During a recent Republican debate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tore into New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s record as governor with what may seem like a surprising attack. “I like Chris Christie, but we cannot afford to have a president of the United States that supports Common Core. We cannot afford to have president of the United States that supports gun control,” Rubio said.
What brought us to the point where, during a Republican debate, education policy was mentioned before gun control? Why is education, of all subjects, something that could potentially galvanize the base of the Republican Party?
In recent years, education policy has become surprisingly controversial on the political stage. The Common Core state standards in particular are now a serious litmus test for Republican candidates.
Last spring and summer, a major reversal took place. Candidates who once embraced the standards — such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and three candidates who have now dropped out of the race, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — made their opposition to Common Core crystal clear.
Jindal went as far as to bring a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education over the standards, even though he pushed for the implementation of Common Core in his own state. In 2013, Huckabee, who may have noticed his support of Common Core was becoming controversial, and said on his Facebook page, “While I believe such standards make sense for public schools in math and English, I support parents’ freedom of choice to educate their children however they want, including homeschooling, regardless of the standards that are applied in a public school setting.” But in 2015, his campaign website read, “I also oppose Common Core and believe we should abolish the federal department of education. We must kill Common Core and restore common sense.”
“We must kill Common Core and restore common sense.”
Huckabee’s suggestion that the department should be eliminated is in keeping with many Republicans’ statements on the department over the years. “I don’t think you’d notice if the whole department was gone tomorrow,” Rand Paul once remarked. Although it’s unclear if Donald Trump is committed to eliminating the department altogether, he has repeatedly said he would cut its funding “a lot,” while Ben Carson has said he would repurpose the department to “monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias and deny federal funding if it exists.”
Republicans’ rhetoric on eliminating the department has become so heated that it’s almost strange if a Republican candidate doesn’t advocate for scrapping it altogether. For a few years by now, GOP lawmakers have named the Department of Education as one of the top federal agencies they would like to eliminate. This rhetoric has only intensified as more states adopted the Common Core state standards.
The standards ultimately reignited concern about the government’s role in education. At the heart of the matter is a deep-rooted conservative fear over the federal government taking over the family sphere and indoctrinating children with liberal propaganda.
Invading the sanctity of the family sphere
Governors across the political spectrum supported the Common Core standards when they were first adopted. But the standards soon began to appear politically “toxic,” for reasons ranging from the growing teacher backlash to the spread of misinformation about what exactly Common Core is. In several states, the standards have been reviewed and the name has been changed — see Florida’s “Sunshine Standards” — but ultimately many of those states kept their tests aligned with Common Core standards. The “review” of the standards has been a matter of political convenience rather than an outright rejection of them.
The reasons for opposition to Common Core are complicated and are not confined to one side of the political spectrum. Teachers unions have opposed what they called a rushed implementation of Common Core and lack of guidance from states on how to use the standards, especially in New York, where the governor recently appointed a task force to review the standards.
However, the backlash to Common Core is most passionate on the right because of how conservatives have framed the issue. Conservatives have reignited the fear that the federal government is taking over a child’s education and thus invading the sanctity of the family sphere.
It’s a fear conservatives have played up again and again. For example, when the College Board introduced new AP history standards in 2012 that introduced more details about slavery, atrocities committed against Native Americans, and the growing influence of the Religious Right, conservatives railed against them, saying they were unpatriotic and presented an “ugly” version of American history. State legislators introduced bills that would take away funding for AP history classes.
The same logic is creeping into the conversation about Common Core. In fact, conservatives have succeeded in stoking Common Core fears by associating the standards with subjects the standards have never addressed, but that represent ideological boogeymen to conservatives.
For example, conservatives have long pushed the myth that the standards include sex education, information about climate change, and standards for history classes. One of the most bizarre myths is that Common Core is promoting “Islamic indoctrination.” Many if all of these topics infuriate conservative parents, who believe their child’s education is becoming increasingly politicized and that the role of moral guidance is being claimed by the state, instead of where it belongs, with the family.
Candidates continue to push the idea that Common Core standards were mandated by the federal government instead of part of the Race to the Top initiative, which gave the incentive of additional federal funding to states to adopt the standards. However, states had the option to adopt high standards, or college-and-career-ready standards, as they were called, of their own that were not actually the Common Core standards and still receive federal funding — money that many Republican governors accepted at the time.
The tactic of simply spreading misinformation until it is considered the truth appears to be working. A 2015 Farleigh Dickinson University Public Mind poll shows that many Americans who have heard “a lot” about Common Core have also heard a lot of misinformation that shows they have no idea what it actually is. Forty percent of those polled thought that three or four items, such as climate change and sex education, were included in the Common Core.
But Republicans didn’t always feel this way
Conservative anger about Common Core is all the more fascinating considering the fact that national standards were championed by then-Education Secretary William Bennett during the Ronald Reagan administration — and that Bennett went even further than the current standards we have today.
The current Common Core standards are guidelines for a curriculum and only concern math and English language arts. However, Bennett created a 47-page booklet that outlined a national curriculum and included additional subjects like science, history, foreign languages, civics, fine arts, and physical education curricula.
The need for national standards became apparent to policymakers after the Department of Education released its now historic 1983 report “A Nation At Risk.” The report not only convinced policy folks and members of Congress that education reform was necessary, but also made a case for why the Department of Education should continue to exist.
Reagan initially vowed to eliminate the department, which was in its infancy as a cabinet-level agency at the time. But the education secretary, Terrel H. Bell, who was supposed to oversee the dismantling of his own department, appointed a commission to study the state of education in public schools across the United States — a commission that led the “A Nation At Risk” report. That report bolstered many key features of the education reform movement as we know it now, such as an emphasis on standardized testing.
Despite the fact that it has practically become a blasphemous act to question the actions of Ronald Reagan, and Reagan comparisons have been de rigeur for decades now, Republicans continue to ignore the fact that he had an opportunity to pursue making this campaign promise a reality — and changed his mind.
And the push for national standards didn’t end with the Reagan administration. The same person who now uses the term “national school board” to criticize what he calls the federal government’s oversized role in education, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander (R), actually pushed for national standards and standardized tests when he served as the education secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration. Alexander’s initiative was called America 2000. Instead of tests for simply math and ELA, students would have to take tests for five core subjects — English, history, geography, math, and science — during the fourth, eighth and 12th grade, creating 15 national tests. Imagine how that kind of proposal would sit with parents in the opt-out movement today.
Of course, if Republicans want to argue against federal overreach, they don’t have to look so far back to see a Republican administration advocate for more federal involvement in education. The No Child Left Behind Act was the most important development in federal education policy since the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965. The last three Republican administrations have advocated for keeping and empowering the Department of Education. They have also endorsed the concept of national standards.
Only now, during a Democratic administration that many conservative voters believe is destroying their way of life and forcing progressive values on its young people, do Republicans divorce themselves from the past few decades of education policy within their own party.