Stephanie Grace: Common Core support aligns with election bids

One way to gauge how quickly the politics surrounding Common Core have changed is to track Gov. Bobby Jindal’s journey from full support to abandonment to opposition so strong that he’s willing to entertain an end-run around his own allies in the Legislature, on the state education board and in the education department.

Another entirely related way is to look at how the new educational standards are faring on the national stage.

Several developments have shifted the conversation and upped the ante since the National Governors Association set out to develop universal math and English standards back in 2009, and since 44 states and the District of Columbia have signed on.

On the ground, parents and teachers got a taste of the new reality and, in some (but by no means all) cases, faced a difficult, underfunded rollout. Change is always hard, and this one, like many, could have gone far more smoothly, but the trauma helped ignite opposition from both ends of the political spectrum.

So, too, did a move among conservative activists, particularly newly empowered tea party adherents, to blast anything that might be construed as federal overreach. Common Core is not federal at all, but President Barack Obama supports it, which is enough to fuel all manner of conspiracy theories in this environment. Some opponents even started calling it “ObamaCore,” which underscores how the rhetoric and passion surrounding the Affordable Care Act has bled into other policy areas.

And there’s a third trend that likely contributed to Jindal’s slow-motion reversal: Many of his key original partners in developing Common Core are out of office.

The 2010 election was a good one for the GOP, but it was also the height of the tea party movement. So while Republicans won plenty of governorships and legislative majorities, the people elected often brought a deeper skepticism of all things federal to the job and held stronger anti-establishment leanings than their predecessors. In this case, the suddenly suspect establishment included the business leaders who make up another key GOP constituency and who felt and still feel that Common Core is vital to making the country’s workforce competitive.

Georgia’s former governor Sonny Perdue was a leader in developing Common Core and remains a public advocate, but he’s watched his successor Nathan Deal struggle to appease critics. Former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley also is still out there making the case — most recently in a National Review column in which he pegged misplaced suspicion to “a deep distrust of the president.” But current Gov. Robert Bentley is on the other side. To date, Common Core supporters there, as in Louisiana, have managed to hold the line.

There’s no stronger advocate for Common Core than Jeb Bush. The former Florida governor was already out of office when the standards were developed, but he’s used his private education nonprofit as a megaphone to extol their importance. In what actually may be a preview of some future GOP presidential primary debate, Bush, who surely knew that Jindal was wavering, used a joint appearance last year to make his case once again.

Rather than a federal takeover, Bush argued that Common Core is “45 states that have voluntarily come together to create fewer, higher, deeper standards, that, when you benchmark them to the best of the world, they’re world-class. ... This was all done with a sense of urgency that our country is at risk unless we raise expectations significantly higher, assess where we are in a meaningful way, and then recognize that we have abject failure across the board and we’d better do something about it.”

Meanwhile, current Gov. Rick Scott, who faces a tough re-election this fall in a divided state, has tried his best to appease both sides of the deep divide.

In fact, of prominent GOP governors, Jindal’s pretty much alone in having straddled both eras, the time when supporting Common Core was considered common sense and the current era in which it’s a far dicier proposition for anyone who wants to stay in the good graces of the party’s base. Sticking to his original guns would have taken far more courage than anyone back in 2009 could have known.

Still, you could argue that the true test of a politician’s mettle is whether he’s willing to stand firm, even when there’s no longer safety in numbers.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.