Common Core Caught in Tractor Beam of Presidential Politics for Some Governors

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 19, 2014 8 min read
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Two days ago, in discussing Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and his feud with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, I noted that Republican governors have been much more willing to give the Common Core State Standards a Bronx cheer if they’ve signaled interest in a 2016 presidential run.

Then on June 18, Jindal held a press conference to announce that Louisiana will dump the common core as well as the test from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and much of the reaction focused on his reputed ambitions for the White House.

See some of Jindal’s June 18 remarks in the video below:

KPLC 7 News, Lake Charles, Louisiana

As I discuss in a June 18 blog post, state Superintendent John White and the state board say Jindal’s actions mean absolutely nothing, since they retain authority over standards and tests and have followed all relevant laws. Not only did the state education department say it is going to continue implementing the common core and the PARCC tests, but officials from PARCC said late on June 18 that it’s going to continue its work with Louisiana, against the governor’s wishes.

So it’s possible that if Jindal really wants to bring common core to a grinding halt, he’ll have to file a lawsuit against the state board and White for not following his executive orders. If Jindal thinks he’s done enough to satisfy his ambitions regarding the standards, maybe that lawsuit won’t happen. But it could create an odd scene if Jindal made a big, official show against the common core, only to subsequently twiddle his thumbs as state education leaders ignored him.

The 2016 Tractor Beam

But let’s shift to the other major storyline from what’s happening in Louisiana: the 2016 presidential campaign. Anyone listening to Jindal’s press conference heard him blame the federal government over and over for using the common core to intrude on education, thereby poisoning the standards. It was the biggest theme of his remarks.

Jindal connected, rhetorically, the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit against the state’s voucher program, and then the common core, which he admitted he once supported. All three, he said, represent the Obama administration’s lust for dominion over what should be state decisions.

“Enough is enough,” Jindal declared.

State board president Chas Roemer didn’t beat around the bush in responding to the governor, saying that Jindal thinks attacks on the common core will help his chances in a 2016 presidential campaign.

“It’s a way that these folks can identify themselves as belonging to the more conservative wing of the Republican Party,” said the American Enterprise Institute’s Mike McShane, who has tracked GOP governors’ positions on the common core, referring to governors willing to attack the common core.

The longer Jindal’s quest for a legal wrench to throw into common core and PARCC in Louisiana goes on, the longer he can continue to hammer away at the standards in public. That wealth of soundbites could be useful in a Republican presidential primary. And Jindal’s recent spat through the media with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan over the common core not only won’t change any minds, according to the New America Foundation’s Anne Hyslop, but politically, the exchange could even help bolster Jindal’s conservative bona fides.

But is it that simple? Has common core really been caught in the tractor beam of “general-purpose” politics, to use a phrase by Professor Jeffrey Henig of Teachers’ College at Columbia University, to the point where it will be a notable factor in 2016?

I mentioned four GOP governors who are, at this point, common-core opponents and also notable presidential candidates: Indiana’s Mike Pence, Texas’ Rick Perry, and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, as well as Jindal. If we use the scorecard created by McShane, that’s a third of all the Republican governors opposed to the standards. By contrast, McShane lists 14 GOP chief executives in favor of the standards—arguably, only one, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, is a clear-cut presidential contender. (Ohio’s John Kasich might be in the race but he’s far less talked-about than Christie.)

So much for ratios. But let’s dig deeper into the divisions and differences among Republican governors.

Pegs, Poseurs, and New Coats of Paint

•Perry hasn’t had to backpedal from the common core because Texas never had the standards, and in 2013, he signed a bill into law explicitly banning the common core from Texas. That gives him a relatively clear path, if the rhetorical opportunity arises, to bring Jindal (who at one time liked the common core) down a peg.

•Walker has said Wisconsin should replace the common core with something better, and his staff reportedly drafted a bill to stop the standards. But the bill failed to get traction among lawmakers in Wisconsin, where state Superintendent Tony Evers, like White, backs the standards.

•Then there’s Pence. Earlier this year, his state adopted new standards and repealed its 2010 adoption of the common core, with Pence’s support. Now, opponents of the standards in Indiana and elsewhere will argue that the state essentially put a new coat of paint on the common core and falsely declared that it had new standards. But will these claims that Pence is a sort of anti-common core poseur really rise to the level where they affect a) how Pence is perceived on education, and b) the dynamics of a presidential election? That could be a tough call to make.

•It’s worth comparing Jindal to Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican who has opposed the standards for much longer than Jindal has. Like Jindal, he’s the governor of a state where the K-12 superintendent, Tommy Bice, as well as the state board of education, support the common core. Bentley, Bice, and the state board have tussled over the standards.

But unlike Jindal, Bentley hasn’t declared a full-on war by seeking to force the state to drop the standards solely through the executive branch. (Members of the legislature have tried to kill common core, but they’ve failed.) And Bentley is not generally thought of as a contender for the White House.

Among Jindal, Pence, Perry, and Walker, only Perry was a relatively clear common-core opponent before the standards became politically problematic for some people.

Public Defenders

What about a somewhat different question—which Republican governors are both potential presidential candidates and relatively outspoken about their support for the common core? After all, it’s one thing not to be actively opposed to the common core, and another thing to repeatedly speak out in favor of it, especially with the 36 gubernatorial elections this year.

Once again, Christie falls into this category—a group called Conservatives for Higher Standards posted a video of him at a KIPP summit in Las Vegas last August, in which Christie said New Jersey would stick with the standards, and that governors, including many Republicans, were leading the charge on that issue. In fact, he said at the time that many Republicans were blindly opposing the common core just because the Obama administration liked it and wanted to engage in “warfare” with the president on every issue.

In many states, Christie’s main point is correct. Republican governors who support the common core and aren’t afraid to say so publicly include North Carolina’s Pat McCrory, Michigan’s Rick Snyder, and Tennessee’s Bill Haslam. And all three of those governors have faced significant common-core opposition in their states (McCrory is still dealing with it). But unlike Christie, none of those three chief executives seem to be planning campaign stops in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2016.

In the end, the landscape seems to say that governors not running for president feel far more comfortable supporting the common core, or at least not actively undermining it, than the half-dozen or so governors who have 2016 on their minds.

Unique Position

Finally, there’s someone in his own category: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the head of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Arguably, he’s a bigger backer of the common core than any sitting governor. He will likely have to answer questions about his support for the standards if he seeks the GOP presidential nomination. Unless, that is, he executes an about-face worthy of a West Point cadet on military parade and drops his backing for the common core. If that happens, he’ll face a different, perhaps equally-difficult line of questions about a dreaded policy flip-flop. Here’s his foundation on the common core from just over three months ago:

So where does that leave us for 2016? On the one hand, it’s unclear how common core will be regarded by the public and their political leaders. And it’s unclear whether common core will be a major, “general-purpose” political issue roughly a year from now, when presidential campaigns will get going in earnest. What if common core gets fully up to speed and the controversies surrounding it run out of gas? What if all the states still using the common core stick with it, despite the furor in Louisiana and a few other states?

On the other hand, there’s a decent chance that Republicans will take control of the U.S. Senate in 2014, and they might increase their margin over Democrats in the House of Representatives. If so, the new power dynamic in Washington could increase the influence of the voting blocs and groups who are determined to roll back the standards heading into 2016. And what if criticism of the common core reaches a new peak in the summer, when new (and presumably lower) test scores aligned to the common core are released across country just as the 2016 race heats up?

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.