Last week a bipartisan Senate majority voted to reauthorize and update the Bush era “No Child Left Behind” legislation that has been used by the Obama administration to essentially force the states to adopt controversial federally mandated “Common Core” curriculum requirements. The Senate bill gives states the right to opt out of Common Core and even stronger language was included earlier in a House-passed version of the reauthorization.
The bipartisan majority in the Senate ended months of work by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former secretary of education, and Washington State’s Patty Murray, a leading Democratic senator who shared a desire to return as much control over local schools as possible to local government and the parents of students. They deserve congratulations for their work especially since much of it was done in the face of an implied veto threat from the Obama White House.
The controversy over Common Core, however, is not going away anytime soon; Republican presidential wannabes crisscrossing the country are questioned about it almost every day, and their differences will no doubt highlight the early debates. While Common Core began as a nonpartisan state-led initiative, it has become a federally sponsored national curriculum as part of President Obama’s Race to the Top grant scheme.
A recent survey released by the American Enterprise Institute found that education ranks second behind “economy and jobs” as the most important issue facing the country today. Additionally, it found that a majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle view K-12 education as being on the “wrong track,” with the public rating the federal government’s handling of K-12 education as fair to poor.
Although AEI reports that supporters of Common Core outnumber opponents, the poll showed far more intense feelings among those opposed.
As a result, many analysts believe the eventual Republican nominee will face trouble from many conservative base voters unless he or she is opposed to Common Core. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has wavered recently, but is seen by his opponents and many primary voters as a supporter rather than opponent of Common Core. This could hurt him in the primaries as other candidates are likely to focus on the issue.
Sen. Marco Rubio will be an important voice on this issue. While not against Common Core itself, he is against the Obama administration’s attempt to force the standards on the states. He told a Tampa Bay Times reporter recently that “Common Core started out as a well-intentioned effort to develop more rigorous curriculum standards. However, it is increasingly being used by the Obama administration to turn the Department of Education into what is effectively a national school board. This effort to coerce states into adhering to national curriculum standards is not the best way to help our children attain the best education. Empowering parents, local communities and the individual states is the best approach.” Mr. Bush and Mr. Rubio both need support in Florida, and Mr. Rubio seems to have a sense that his opposition to Common Core could give him an edge.
Interestingly, while parents and many teachers dislike the Common Core standards, teachers unions tend to be supportive as do state education officials vying to tap into the funds available through the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program to those who accept the mandates. The exception is the American Federation of Teachers, which while initially supportive, switched positions in 2014 after studying both the impact of the program and the feelings of its members.
The Obama’s administration decision to make Common Core a part of Race to the Top may not have been a federal mandate for adoption, essentially allowed Obama Education Department officials to reward those who would go along and punish those who wouldn’t do so. To qualify for a portion of the $4 billion in additional funding available through the program, cash-starved states have been required by the administration to adopt Common Core standards, and many have done so for budgetary reasons.
Several candidates, including Mr. Bush, are no doubt hoping that the legislation that passed the Senate last week will actually become law and perhaps defuse the controversy swirling around the issue, but an Obama veto and a failure to override wouldn’t give them that out. It’s a safe bet that those mainly concerned with state and local control of their children’s education and the various candidates hoping to win the White House in 2016 will be keeping a close eye on what ultimately happens to the legislation Mr. Alexander and Mrs. Murray pushed through the Senate.
In fact, given the bipartisan nature of local opposition to the mandates, if the Obama administration digs in and vetoes whatever wins final passage, Common Core could help the eventual Republican nominee next year.
• Alec O’Cleary Caso is a Washington Scholars intern at The Washington Times.