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Common Core: The Biggest Election Issue Washington Prefers to Ignore

Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s recent comments disparaging “white suburban moms” are not the isolated remarks of an out-of-touch elitist. Politicians beware.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s recent comments disparaging “white suburban moms” for protesting new national tests and curriculum mandates are not the isolated remarks of an out-of-touch elitist. His attitude is typical among bureaucrats from both parties regarding Common Core, but politicians who ignore this sleeper topic endanger themselves in 2014 and 2016.

Common Core lists what several committees convened within two DC-based nonprofits decided K-12 children need to learn in math and English. Although federal influence over testing and curriculum is illegal, the Obama administration has funded two other nonprofits it oversees to make national tests that will measure whether children have learned what these committees wanted. These currently unfinished tests will replace state tests in more than 40 states in 2014-15. In most states, test results influence teacher pay, personnel hiring and firing, school funding, state control over school districts, curriculum, whether students pass their grade or graduate, college acceptance, and more. Basically, Common Core touches everything in U.S. education except bus routes.

At least a dozen states have held hearings reconsidering the initiative in just 2013. Such hearings routinely need overflow rooms to contain abnormally large audiences of moms, dads, grandparents, and teachers who attend during work and school hours. New York and Ohio are right in the middle of such hearings, following Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Michigan, Tennessee, and Indiana in just the past two months. Opponents’ concerns include lack of public input, costs, further centralization in education, lost teacher autonomy, crony capitalism, academic quality, and experimental testing. (To learn more, here’s a good place to start, and another.)

Common Core opponents include, as entire institutions or representatives from them, the American Principles Project, Americans for Prosperity, the Badass Teachers Association, the Brookings Institution, the Cato Institute, Class Size Matters, Eagle Forum, FreedomWorks, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the Goldwater Institute, the Heartland Institute (where I work), the Heritage Foundation, Hillsdale College, the Hoover Institution, Notre Dame University, the National Association of Scholars, the Pioneer Institute, Stanford University, United Opt-Out, and leaders from Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to a coalition of Catholic university scholars and teachers union darling Diane Ravitch. These organizations’ flavors range from constitutionalist to libertarian to liberal. The people making the noise are regular moms, dads, and grandparents, but they’re backed up by organizations with intellectual chops.

Even so, knowledge of Common Core is relatively low among the general public, so many politicians have seen this as an opening to disregard or ignore it. That’s a dangerous move.

We’re Not Listening

As a sampling of the disregard politicians have bestowed on thousands of ordinary people agitating against Common Core as it rolls out into schools in advance of the tests, consider the following.

Before one of these hearings in October, Ohio House Education Chairman Gerald Stebelton (R-Lancaster) told reporters Common Core critics “don’t make sense.” He also called opposition a “conspiracy theory.” In Wisconsin the same month, state Sen. John Lehman (D-Racine) told a packed audience their hearings were “crazy” and “a show,” and asked, “What are we doing here?” When Michigan’s legislature reinstated Common Core funding after several hearings, State Rep. Tim Kelly (R-Saginaw County) said, “[W]e’ve marginalized, quite frankly, the anti-crowd into a very minute number.” Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) has called opponents a “distract[ing]” “fringe movement.”

Thousands of New York parents and teachers have attended public forums to protest Common Core this fall. At the first of 16 state-sponsored townhalls on the topic, state education Commissioner John King was booed after talking over parents repeatedly and giving the large, angry audience 20 minutes to ask questions after a two-hour presentation. After the meeting, King declared the forum was “co-opted by special interests whose stated goal is to ‘dominate’ the questions and manipulate the forum.” So he canceled the rest. After calls for his resignation, King announced new, invite-only forums.

Then, there’s Florida. Former Gov. Jeb Bush has said those who object rely on “conspiracy theories.” At a recent conference by Bush’s education nonprofit, education blog RedefinED reported, “political strategist Mike Murphy said polling shows most of the public still isn’t familiar with Common Core. The heaviest opposition, he said, comes from Republican primary voters, who, when they’re first asked about the standards, are opposed 2-to-1. ‘They think it’s a secret plot controlled by red Chinese robots in the basement of the White House,’ he said.”

Florida’s state board of education received 19,000 public comments on Common Core in October. Officials still have not formally reviewed those, and lawmakers including Gov. Rick Scott (R) told constituents the comments were part of lawmakers reconsidering Common Core after dropping its national tests. The day before the comment period closed, however, Florida Deputy K-12 Chancellor Mary Jane Tappen said on a webinar, “We are moving forward with the new more rigorous [Common Core] standards. So, if anyone is hesitating or worried about next year, the timeline has not changed.”

In November, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz said of Common Core: “You can’t dip [the mandates] in milk and hold them over a candle and see the United Nations flag or Barack Obama’s face. They’re not some federal conspiracy.” (The Republican hails from Niceville. Really.) When opponents met with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) to discuss their substantive concerns, he asked them, “Is Common Core going to teach gay sex or communism?” according to three people who attended the meeting.

Beyond the name-calling and avoidance of what is obviously a strong public concern, given nationwide forums attracting tens of thousands of people to talk about arcane education policies, a number of public bodies have taken non-action actions in vain attempts to stamp out the brushfire under their feet. Arizona renamed Common Core. That’s it. State Superintendent John Huppenthal explained: “The Common Core brand has become devalued by curriculum issues not associated with the Arizona standards.” In other words, Common Core critics aren’t really complaining about Common Core, but they aren’t savvy enough to know that.

Governors in Maine and Iowa issued essentially do-nothing executive orders blustering about how states can still control their education policies despite being under contract with the federal government to implement Common Core, at risk of federal education funds and sanctions. Florida’s board of education approved a motion allowing school districts to ignore already optional appendices to Common Core. Alabama’s board of education voted to withdraw a non-binding letter of support for the initiative the state superintendent signed in 2009.

Electoral Implications

Most grassroots Common Core opponents are women, in line with Duncan’s slam, although their races and home locations would be absurd to quantify. For one, Michelle Malkin, describing herself as a “brown-skinned suburban mom,” called Duncan a “race-baiting” “bigot.” Essentially all of the politicians demeaning the Common Core moms are also white men. So far, though, no one has labeled this a “war on women” or a stereotypical attempt by the patriarchal establishment to silence, demean, and trivialize women’s concerns. But it fits that description.

Suburban women, of any color, are a coveted voting demographic, so it’s weird Duncan or any politicians would slap them around. Recent election results indicate Common Core can be a make-or-break issue. In Indiana in 2012, for example, the only Republican to lose a statewide election (besides U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who had other problems) was state Superintendent Tony Bennett, a political superstar whose fortunes fell because he alienated suburban women, partly because of his support for Common Core. In Colorado this year, suburban voters in both Douglas and Jefferson counties, in nationally-noticed and highly contested elections, elected slates of school board members who question or downright reject Common Core.

Even so, Murphy, the political strategist quoted above, is right: Most people don’t know about Common Core, according to the most recent polls (which aren’t that recent). A May Gallup/Phi Kappa Delta poll found that 62 percent of Americans, and 55 percent of those with children in school, have never heard of Common Core. That doesn’t mean it is not an electoral issue. In fact, it’s rapidly becoming a litmus test among Tea Party groups and already prompting nascent primary challenges in states including Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. As one Indiana activist told me, “If lawmakers don’t get Common Core, there’s a lot more they don’t get.”

The polls don’t actually offer politicians much comfort, although many of them undoubtedly trust that public ignorance is a good omen for their support. That seems to be the line from the White House, where a spokesman attempting to cover for Duncan told “Politico” that “supporters of the new standards should focus on the substantial number of parents who routinely tell pollsters they don’t know enough about the Common Core to have a firm opinion.” Many polls, however, that purport to show public support for the project use leading questions that undoubtedly influence the outcome, as Cato’s Neal McCluskey has pointed out on a Tennessee poll and national poll, and some show significant public distrust of the idea.

A November poll of New Yorkers found 49 percent are not confident Common Core will increase learning, while 45 say the opposite. As Shane Vander Hart notes, the crosstabs on that poll do reveal higher confidence in the mandates among African Americans, but 33 percent have little or no confidence, as do 44 percent of Latinos. An unrepresentative November survey of nearly 300 Iowa teachers showed that most object to Common Core and think it a waste of time. National polls of teachers generally show support for the idea but critiques of how it actually plays out in classrooms.

Taking Voters Seriously

A number of Republican governors likely to try for the 2016 presidential nomination have seen this issue as important enough to modify their positions or attempt a dodge: This includes Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Indiana’s Mike Pence, and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. In fact, the only GOP presidential likely who strongly supports Common Core is Jeb Bush. Walker and Pence both took months of grassroots pressure to take stances, given Common Core’s strong support among the business lobby, but Walker eventually said “Wisconsin can do better” and Pence keeps repeating, “Indiana needs Indiana standards.” Indiana’s House speaker, who previously blocked anti-Common Core legislation, just publicly agreed with Pence. Jindal is in a tougher spot given Louisiana’s decrepit education system, so he has largely taken a pass on the issue, referring it to the state school board and superintendent for review. A staffer for a prominent GOP governor told me, “This has turned into a pitchforks versus elites conversation that is dangerous politically. There are a lot of states, specifically red states, that are very, very scared right now. Our legislators are getting beaten up by constituents.”

Democrat constituents concerned about this issue are getting far less play than the Republican grassroots. For one, the Obama administration heartily supports Common Core, financially, through crucial regulations, and rhetorically. And national teachers unions have signed on, making some local and state affiliates furious. Baltimore teachers, for one, just filed a union grievance because Common Core is making teachers work far longer hours.

“I’ve called everybody in the progressive caucus in the Congress,” said Chicago Laboratory Schools history teacher Paul Horton, a Common Core opponent who works at the school that graduated Duncan and President Obama’s daughters used to attend. “People just don’t know what the issues are. They’ve got a guy in education, they do what he says. And number one is party loyalty: The president’s in power…we might have an opportunity to move up in the ranks. If we’re disloyal, we’re not going to get the [campaign] funds.”

Politicians comfortable with central planning ignore that the wheels are likely to come off just as soon as Common Core tests try to roll out in 2014-2015, making it a looming political disaster. The massive enterprise is just as shaky as the Obamacare website, and that’s not an exaggeration. For one, the tests must be taken online, and surveys show some three-quarters of the nation’s schools don’t have the technical capabilities for that.

But the biggest thing Washington politicos may be overlooking about Common Core is the simple fact that wedge issues matter. Most of the populace does not show up to vote for most elections. People who have strong reasons to vote do, and turnout often determines elections. Getting passionate people to vote is half the point of a campaign. The Common Core moms have a reason to vote, and boy, do they have a lot of friends.

Joy Pullmann is an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute and a 2013 Novak journalism fellow.

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