Conservatives Reject Common Core Standards, An Idea First Championed By Reagan and Bush Sr.

illiam Bennett was sworn in as Secretary of Education; John Herrington was sworn-in as Energy Secretary; and Donald Hodel was sworn-in as Interior Secretary. From left in the photo are: William Bennett; Elaine Bennett; John Herington; Lois Herrington; Donald Hodel; Barbara Hodel; President Reagan and William French Smith. CREDIT: DENNIS COOK, AP
illiam Bennett was sworn in as Secretary of Education; John Herrington was sworn-in as Energy Secretary; and Donald Hodel was sworn-in as Interior Secretary. From left in the photo are: William Bennett; Elaine Bennett; John Herington; Lois Herrington; Donald Hodel; Barbara Hodel; President Reagan and William French Smith. CREDIT: DENNIS COOK, AP

The Common Core standards have earned much hatred on the right, but the idea of national educational standards actually has its origins in the conservative Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, a new analysis finds.

A paper released Monday by the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank, outlines why the conservative opposition to the Common Core state standards is more of a recent development than a simple reaction to “government overreach” and outlines how past Republican administrations embraced and promoted national education standards. The study’s author, David Whitman writes for the Education Post, covered education news for decades at U.S. News and World Report, and was the chief speechwriter for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Whitman writes that conservative opposition to the standards only began to build as Tea Party activists began to spread myths about Common Core, such as the idea that it is a national curriculum, that states did not choose to adopt the standards, or that subjects such as sex education and history are included, in large part due to “reflective mistrust” of the Obama administration. He said they are now taking on such a “Voldemort-like status” that several GOP-led states are simply renaming them. Many Republican presidential candidates are examples of governors who once supported the standards but have recently flipped.

“It’s not that there is some misunderstanding or some misinformation. The norm is that people don’t understand what Common Core state standards are. That’s usually problematic to having any kind of informed discussion as to what the standards do and more importantly what they are not,” Whitman said in an interview with ThinkProgress.


The famous 1983 report by The U.S. Department of Education commissioned by the Reagan administration, “A Nation At Risk,” really laid the groundwork for the Common Core standards, Whitman writes, as it called for setting higher standards that were “rigorous and measurable.” An important fact to remember about the timing of the report is that the secretary of education at the time, Terrel Bell, was supposed to oversee the elimination of the department after Reagan entered office. However, the commission to study the state of education throughout the country, and its subsequent report, sparked a movement for education reform.

Whitman writes of the report:

In 1983, advocating for higher standards was considered to be politically conservative because it flipped the left-leaning education establishment’s preoccupation with measuring educational inputs. Instead of evaluating education by the amount spent per-student, class size, and textbook availability, conservatives wanted to set expectations for student learning-and assess education based on outcomes, especially student achievement.

William Bennett, who became secretary of education in 1985 under Reagan, put forth ideas for a national curriculum that might scare many conservatives today. Bennett supported the idea of developing a Common Core curriculum — not simply standards, but a 47-page booklet that outlined a curriculum of science, history, fine arts and physical education, geography, foreign languages and civics. Modern Common Core standards only cover math and English language arts and have been voluntarily adopted by the states. Bennett also pressed the idea that standards should be the same irrespective of where students live. Conservatives often rail against Common Core today by claiming that it’s better for students to learn according to their own state’s culture.

Naturally, Bennett doesn’t see what all the fuss is over Common Core today, and penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed last year defending it:

Why then is Common Core drawing such heavy fire? Some of the criticism is legitimate, but much of it is based on myths. For example, a myth persists that Common Core involves a required reading list. Not so. Other than four seminal historical documents — the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address — there is no required reading list. Textbook companies have marketed their books disingenuously, leading many parents to believe that under Common Core the government mandates particular textbooks. Also not true.

Whitman seems to find this difference deeply ironic, given conservative complaints. “Arne Duncan and the Obama administration essentially shrunk the federal role in promoting a model curriculum and promoting national standards substantially from Republican predecessors. The conventional wisdom is that Common Core is some example of egregious federal overreach into control of local curriculum,” Whitman said. “That’s false on its face. But apart from that, if there was any federal overreach it was committed by William Bennett in the Reagan administration and Lamar Alexander in the Bush administration.”


But Bennett didn’t get further than proposing the idea of national standards. Instead, it was a familiar face, Lamar Alexander, who formalized the idea into a concrete proposal. As secretary of education during the George H.W. Bush administration, Alexander, now a senator who chairs the very committee that oversees education, campaigned for national standards and assessments in 1991 and 1992. Alexander’s initiative was called America 2000 and it outlined voluntary national tests that would be taken by fourth, eighth, and 12th graders in the five core subjects of math, science, English, history, and geography. America 2000 created 15 national tests. In comparison, the initiative makes the current Common Core standards look “downright timid,” Whitman wrote. The department spent $2.8 million promoting America 2000.

Another objection conservatives have to the Obama administration is Duncan’s granting of waivers to No Child Left Behind, but Whitman writes that America 2000 would also have allowed the secretary of education to waive federal rules in some circumstance. Alexander struggled to convince Congress to appropriate money to support America 2000, but he was able to persuade Congress to appoint a panel of experts to study the concept of national standards. However, teachers unions and civil rights leaders at the time argued against national testing and school choice provisions and argued that poverty, and its effect on student outcomes, was not being taken into account. That led to the panel’s inclusion of “opportunity to learn” standards. The standards were a way to measure whether “school delivery standards,” such as instructional materials, high-quality teachers and a safe school setting, were providing a sufficient “opportunity to learn” the national standards and was intended to account for disadvantaged students and student achievement gaps. But Alexander would not accept a bill that contained them. The bill ultimately died in the Senate.

“So the liberal position was that you couldn’t really meaningfully measure student progress, student growth and student achievement for low-income minority students until you could guarantee they would be getting the same resources, the same opportunity to learn, as all other students, so that was point Lamar Alexander stopped supporting the bill and recommended Bush veto it,” Whitman told ThinkProgress.

The idea of pushing for national standards was considered politically dead for many years, after Alexander’s America 2000 push, until it picked up support among moderate Democrats and education reformers close to the Obama administration, Whitman said.

“In the ensuing years, liberals moved to embrace much more forcefully the idea that we should really be measuring outcomes primarily and inputs secondarily, and there were a lot of moderate Democrats and education reformers on the liberal side of the spectrum who embraced that idea and conservatives to embrace that idea,” Whitman said in the interview, pointing out that many of the left still opposed them for similar reasons as in in the early 1990s — that they didn’t acknowledge poverty and its effect on schools with low-income students.

Where the Bush administration failed, the Obama administration succeeded, not because they advocated more government involvement, but because they pushed for less, and learned which parts of America 2000 were far too provocative to include in the new push for national standards.


“Not only did the center hold with the Common Core state standards but that it did so because the Obama administration and leaders of the Common Core state movement avoided the mistakes that Lamar Alexander and George H.W. Bush made,” Whitman said to ThinkProgress. “They basically learned from what they did and they didn’t use federal funding to create national standards. They didn’t try to provide standards in history and social studies that are politically controversial.”