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January 9, 2015

Common Core: Republican Minefield?

Nine months from now, Republican candidates for president will meet on the stage of the Reagan Presidential Library (with the old Air Force One providing great visuals) for the first debate of the 2016 race. It seems likely that among those in attendance will be at least four – Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush – who support (or once supported) the Common Core. Republicans are about to find out what’s been percolating among the grassroots. Properly undertaken, a debate about Common Core could be healthy for the party and the country. Or it could be an unholy squabble over rumors and bogeymen. We’ll see. The old joke has it that America will never adopt national education standards because Republicans hate anything with the word “national” in it, and Democrats hate anything with the word “standards” in it. Common Core’s advocates accordingly worked through the National Governors Association and other state groups. Backed with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Common Core has now been adopted by 41 states. The Obama administration boosted participation by dangling waivers from some requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, as well as stimulus funds, to states that adopted Common Core. That alone was enough to alienate many Republicans.

Nine months from now, Republican candidates for president will meet on the stage of the Reagan Presidential Library (with the old Air Force One providing great visuals) for the first debate of the 2016 race. It seems likely that among those in attendance will be at least four – Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush – who support (or once supported) the Common Core. Republicans are about to find out what’s been percolating among the grassroots. Properly undertaken, a debate about Common Core could be healthy for the party and the country. Or it could be an unholy squabble over rumors and bogeymen. We’ll see.

The old joke has it that America will never adopt national education standards because Republicans hate anything with the word “national” in it, and Democrats hate anything with the word “standards” in it. Common Core’s advocates accordingly worked through the National Governors Association and other state groups. Backed with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Common Core has now been adopted by 41 states. The Obama administration boosted participation by dangling waivers from some requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, as well as stimulus funds, to states that adopted Common Core. That alone was enough to alienate many Republicans.

Common Core is not a national curriculum. It doesn’t prescribe how children should be taught, but does set benchmarks for what kids in K-12 should know and when. Chester E. Finn Jr., president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is a Reagan alumnus who mostly favors the Core. “It’s superior to the standards” in 75 percent of the states, he explains. Assuming wide adoption and smooth implementation, it would solve the problem of our national mobility – high by international standards – unduly handicapping children. Fourth graders in Spokane would be learning the same math skills as those in Dubuque and Miami. It would also permit parents to evaluate their own schools based on uniform standards.

Conservatives like rigor and accountability. What they emphatically do not like is the leftist, anti-American propaganda that has infiltrated school curricula around the nation. At the moment, despite many claims to the contrary on the Internet, Common Core does not contain history standards, only math and English ones. Aware of the huge backlash that greeted the Clinton-era attempt to promote highly tendentious national history standards (Lynne Cheney played a starring role in exposing them), Common Core’s backers have steered clear – for now.

But as my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Stanley Kurtz has argued, left-wing activists are forever beavering away, shaping what young Americans learn about their past and accordingly what they believe about the present. One vector is the College Board, the company that designs and administers the Advanced Placement tests. The AP American history test is currently under revision, and none of the changes is good. As Finn and Frederick Hess wrote in National Review Online, “There’s little about economics that doesn’t feel caricatured or framed in terms of government efforts to combat injustice. Students are introduced to decade after decade of American racism and depravity, with little positive context for the nation’s foreign engagements or its success creating shared prosperity. … The bias is especially stark when it comes to the 20th century’s iconic presidents. FDR and LBJ are treated reverently … (whereas) Reagan is described … as a man of ‘bellicose rhetoric.’”

Kurtz notes that one of the prime movers of the Common Core program, David Coleman, has recently been named president of the College Board. “Under his leadership,” Kurtz warns, “the College Board has begun to radically redesign all of its AP exams.” It is, Kurtz fears, a “backdoor way to seize control of subjects that would be too hot to handle if formally labeled Common Core.”

There are many reasons to favor high standards in schools and to adopt a national curriculum. The danger, of course, is the political content. At some point, Common Core may attempt to adopt objectionable history standards. That hasn’t happened yet. In the meantime, the College Board is the battlefield. The changes to AP U.S. history have not been formally adopted. The College Board is open to comments. The deadline is February. Here’s the link.

Conservatives should deluge them.

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