The 2016 Republican presidential race has been extremely unpredictable thus far, not only in terms of its leading candidates but also in terms of what issues it has revolved around. Common Core, which was predicted to be a critical issue in the 2016 race, has instead proved an afterthought.
The press speculated it could cause a Republican civil war, and some candidates shared that view. Even if most Republican candidates were united against it, activists have been willing to grade candidates based on the strength of their opposition and their bonafides in working to repeal it.
With so many different Republican candidates, Common Core seemed like an opportunity for candidates to distinguish themselves one way or another. But that hasn’t happened.
The issue isn’t totally invisible, and some candidates like Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz mention it in their stump speeches. But it hasn’t played the critical role in the campaign that it was expected to as a candidate “litmus test.” It came up once in the first GOP debate (with Marco Rubio mildly criticizing Jeb Bush on the issue) and has been invisible since then, it hasn’t been featured in big ad campaigns, and voters don’t seem to consider it nearly as important as immigration, ObamaCare, or ISIS.
Michael Petrilli, president of the center-right Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is a Common Core supporter who’s battled frequently with conservatives seeking to undermine it. As a result, he had several theories about why the issue has receded, right when it seemed poised to take center stage.
Petrilli suggested the issue has receded because in the end there is very little difference among Republicans on education, regardless of their official view on Common Core.
“None of these guys are running to be the education president,” he said. “Everyone in the Republican field entirely agrees they’d significantly reduce the federal footprint on education.” That’s even the case for Common Core backers Jeb Bush and John Kasich, who have denounced federally-imposed standards while supporting Common Core. (RELATED: Bush, Kasich Defend Common Core, Won’t Say Its Name)
But Petrilli mentioned another issue that could be even more important: Timing. Common Core was a huge issue at the state level last spring. Coming off the 2014 elections, Republican-controlled legislatures all over the country considered bills to repeal or heavily modify Common Core. Many states administered Common Core-aligned standardized tests for the first time, and there was a major wave of test glitches and walkouts.
But that all wrapped up by mid-summer. Most of the Common Core repeal efforts failed, or were amended into weaker compromise measures that simply created panels to review Common Core rather than mandating its wholesale replacement. The standardized test mania receded as the tests themselves were wrapped up, to go into hibernation until next year. Quite simply, by the time the GOP race was kicking into high gear, the battle over Common Core had already been waged, and by the time it has the chance to be heavily debated again, the race for the GOP nomination may be over.
Also influencing the issue are the fortunes of different presidential candidates. Common Core was expected to be important because Jeb Bush was expected to be a GOP frontrunner, and other Republicans predicted that Common Core would be his critical weakness. But the rise of Donald Trump and Ben Carson (who oppose Common Core but haven’t made it a critical issue of their campaigns) and Jeb’s failure to emerge as a true frontrunner mean the GOP race hasn’t become the “everybody against Jeb” contest it was expected to be at the outset.
Similarly, the total failure of Bobby Jindal to make a dent in the 2016 race may have played a role as well. Jindal worked harder than any other candidate to make Common Core a signature issue, suing the Obama Administration and his own state school board in an effort to destroy it. But Jindal’s campaign struggled to get off the ground, crowded out by the strong Republican field and hindered by Jindal’s own declining approval ratings in his home state. On Tuesday, he dropped out entirely. Jindal’s difficulties suggest that a tough anti-Common Core position isn’t the path to mass popular support, further diminishing its usefulness as a GOP wedge issue.
Once the nomination battle gives way to the general election, don’t expect Common Core to be any more prominent. On the Democratic side, all the attention has been on higher education, with Hillary Clinton promoting debt-free college and Bernie Sanders pushing to eliminate public college tuition entirely. The grandeur of such proposals make K-12 issues shrink in comparison, meaning Common Core “will continue to get little attention,” Petrilli predicted.
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