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Wyoming, the Red State That Likes Common Core

While many Republican states have made efforts to repeal the education standards, Wyoming appears happy to move forward. How has Common Core thrived in such a solidly GOP state?

Republicans, it seems, hate the Common Core. Several red states -- Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina, which had initially adopted the national education standards -- have withdrawn from the effort, at least officially. Almost all the GOP governors considering a 2016 presidential run have come out against the new standards, including Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. And now top officials in other solidly red states have made moves toward dismantling the Common Core.

But not every Republican-dominated state wants to repeal the Common Core, which 43 states and the District of Columbia have adopted. Consider Wyoming, a surprising example of a deliberate, bipartisan effort to refine and ultimately enshrine the new education standards.

In a series of interviews in Cheyenne, political leaders said that despite criticism of the Common Core from grassroots voters, Wyoming's elected leadership is sticking with the program. The debate "hasn't been as divisive" in Wyoming as elsewhere, said Bob Beck, the longtime news director of Wyoming Public Radio. But to appease critics, officials have made some changes to ensure that parents have a voice in guiding and overseeing education standards going forward -- something that most observers here agree had been insufficient previously.

Jillian Balow, the Republican who ran successfully for Wyoming state schools superintendent last year, said that during her campaign she talked to thousands of people and never heard them say they didn't want high standards for their kids. "We are in a caustic environment," she admitted, "but I'd like to build consensus about standards by bringing people to the table in meaningful way."

Under a policy backed by Balow and legislative leaders, the state will use a once-every-five-years review of Common Core -- something scheduled for 2017 -- to make sure that the standards are working well for reading, math and other subjects. In addition, Balow and lawmakers have worked to clear the way for new science standards that are separate from Common Core, but which got caught up in the same grassroots criticism.

This bipartisan push between the executive and legislative branches is due, in part, to the departure of Cindy Hill, the Tea Party-backed superintendent whose stormy tenure was punctuated by accusations of poor management and a tug-of-war with Republican Gov. Matt Mead. Hill challenged Mead in the 2014 gubernatorial primary and lost.

Jillian Balow, Wyoming State Superintendent of Public Instruction (AP/John Hanna)

In the primary to succeed Hill as superintendent, Balow positioned herself as a relative moderate. Unlike her general election opponent, Democratic business executive Mike Ceballos, Balow was not a Common Core supporter during the campaign, but she tended to focus her energy on improving the process rather than blowing up the system. And once she took office, observers here say she's taken a pragmatic approach, which has enabled lawmakers to forge a solid working relationship. Hill "had burned relationships with the media, the legislature and the advocacy groups," said Bill Novotny, a veteran Republican consultant who has served as Balow's legislative liaison during the recently completed session. "We needed to get the superintendent back at the table."

For their part, legislative leaders say they were eager to have a solid negotiating partner again. "We'd like to make [the standards] ours instead of throwing them in the ash can and starting over," said state Rep. David Northrup, a Republican member of the Education Committee.

So how has the Common Core survived with only modest changes in Wyoming, a state so solidly Republican that it has no statewide Democratic officials and has Democratic caucuses in the legislature that number in the single digits?

Politicians here point to several factors. For one, Wyoming implemented the standards early. "We already have it," said Democratic House Minority Floor Leader Mary Throne, "and people are generally pleased."

But perhaps the most important has been buy-in at the school district level.

Northrup said the Common Core standards are widely seen as representing an improvement over the previous standards. "The standards in place before were subpar and needed to be beefed up," he said.

Balow agreed, suggesting that other states have not done themselves any favors by getting rid of Common Core, a move that may force those states to start the process from scratch. Quitting Common Core, she said, could leave Wyoming's 48 districts in a situation where "we have nothing to replace it with, or where we go back to the lower standards of the past. Neither one would be doing our kids any favors."

Another factor is that school officials are frustrated with constantly changing standards. "The biggest outcry we hear from the districts is, 'Oh my God, just leave it alone for two or three years so we can get a trend line,'" Northrup said.

There may be another reason why the fight over Common Core in Wyoming has been less divisive than it's been elsewhere: The battle has largely played out in a statewide context, not a national one. Whenever national and presidential politics are involved, the more conservative elements of the GOP can end up driving the debate. Jindal's presidential bid is a good example. "Clearly national politics can play a huge role" in how Common Core plays out, said Ceballos, the Democratic candidate who lost to Balow.

Observers say Balow has been smart to frame the issue as one of national vs. local control. "As a country and certainly as a state, we have found some buyers' remorse with respect to Common Core," Balow said. "Anything shared across states could be deemed as taking things a step away from local or state control. You have to be vigilant. In a red state, you see this happening in every facet of our lives -- the takeover of lands, air quality rules, wildlife management. The federal government is seeping into so many areas of our lives, it's naïve to think it couldn't happen on education. It's my responsibility to make sure we retain state and local control."

Balow added, "I'm a conservative. I'm a Republican, small-government gal. But I don't think of solving problems in a partisan way."

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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