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Hillary Clinton Has To Be Very Careful When Talking About Common Core

Hillary Clinton announces her presidency. CREDIT: SCREENSHOT
Hillary Clinton announces her presidency. CREDIT: SCREENSHOT

Of all of the polarizing issues Hillary Clinton will have to take a stand on in the coming weeks and months, education may seem like small potatoes, but it is a deeply personal issue that divides many people, and not always by party lines. Her comments on Common Core, made during a stop earlier this month at Kirkwood Community College in Monticello, Iowa, revealed that she is a supporter of the guidelines on what students should know in math and English language arts known as common core state standards.

“When I think about the really unfortunate argument that’s been going on around Common Core, it’s very painful, because the Common Core started off as a bi-partisan effort — it was actually nonpartisan. It wasn’t politicized, it was to try to come up with a core of learning that we might expect students to achieve across our country, no matter what kind of school district they were in, no matter how poor their family was, that there wouldn’t be two tiers of education,” Clinton said.

Clinton answered by bringing inequality into the discussion and tried to distance herself from Wall Street. She also made the case that Common Core should remain politically neutral, sidestepping the issue of why common core became controversial in the first place — on both the left and right.

On the right, Common Core has been recast as a federal invasion of sorts, with Ted Cruz claiming that common core is a federal law and a curriculum, when in fact, it is an initiative sponsored by the National Governors Association and therefore can’t be repealed by the federal government. It is also not a curriculum but a set of guidelines for math and English language arts, and the federal government simply can’t impose a federal curriculum.

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Conservatives have portrayed Common Core as an invasion on the authority of the family to teach their children certain values. Rand Paul has even called the standards “anti-American propaganda.” However, Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee support Common Core and have mocked misinformation on the topic by joining the group, “Unicorns Are Not Real,” a reeducation effort on Common Core.

On the left, where many teachers — and teachers unions particularly — feel under attack by a reform movement that is interested in tying test scores to teacher evaluations, Common Core is seen as a set of standards that kill academic creativity and spontaneous teaching methods. In fact, a favorite term for advocates against Common Core is “corporate reformers” due to the involvement of hedge fund billionaires.

Many anti-Common Core advocates and parents also argue that one-size-fits-all standards don’t fit the needs of all children and don’t allow enough flexibility for those with special needs. And yet, many prominent Democrats are supportive of Common Core, such as Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper, Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

That puts Clinton in an interesting position. If she doesn’t acknowledge concerns on the left that education reform is driven by hedge fund billionaires or that Common Core doesn’t allow for more diverse teaching methods, she will look out of touch. If she does criticize Common Core, she’s associating herself with conservatives such as Paul and Cruz as well, which may earn the ire of some liberals.

As Stanley Kurtz writes in the National Review, the standards could become an important issue if the Republican nominee were a strong opponent of Common Core, and may possibly shine a light on the themes Republicans want to hit home, namely that she’s interested in “big government.”

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The fact that Common Core wouldn’t be under her, or any presidential candidates,’ control once they took office highlights some of the absurdity of the debate around the issue. That doesn’t mean that attacks based on the standards couldn’t be effective, however. The conservative side of the anti-Common Core movement appears more mobilized and enthusiastic than conservative Common Core proponents. It’s telling that Scott Walker (R), governor of Wisconsin, recently shifted his views on Common Core, and even Huckabee has walked back his support of the idea in the past couple of years, saying its poor implementation in many districts is the problem.

Meanwhile, Clinton’s support of Common Core and charter schools could hurt her relationship with teacher’s unions, an extremely important ally for any Democratic nominee. However, it’s difficult to say how teachers unions will react to her education platform so early in the race. Her tone has changed from 2008, when she said on the campaign trail, “How much creativity are we losing? How much of our children’s passion is being killed?”

Compare that to her statement in Iowa last week: “Now I think part of the reason why Iowa may be more understanding of this is you’ve had the Iowa Core for years, you’ve had a system, plus the Iowa Assessment tests. I think I’m right in saying I took those when I was in elementary school, right — the Iowa tests. So Iowa has had a testing system based on a core curriculum for a really long time, and you see the value of it. You understand why that helps you organize your whole education system. And a lot of states, unfortunately, haven’t had that, and so don’t understand the value of a core in this sense.”

That may rub some teachers unions the wrong way. These groups likely hope to maintain a good relationship with Clinton, especially after their strained relationship with President Barack Obama, who has supported merit pay for teachers as well as the opening of more charter schools.

That doesn’t mean teachers unions won’t be patient with Clinton, however. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who has known Clinton for many years, made it clear she has faith in Clinton’s approach to education. In an interview with The New York Times, Weingarten said, “She has been versed in these issues for a long time, and will give everyone a fair hearing and a fair shot, but she will look at it through the lens of what’s good for kids. Period.”