The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget Obamacare. Common Core is the Republicans’ new big enemy

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal delivers the keynote address during Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority event in Washington. (Molly Riley/AP)

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has never been one to hide his education bonafides.

The wonkish former Rhodes Scholar has established himself as a leader in accountability-based education reform, and enthusiastically supported the Common Core standards (which establish the skills students should master at each grade level in English and math).

Until he didn’t. At a gathering of tea party activists last August, Jindal vowed to fight any efforts to impose a “national curriculum” (never mind the fact that the Common Core was created and implemented by states). It was the first step in what would become a slow but spectacular reversal. In less than a year, Jindal went from one of the Common Core’s biggest allies to one of its most trenchant opponents, writing “centralized planning didn’t work in Russia, it’s not working with our health care system and it won’t work in education.”

By June, Jindal tried to pull Louisiana out of the Common Core completely, ordering his staff to invalidate the contract to pay PARCC, a multi-state testing consortium. That set off chaos in schools and a high-stakes showdown with the quasi-independent, still pro-Common Core state education board; the whole matter is likely headed to court.

This is just the most ostentatious example of nationally ambitious Republicans turning away from the education standards their party helped create.

Here’s how it happened: Concerned that American students were falling behind their foreign peers, the National Governors Association (under the leadership of Georgia Republican Sonny Perdue, Delaware Democrat Jack Markell and the Council of Chief State School Officers) set out in 2009 to create grade-by-grade, measurable benchmarks.

That effort was hailed by everyone from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Urban League, to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. President Obama jumped on board too; while the administration didn’t mandate anything, it offered financial incentives to jurisdictions that adopted rigorous standards.

Ultimately, that was the kiss of death. Obama’s backing became a red flag to conservative activists, who saw parallels to the hated Affordable Care Act (eventually, they dubbed it “ObamaCore,” or, alternatively, “Commie Core.”)

Elections in the intervening years replaced some of original backers with governors who proved far more skeptical, or at least more loyal to the GOP’s vocal tea party wing that, in many cases, had propelled them to office. These days, Jindal’s peers aren’t people like Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, another original Common Core advocate, but his successor Mike Pence, who has signed legislation pulling his state out.

Other GOP governors with larger aspirations are fleeing too, including South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, who also signed anti-Common Core legislation, and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who’s distanced himself but has not made a clean break. Texas Gov. Rick Perry got in on the opposition early; he was one of the only governors who didn’t sign on in the first place, and has said that “the academic standards of Texas are not for sale.”

Other Republican presidential hopefuls, like Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, are tripping over themselves to decry the standards. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, one of the biggest names in tea party politics, has taken to declaring that “we already have a common core. It’s called the Constitution of the United States.”

 There are outliers though. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has decried the critics as knee-jerk opponents of Obama writ large. Jeb Bush, whose tenure as Florida governor predated Common Core, has long been a missionary for the cause — and he’s showing no sign of wavering in the face of the uprising. Bush’s private foundation continues to spend millions promoting Common Core, and he told Fox News this spring: “I just don’t feel compelled to run for cover when I think this is the right thing to do for our country.”

What can we learn from the holdouts? Unlike most of their potential primary rivals, Christie and Bush hail from the branch of the GOP that doesn’t see federal government as a bogeyman, and doesn’t necessarily equate compromise with surrender. They also happen to come from states that Obama won twice, so they understand that not everyone demands or even cares for small-government orthodoxy. A recent poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal suggests Common Core isn’t so toxic — although 53 percent of “Tea Party Republicans” oppose it, the country at large is 59 percent in favor.

That suggests a pro-Common Core candidate could do just fine come 2016 — or at least swing the debate back to more substantive questions over how the new standards are playing out in classrooms across the country, and what American education policy should be. Provided that candidate can make it through the GOP primary gauntlet first.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet at Teachers College, Columbia University. Stephanie Grace is a columnist with the New Orleans Advocate.