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Why the Common Core Rebellion Fell Short

More than a dozen states introduced legislation to pull out of the Common Core State Standards, but most bills went nowhere.

Lawmakers in eight states introduced legislation this year to opt out of the Common Core State Standards, according to Education Week. But only two of those states ended up passing a bill, and those bills were scaled back to only halt funding for implementation and require further study of the standards. After an unprecedented amount of backlash against Common Core this spring, the actual policy changes were minimal. What happened?

Most agree that 2013 was the first year that the standards, a set of state-developed academic standards that have been adopted by 45 states and will be implemented in the 2014-2015 school year, had become so heavily politicized. The most likely culprit? The Obama administration’s full-throated endorsement of Common Core.

The standards were developed cooperatively by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) in 2009 and adopted by individual states. But in the last few years, the White House has become a vocal supporter of Common Core, including provisions in its Race To The Top grant program and No Child Left Behind waiver program that states implement “college and career ready standards." That was viewed by many as a reference to Common Core, which spurred some conservative figures and institutions to decry the standards as a federal takeover of education and in turn led to the legislation calling for specifically opting out of Common Core.

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“There are some real concerns about the role of the federal government in education,” says Chris Minnich, CCSSO’s executive director. “But if you're for kids getting a better education, then you probably should be for Common Core. But it sometimes gets diluted and messages get changed and things are being said that are quite outlandish.”

From a conservative perspective, Obama’s very public pronouncements in favor of the standards probably hasn’t helped, says Michael Petrilli, executive director of the Thomas B. Fordham institute and assistant education secretary during the George W. Bush administration, even though a healthy coalition of conservatives, including individuals like Petrilli, supports Common Core.

That’s probably why you saw the anti-Common Core bills only in eight states—Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and South Dakota—with Republican-controlled legislatures. Petrilli points to Obama’s comments in his 2013 State of the Union address that the Race To The Top program “convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards” as stoking the political fire by appearing to take credit for Common Core.

“He did help to politicize them,” Petrilli says. “When he said, ‘Hey, this is something my administration accomplished,’ that was not helpful for the folks on the right. That hurt.”

The federal bogeyman played a central role in the state debates over the opt-out legislation. “With the federal government’s involvement pushing states to adopt the standards, this is no longer a state-led initiative,” Indiana State Sen. Scott Schneider, who sponsored that state’s bill, said in a statement this April. "Indiana has lost its ability to set its own education policy.”

But despite such strong rhetoric, most of the bills failed. Indiana and Michigan legislators passed resolutions to study Common Core further—and the Michigan budget halted funding for the state’s implementation of the standards until further notice—but there wasn’t the widespread revolt that seemed possible earlier in 2013.

In some ways, the debate was part of the broader ideological fight between tea party conservatives and their more moderate counterparts. The tea partiers were more likely to view the White House’s embrace of Common Core as a federal education takeover, and pushed for states to opt out; Indiana’s Schneider, for example, is known as a tea party favorite. It wasn’t just the tea party that opposed the standards—the Republican National Committee passed a resolution condemning them in April—but those voices seem to be the source of the rebellion.

On the other side was the establishment or moderate GOP caucus, people like Petrilli. As the Common Core debate intensified in state legislatures, they rallied business groups that have supported the standards in the past, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable, to lobby lawmakers to keep Common Core because they think it will improve education and thus be good for business. At least in 2013, that argument seems to have won out.

But Common Core opponents expect the debate to resurface next year, and they point to other troubles for the new standards. Texas, which never joined Common Core in the first place, passed a bill this year that prohibits the state from ever participating. Lawmakers in Florida and Oklahoma are considering whether they should pull out of the multi-state test consortia that have been built for the standards because they will be too costly.

As the realities of implementation draw closer, it's possible that even more states will think about pulling out of Common Core, says Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a free-market think tank that has lobbied states to rescind the standards.

"It's all to be seen. I would say that the momentum has absolutely shifted," he says. "These movements should be deeply troubling to proponents of Common Core."

Dylan Scott is a GOVERNING staff writer.
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