Common Core and the Midterms

On the right, the Common Core has been a source of bitter division for nearly two years. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have championed the adoption of these K–12 standards in reading and math, while tea-party critics have savagely denounced the whole thing as misguided and the educational equivalent of Obamacare.

The intramural fight gained new visibility last week, when Politico ran a major story titled “Big business takes on tea party on Common Core.” The backdrop is that feelings towards the enterprise remain fluid and mixed. Achieve Inc., which helped write the standards, recently released a poll reporting that nearly 40 percent of voters know “nothing at all” about the Common Core. Of those who reported some knowledge, 40 percent were negative and 37 percent positive. That marks a 17-point swing from Achieve’s last poll, in spring 2012, when public opinion was positive, 42 percent to 28 percent. In other words, support has fallen substantially.

Rather than rehash the Common Core debate here, it’s worth asking a few political questions of some import. What’s likely to happen as business interests and tea-party forces square off? What will the outcomes mean for the Common Core after November? And what will any of this mean for Republicans come 2016?

Pro-Common Core Republicans finally realized that having President Obama’s secretary of education cheer the standards wasn’t going to do the trick. So the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable are spearheading a media blitz that will target Fox News and similar outlets to argue that the standards are of high quality; reflect conservative educational values; are voluntary; and are not linked to the Obama administration.

Anti-Common Core critiques are likely to be compromised in the debate by their unfortunate resemblance to Sarah Palin’s 2010 “death panel” war cry. In that instance, Palin tapped into a legitimate concern and channeled it into a burst of fury, but her overripe rhetoric ultimately undermined the seriousness of the point — while drowning out a wealth of other serious criticisms. In the current debate, crucial areas of concern are often bound up with ridiculous charges regarding such matters as mind control and biometric analysis.

For Republicans eager to win this fall and disinclined to do anything that will alienate swing voters, business’s low-key Common Core message is likely to resonate. If that proves to be the case, look for anti-Common Core sentiment to be contained in a small but energetic wing of the GOP. Given the GOP’s bright electoral prospects and the tempting target of Obamacare, it’s a safe bet that few money men, operatives, or candidates will want to spend any more time than they have to addressing a divisive issue like the Common Core.

This means the Common Core is likely to have little impact on national election outcomes and only a very modest impact on state races. Nationally, there’s not much for GOP candidates to say — other than pledge to fight against federal involvement — and little likelihood that tea partiers are going to sit on their hands during a referendum on Obama and Obamacare. In state races, there will be some primary clashes, but there’s nowhere for losers to go. Few Democratic candidates are explicitly opposed to the Common Core. Meanwhile, business interests have plenty more pressing issues with a Democratic candidate than her stance on reading and math standards.

The bottom line is that, for all the fuss and furor, K–12 standards are just not going to be a make-or-break voting issue for many. That’s doubly true given the deeply polarized context of the 2014 race.

If Republicans make the currently projected gains in the fall elections, the Common Core’s prospects will turn in large part on how many state legislative seats are claimed by tea partiers and how many by more establishment candidates. But, as with Obamacare, the fate of the effort will really turn on practical questions — in this case, on how well (or poorly) the fancy new assessments work, on whether the public finds the test scores credible, and on whether parents find the homework and new lessons compelling.

As for 2016, there’s one big takeaway. If tea partiers succeed in bloodying business this summer and the Common Core fight remains hot, it’ll bedevil a possible Jeb Bush candidacy in the primaries. Most frustrating for him, it would turn his signature strength — education — into a divisive issue among the base. On the other hand, if business is successful in marginalizing the Common Core critics and cooling off the fight, that would be a great boon to a possible Bush run.

-Rick Hess

This first appeared on National Review Online.

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