Rift Emerges in GOP on Common Core
Divisions are emerging in the Republican Party on whether the Common Core State Standards—an initiative launched by governors and state schools chiefs—are a truly state-led, bipartisan effort to improve learning outcomes throughout the nation, or a federal movement that at least one opponent has dubbed "Obama Core."
And some state officials who support the common academic standards say President Barack Obama's touting of the effort on the campaign trail isn't helping matters.
The standards, which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, have come under scrutiny in at least five states, where lawmakers have considered measures to slow or halt their adoption. But so far, no state has decided to back out, despite pressure from conservative activists.
Proponents of the standards are quick to point out that they were developed through a partnership led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, and have been embraced by a cadre of Republican governors and state chiefs, as well as the president.
Still, the standards have already sparked a few brush fires. For instance, one GOP stronghold, Utah, recently backed out of one of the assessment consortia that are designing tests to align with the standards.
Mr. Obama's championship of the standards may not win them many fans in right-leaning states, but it's also unlikely to lead to a mass exodus, said Andrew Smarick, who until recently served as the deputy commissioner of education in New Jersey. He also worked in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush.
"It incites or inflames the people who are strongly against common core, which is not necessarily good" for the standards, said Mr. Smarick, who is now a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit research and consulting organization in Washington. "But [the standards] seem pretty solid in most places. I don't think this is an issue that too many places want to relitigate."
The Obama administration has required states to adopt standards for college and career readiness in order to get wiggle room under mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Most states choose to fulfill that requirement through signing on to the common core, although Virginia was able to secure an NCLB waiver without joining.
The administration also gave states that adopted the standards an edge in securing a slice of the $4 billion Race to the Top fund, which rewarded states that embraced certain education redesign principles. It also steered $360 million to two consortia of states to help in the creation of assessments that match up with the standards.
Mr. Obama appeared to draw a connection between Race to the Top—his signature K-12 initiative—and the standards during a recent campaign stop at Canyon Springs High School, in North Las Vegas, in the swing state of Nevada. The speech did not mention Race to the Top—or the common core—by name, but the reference was clear.
"For less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on education each year, almost every state has now agreed to raise standards for teaching and learning—and that's the first time it's happened in a generation," the president said.
And in his speech to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that the president "demanded reform ... and 46 states responded by raising education standards."
That kind of talk doesn't necessarily go over very well in deeply Republican Utah.
"Clearly, I don't mind that the president supports the standards. I hope [Republican presidential nominee Mitt] Romney supports them," said Larry Shumway, the state's superintendent of public instruction, who is appointed by the nonpartisan state board of education.
"But [when] President Obama talks about these and connects them to his administration, it plays into the conspiracy theorists" who think the standards are a way for the federal government to put its own stamp on K-12, he said.
There are plenty of conservative activists suspicious of the standards in the Beehive State. Gayle Ruzeicka, the president of the Utah Eagle Forum, refers to the standards as Obama Core—an obvious play on Obamacare, the name that the president's opponents applied to his landmark health-care law.
"It's been co-opted by the Obama administration," Ms. Ruzeicka said in an interview last month at the Republican National Convention. "They've done everything they can to tie us in to these standards. We're Republicans and we're letting Obama take over our education system."
She would like the GOP to take a stronger stance against the standards in the presidential campaign, but she still supports Mr. Romney, who has been largely silent on the effort.
But Mr. Obama's support doesn't bother Mitchell D. Chester, who serves as the nonpartisan commissioner of education in the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts.
President Obama can't take credit for the standards themselves—they were conceived back in 2008, before he took office, Mr. Chester pointed out. But he can take credit for "setting a high bar in terms of what states need to expect" when it comes to student achievement," Mr. Chester continued.
"That is a signature policy from this administration."
For their part, high-profile Republicans remain divided on the issue. There was no explicit mention of the common core in the GOP platform, for example. And while Mr. Romney is supportive of the effort, the former Massachusetts governor believes the Obama administration has gone too far in encouraging states to adopt them, both through the NCLB waivers and Race to the Top.
Those policies "effectively are an attempt to manipulate states into" adopting the common standards, Oren Cass, Mr. Romney's domestic-policy director, told reporters earlier this year.
But former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who wrote the foreword to Mr. Romney's campaign white paper outlining the nominee's K-12 proposals, doesn't think the effort smacks of too much federal involvement.
"I don't believe that common core is a federal initiative," Mr. Bush said in a recent interview. "A majority of the Republican governors support this. ... I don't think it's coercive."
Still, other top Republicans have a different view. Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who was a runner-up for the GOP presidential nod, took an apparent dig at the standards during his own speech to the Republican National Convention.
"A solid education should be [a key rung] on the ladder to success, but the system is failing. Obama's solution has been to deny parents choice, attack private schools, and nationalize curriculum and student loans," Mr. Santorum said.
But most states have moved past such political divisions, said Chris Minnich, the director of member services for the CCSSO. "While you have pockets of resistance, we're not seeing large-scale pushback on the idea of higher, clearer standards," Mr. Minnich said. "States are moving on implementation, and that's the exciting thing."
Vol. 32, Issue 05, Pages 19, 23Published in Print: September 26, 2012, as Rift Seen Among Republicans on Common Core