Advice To Republican Leaders: Don’t Back Down On High Education Standards

Mary Scott Hunter Representative, Alabama Board of Education
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There is a message for Republicans in the results from the last several election cycles: we must continue to expand our base to remain the party of leadership. The platform of “No” is no longer enough. We need leaders who are able to articulate policies of upward mobility, accountability and prudent governance.

Too often we have let the poles of our party dictate the agenda, dismissing out of hand those candidates who show the conviction to stand up for sensible ideas. Nowhere is this reality more evident than in the public debate over Common Core education standards. Despite the fact this important education initiative remains a state-led effort, despite the fact most parents support high academic standards, and despite the fact the standards are working, a small but vocal faction of the party would have voters and candidates believe it is political treason to support them.

No sooner had former governors Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee announced they would consider running for president than were critics astir about how support for the Common Core would ruin their credibility with Republican voters. I have encouraged both men, as I would any other candidates who will toss their hats in the ring, not to shy away from their endorsement, as others have.

When I ran for reelection to the Alabama Board of Education last year, opponents made similar claims. Support for the Common Core, they said, would be a purity test of true conservatism. Instead of focusing on legitimate questions about the value of ensuring all public school students are held to rigorous expectations, the attacks got personal – and at times downright aggressive.

Yet, those warnings failed to materialize when voters went to the polls. I was honored to be reelected as a proud Republican to serve the people of Alabama, one of the most ardently conservative states in the Union – despite being unfairly linked to President Obama and even accused of carrying the “Democrat and Liberal standard.”

My race wasn’t a glitch, either. Across the country at least a dozen governors who publicly endorsed the Common Core won reelection, most by healthy margins. In only four states did Common Core play a decisive role in the midterms, and in three of those the candidates who supported the standards won. Considering all the negative rhetoric, one might ask, how? As I see it, families fundamentally support strong education standards and greater accountability in our classrooms, regardless of what label you put on it.

Moreover, conservative Americans have every reason to rally behind Common Core standards, or their state’s version of them. The notion of holding our children to higher standards is an inherently conservative ideal. Republicans were key drivers of the bipartisan effort to establish common academic standards. When the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers announced the launch of the state-led standards development process in 2009, Republican governors from 20 states played major roles knowing tomorrow’s leaders must be able to compete and succeed in an increasingly complex world.

In Alabama, the standards were voluntarily adopted after being thoroughly vetted by local experts and educators. I joined my fellow Board of Education members in voting to affirm the standards in 2011. I did so confident these academic benchmarks, which we have subsequently added to and modified, would be the right platform for our educators to develop high-quality, engaging lessons that challenge our students.

Local control over textbooks, lesson plans, and homework assignments is protected and preserved for teachers and schools who use the standards, both in Alabama and in every state that uses them. Claims they are a national curriculum are either disingenuous or misinformed. That means if a math worksheet or homework problem is confusing, local school boards and educators can fix it because there are no requirements tying them to it.

Likewise, under the Common Core teachers are encouraged to find their own most effective teaching methods and curricula. And because the standards are consistent, they allow teachers to share best practices and to compare what’s working with their counterparts across the country to unlock their students’ full potential. In the same way, they give parents a tool to objectively measure how well their child’s school is doing compared to others.

Those are principals any conservative should be able to support, and that our party would be wise to take note of.

I encourage my fellow Republicans not to cede the fight for high education standards. The implementation of Common Core has not been perfect, but efforts of this scale seldom are. Together we can better ensure our children are held to expectations that prepare them to meet the challenges of a changing world – and we can reestablish the Republican Party as the party of pragmatic leadership in doing so.

Mary Scott Hunter was elected to the Alabama State Board of Education in 2010 and reelected in 2014.  An attorney and Air Force veteran, she lives with her husband and three children in Huntsville, AL