Chambers of commerce in a growing number of states are casting themselves in the role of defenders of the common core against increasingly vocal opposition to the new standards from some of their traditional Republican allies.
Take Georgia. At a January gathering of the Georgia chamber’s board of directors in Atlanta, candidates for state superintendent stated their positions on the Common Core State Standards. Eight candidates weighed in—seven Republicans and one Democrat—and most expressed reservations about, or outright resistance to, the standards for English/language arts and mathematics.
Objections ranged from the quality of the standards to the belief that the common standards represent centralized control from an overreaching federal government.
“It has become such a divisive issue, particularly in Republican circles here in Georgia,” said Matt Shultz, one of the GOP candidates for state superintendent, in a phone interview after speaking at the chamber session. “If we removed the ‘common core’ branding, it would defuse some of the issues.”
But defusing those issues may not be as simple as rebranding the common core, some experts point out.
“The battle lines are informally drawn nationally between the business establishment and a more conservative element, a more politically motivated element,” explained David C. Adkisson, who chairs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Education, Employment, and Training Committee and is also the president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
This battle for the “hearts and minds” over common core is occurring at an “elite” level, attempting to sway governors, state legislators, and state school chiefs, according to Patrick J. McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University in Madison, N.J.
State chambers of commerce—which have longstanding relationships, networks, and well-established resources—are considered to be among the most proactive and highly regarded interest groups. They are defending the common core on the grounds that the standards are essential to business interests and the long-term economic viability of their states.
The standards are central to the Georgia chamber’s number-one advocacy issue: education.
The president of Achieve, a national research and advocacy group that helped to develop the standards, flew to Atlanta from Washington to address the recent chamber board meeting. And, as the Georgia state school board conducts an independent review of the standards at the behest of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal this spring and summer, the chamber plans to have a high-profile presence.
Chris Clark, the president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber, said he expects the process to be fair and balanced. “We want the business community to go out and engage,” reinforcing that “we’re a state that has made a commitment to higher standards, and we want to move forward with that.”
At the national level, the emerging resistance to the standards—which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia—are prompting organized responses from business leaders.
“The opposition is strong. They are very vocal, and I don’t want to dismiss concerns folks have around this,” said Cheryl A. Oldham, the vice president for education policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “That’s why it’s incumbent on us to say why we do support” the standards.
Last summer, the U.S. Chamber convened state and local chambers to talk about the issue.
“Common Core: College- and Career-Ready Standards,” a 16-page document, was published earlier this month, and in the coming weeks, the national organization will release online tools to help state and local chambers that want to address opposition to the standards in their communities, according to Ms. Oldham. Some of the funding to develop those online tools comes from a $1.38 million grant the chamber foundation received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation late last year, she said. (The Gates Foundation has also provided support to Education Week for its coverage of the education marketplace and new approaches to schooling.)
Beyond those strategies, the national chamber is considering the production of locally focused videos—in partnership with state and local chambers and school districts—that could be used on the Internet to rally support for the common core.
Because it’s “a different battle in every state,” the national chamber has not created a one-size-fits-all response to common-core opposition, according to Ms. Oldham. Direct assistance for approaches to rally support for the common core has been requested by chambers in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, and Missouri. As for dissension in the ranks of state chambers about common-core support, Ms. Oldham said she has not heard of any.
Some state chambers are watching Kentucky, because it was the first state to adopt the common-core standards. Kentucky has already administered its first assessment based on the standards. The state experienced drops in student scores, as anticipated, but with little public outcry as a result—unlike what happened in New York state when scores dropped. Mr. Adkisson said a major public-information campaign that included the chamber helped defuse any public outcry about the test-score drops.
Mr. Adkisson and state education Commissioner Terry Holliday conducted a whistle-stop tour, giving 15 joint presentations around the state to help explain the common core and manage expectations for test scores, Mr. Adkisson said.
To mobilize supporters, the Kentucky chamber also worked with the Prichard Committee on Academic Excellence, a Lexington, Ky.-based statewide education advocacy organization, on a joint initiative to launch the Business Leader Champions for Education, a group of 75 business executives in the state. Today, these three groups represent a “response team” to common-core challenges.
“We were fortunate to be in front of this before some of the political crosswinds were beginning to blow,” said James R. Allen, the chairman of the champions group.
Even with the level of acceptance in Kentucky, a group of Republicans introduced a bill in the House this month to repeal the common core, but the chairman of the House education committee, a Democrat, declined to call it up for a vote.
“One of the favorite tactics in all these legislative debates is how many bills have been filed in how many states. Just having a bill filed doesn’t mean anything. If it passes a committee or a house, that’s another thing,” said Derek Redelman, a vice president who focuses on education and workplace policy for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which has been active in supporting the common core.
In Indiana, where the common core has encountered strong opposition, Mr. Redelman said the chamber ran radio spots at the end of the last legislative session when support was waning.
“We were hearing consistently that Republicans felt the need to roll back common core or face repercussions from the tea party activists in future elections,” he said. The radio campaign was intended to “remind Republicans that we also care about the issue, and ... to show that we were capable of applying pressure,” he added.
A bit surprised by the mounting backlash, most chamber supporters seem to think the standards will stand the test of the tea party backlash. But they wish President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, would stop publicly endorsing it.
“The more the administration talks about common core, the worse it is for the effort,” said Ms. Oldham, who worked for eight years in President George W. Bush’s administration, most recently as acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education while also serving as chief of staff to the undersecretary of education.
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A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as Business Groups Defend Common Standards