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Standards Opinion

Why the Common Core Became a Political Football

By Rick Hess — August 05, 2013 3 min read
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The wheels on the Common Core bus have developed a visible rattle of late. Georgia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Utah have withdrawn from assessment consortia. With Tony Bennett no longer state chief in Florida, there’s an excellent chance that Florida will bail. The unexpectedly high cost of assessments has sparked complaints. Florida senator and Tea Party icon Marco Rubio has come out against the standards. Jeb Bush is getting slammed by some Tea Party columnists for backing the standards. (The first rule of coalition politics: It’s not good when supporting your bipartisan cause puts crucial backers at war with their base.) And New Jersey governor Chris Christie has made the Core a new front in his attack on “knee-jerk” Republicans, heaping fuel on the fire.

This turn of events has spurred some healthy responses on the part of the Common Core’ites. Last week, Student Achievement Partners honcho Jason Zimba strapped on his helmet and penned a sharp op-ed in response to an equally sharp critique of the Common Core math standards. CCSSO and New York state chief John King are conducting a call today to inform various influentials and press about New York’s new Core-aligned assessment results (due out Wednesday). This kind of proactive engagement demonstrates respect for the democratic process and the concerns of millions of parents and voters. Good for Zimba, King, and CCSSO, and I hope we see much more like this.

But, the thing of it is that the story needn’t have gone this way.

Of course, the Tea Party was going to fight anything that smacked of federal intervention in local schools, and of course the Republicans were going to try to punch Obama in the nose. But that didn’t mean the Tea Party or the R’s would choose to stand and fight on the Common Core. After all, supporters keep insisting that the Common Core is not a federal effort. More to the point, do folks really think that conservatives were inevitably fated to make a cause celebre out of new K-12 reading and math standards? The simple answer is no. (I know this, because I remember talking to my Common Core’ite friends back in ‘09, ‘10, and ’11 about how they were handling this, and being treated as a dim fabulist for imagining that their creation could ever become partisan football.)

There were a slew of other issues that Tea Partyers and local R’s could hammer the President on. Why did they decide to go after a push to revamp state standards for reading and math? More than anything else, it was the Obama administration’s repeated efforts to push the Common Core (Race to the Top, ESEA blueprint, ESEA waivers) and to claim it for political purposes (2012 Democratic platform, 2013 State of the Union). These gave the effort a partisan coloration. This was aggravated by the reluctance of Common Core’ites to answer their critics, which fueled concerns on the right that this was just the kind of “trust us, we’re the experts” exercise that most infuriates conservatives. (Secretary Duncan only added fuel to the fire earlier this summer when he dismissed concerns about any of this as the ravings of the lunatic “fringe.”)

The Common Core’ites allowed their effort to get sucked into the maw of a broad, ideological debate. They may sigh in exasperation at Common Core skeptics, but they’ve mostly themselves to blame. Because it was convenient, they allowed the Obama administration to color the effort in partisan hues. Riding high on the easy wins delivered by Race to the Top, they didn’t bother to make the public case, educate parents and voters, or engage their critics. They never sought to engage with grass roots conservatives (who might have liked the idea of tougher standards), Republican state legislators (who could have been convinced this was no big shakes), or DC Republicans (who might have warned of the dangers of getting the feds too involved). They’ve been dismissive of those who raise hard questions about how all this will work in practice.

Now, let’s be clear. The standards still would (and should) have been challenged. There would still be skeptics raising concerns with regards to rigor, sequencing, instructional challenges, the emphasis on nonfiction texts, unintended consequences, and the rest. But these critiques would have lacked the vitriol and visibility of a pitched ideological battle. Absent administration support, there would be fewer states involved in the effort and it would have a lower profile. Right about now, though, I’m suspecting a lot of Common Core’ites would readily take that deal.

It’s good that the enthusiasts are trying to make up lost ground. But let’s be clear: if they’d tended to this stuff earlier, the Common Core need never have become the political football that it has.

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