The NBC/WSJ, PDK/Gallup and Pew questions used more traditional “support/favor-oppose” response options, while UConn asked whether the program was “good policy” or “bad policy.” (More details on the polls’ methods can be found at the links above).

The polls offer clues as to why support varied so much, with differing descriptions of the program and low attention to the issue as possible culprits. The PDK/Gallup poll finding the least support was the only survey to describe Common Core as “new national standards,” while the NBC/WSJ survey finding the most support said the program’s standards “have been set to internationally competitive levels.”

Where do the surveys agree?

The varying results point to a public that has not come to a firm view on Common Core. Indeed, just about one-fifth of respondents in two surveys said they have heard “a lot” about the program, while at least four in 10 have heard nothing. And roughly half of respondents in a separate Pew survey correctly identified Common Core as “school curriculum standards for language and math.”

Polls offer two contrasting signals on where public opinion is headed on the issue. On the one hand, the principal goals of Common Core are very popular. The UConn/Courant poll found more than 7 in 10 saying it was a good idea to have “one set of education standards across the country for reading, writing and math.” Gallup’s poll of public school parents also found more than 6 in 10 supporting national education standards and almost as many supporting standardized tests to measure progress and linking teacher evaluations to test results. Gallup did track a dip in support for the program and these specifics from spring 2014.

These results suggest Americans support the broad goals of Common Core, and that support could pick up once people tune in to the issue. But there’s a major catch: The more people say they have heard about the program, the more they oppose it.

In the UConn poll, 61 percent of respondents who have heard “a great deal” about Common Core said it was bad policy. The result was strikingly similar in the NBC/WSJ poll, which found the highest support overall – 63 percent who had heard or read “a lot” about the program opposed it. Opposition was smaller among Pew survey respondents who said they heard "a lot" about the program (49 percent), but this was higher than opposition overall (39 percent). (Thanks to all three outlets for either providing this crosstab to The Post on request or in their reports and datasets.)

Support for Common Core has also gained a partisan dimension that its founders sought to avoid. A Pew Research Center poll last year found 57 percent of Democrats supporting the program, but just 35 percent of Republicans saying the same, among those who have heard at least a little about the program.

These two findings are clear signs that lawmakers will face public opposition to Common Core programs. Highly interested opponents of Common Core are likely to have far greater influence than less-engaged supporters. And lagging of support among those who are following the issue also indicates that the nitty gritty of implementing the program may have raised concerns that could trump support for the overall principles.

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.