What Happened to the Common Core Debate?

Several Republican presidential candidates have backed away from the term, but not the standards. Why?

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks at the Iowa State Fair in August. (Charlie Neibergall / AP )

The Common Core was expected to be a ubiquitous subject on the campaign trail in 2016. The education standards had, over time, become a political football as conservatives condemned them as federal overreach.

It’s so far hardly been the case. Governors in the race, like Jeb Bush, have backed away from using the term because of its negative connotation among the electorate, even if he still stands by the standards. Should he gain traction moving into the presidential primary it might become more relevant as early-voting states—and other governors, like Chris Christie—grapple with the standards.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, known as the Common Core, is a set of academic standards for mathematics and reading for all ages. State school chiefs and governors collaborated to develop the standards, but since its rollout in 2009, it’s become a point of contention. A common criticism being that the standards aim to nationalize education, although they’re applied at the state level and weren’t ever explicitly mandated by the federal government.

Forty-two states, the District of Columbia, and four territories have adopted the Common Core. Christie, the governor of New Jersey and a Republican presidential candidate, agreed to adopt the standards in 2010, but has since dropped his support. “The truth is that it’s simply not working,” he said earlier this year.

The critique of the Common Core in part stemmed from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, which encouraged states to implement high standards, among other reform strategies, in exchange for grants. The competition at the root of Race to the Top sparked frustrations, as it gave the impression that the federal government was imposing the standards on the states, said Tamara Hiler, the policy advisor for education at Third Way.

The Common Core appeared to be at the forefront of issues to be tackled by presidential candidates come 2016. A year ago, The Washington Post had a headline that read “Common Core might be the most important issue in the 2016 Republican presidential race. Here’s what you need to know about it.”

The Common Core hasn’t been absent on the trail. In August, Jeb Bush called the term “poisonous,” adding “I don’t even know what it means.” Lots of people would agree with him, but, contrary to a majority of GOP presidential candidates, he backs the standards.

In August, some of the Republican presidential candidates attended a policy forum in New Hampshire where the standards were discussed. Ohio Governor John Kasich, who supports Common Core, conceded that it was troublesome. “Look, did I back away from it?” he asked. “Did I say what I thought?” The forum laid bare the complexities behind the term—the idea that perhaps it was the sentiments tied to the rhetoric rather than the standards themselves causing trouble. This might be most evident in states like Indiana, which dumped the Common Core even though its standards might be the same, according to Hiler.

“[Some of the presidential candidates] haven’t flip-flopped on their belief of Common Core, but what they’re not saying is Common Core,” Hiler said. “It’s a language shift. They believe in high standards that they should be held to, but the government shouldn’t have a role. That’s not the case now.”

To that effect, some GOP presidential candidates may be taking on a reactionary position. Among the general public, 54 percent of Americans oppose the Common Core in comparison to the 24 percent who support it, according to a PDK/ Gallup poll. There are polls, however, that suggest differently. And a survey conducted and funded by Fairleigh Dickinson University , found that a majority of Americans—both supporters and opponents—have misconceptions about the standards. Many believed that the education standards also covered sex education, global warming, and evolution.

The mixed perceptions of the Common Core are also present in Iowa, where the standards are used and where the first caucus of the presidential primary will soon take place. A Des Moines Register Iowa poll in February found that 56 percent of Iowans ages 18 and older view the Common Core—which is defined as an “education initiative in the U.S. to define what K through 12 should know at the end of each grade”—positively. But 61 percent of likely GOP caucusgoers don’t want the Common Core implemented.

Suburban parents and teacher’s unions have also expressed frustrations with the standards. Laura McKenna described it in an Atlantic piece:

Parents take their cues about education from their children’s teachers, and unfortunately that often means important facts are lost in translation once they exit the classroom. The bottom line is that if the teachers aren’t happy, the parents aren’t happy either.

David Whitman weighed in on the degree of dissonance in a Brookings paper. The problem, he said, “is that the norm of public understanding of the Common Core bears little connection to the standards themselves.” Whitman goes on to further explain the conservative critique in his paper:

To date, the conservative critique of Common Core has been propelled primarily by ideology (the battle over federalism and the federal role in education) and politics (antipathy toward President Obama and policies he favors).

Whitman argues that the Common Core, in part, dates back to the Reagan administration when a report, A Nation at Risk, called for higher standards. “In 1983, advocating for higher standards was considered to be politically conservative because it flipped the left-leaning education establishment’s preoccupation with measuring educational inputs,” he writes

During the first GOP debate the Common Core came up briefly, leading Bush to reflect on his tenure as Florida governor. “I’m for higher standards measured in an intellectually honest way, with abundant school choice, ending social promotion,” he said. “And I know how to do this because as governor of the state of Florida I created the first statewide voucher program in the country.” Marco Rubio quipped that he would not allow the government to “force [the Common Core] down the throats of our people and our states.”

If and how the Common Core plays a role in 2016 isn’t clear, but it certainly appears that the debate will linger on.