TIME 2016 Election

2016 Conservatives Take the Common Core Test

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 14, 2014.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 14, 2014. Jacquelyn Martin—AP

The state standards are becoming a defining issue for GOP presidential hopefuls

If you’re searching for signs that a Republican politician is serious about a 2016 presidential run, watch what he or she says about Common Core.

Over the past several months, the state education standards developed by a bipartisan group of governors and educators have become one of the conservative movement’s biggest bugbears. Common Core is now “radioactive,” as Iowa GOP Gov. Terry Branstad put it recently. And the animus toward it within the Republican base has sent the politicians who are vying to be their next leader scrambling to distance themselves from the policy.

On Friday, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin became the latest 2016 contender to ditch the standards, issuing a one-sentence statement calling on the Badger State legislature to repeal Common Core and replace it “with standards set by the people of Wisconsin.” But Walker is hardly the first national figure to revisit his position toward Common Core as the conservative outcry intensifies.

Earlier this week, New Jersey governor Chris Christie signed an executive order creating a commission to examine the efficacy of the standards. The move was a hedge by Christie, who has supported Common Core, and may buy him cover to move further away from the policy later if the politics continue to sour.

Other likely 2016 hopefuls have been less equivocal. In April, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation dropping Common Core. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose state adopted the standards in 2010, issued executive orders last month to spike the policy—against the wishes of his state’s education superintendent.

These GOP governors are at the back of the pack of 2016 hopefuls when it comes to ditching Common Core. Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed a law banning the standards in his state. Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio all came out in opposition last year as the backlash built, fed by the (inaccurate) perception that Common Core is a federal takeover of education foisted on the states. By now, the only potential 2016 GOP candidate unambiguously in favor of the standards is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush—and his embrace of the policy is a major reason many believe his brand of conservatism is out of step with the national mood.

The irony in this trend is that key features of Common Core—including tougher standards, state-drawn curricula and teacher accountability—reflect conservative values. (So much so that the American Federation of Teachers, the influential union, is now backing away from the policy.) But political winds can blow away policy convictions when they’re inconvenient. Just ask Barack Obama. He spent much of his presidential campaign attacking No Child Left Behind, the national education standards championed by George W. Bush. Once he entered the Oval Office, Obama set about promoting his own set of national standards.

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