Early last week, one of the groups tasked with designing tests to accompany the new K-12 education standards known as the Common Core released an estimate of what its final product would cost, and all hell broke loose. The news—that the tests in the works at the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) will cost more than what roughly half the states who’ve signed on to buy them currently spend on assessments (a projected $29.50 per student)—reignited a debate that has created deep schisms in the Republican party, with business-friendly conservatives pushing reforms they hope will bolster America’s competitive edge, while Tea Party activists hold rallies to protest what they consider a federal imposition on the rights of states.
Nowhere is this acrimony more fully on display than in Florida, where two of the party’s most promising presidential hopefuls disagree on Common Core: former governor Jeb Bush, and his one-time acolyte, Senator Marco Rubio. Bush, who turned Florida into a petri dish of free market-inspired education reforms (from vouchers and charters to increased testing and performance-based pay) during his two terms as governor, has been one of Common Core’s most loyal advocates. But Rubio trashed his mentor’s pet project Thursday in his first definitive statement on the standards.
“I am very concerned, and quite frankly opposed to any effort to try to create some sort of national curriculum standard and then try to leverage the power of the federal government’s funding to force states to adopt a certain curriculum standard,” he said in answer to a question from conservative blog The Shark Tank. “State and local levels are the best places to come up with curriculum reform, and its something the federal government shouldn’t be deeply involved in.”
After the PARCC announcement, Georgia and Oklahoma used the news as an excuse to drop out of the consortium designing the tests, claiming they would write their own, less expensive versions. And many predict that Florida will be the next to go. The PARCC assessments promise to be more expensive than Florida’s current tests, at least when you factor in the computers and software that would be purchased to administer them, but that’s not the real issue: Days before PARCC released its data, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, both Republicans, wrote a vehemently federalist letter exhorting the education commissioner to withdraw the state from PARCC. “It would be unacceptable to participate in national efforts that may take us backward and erode confidence in our accountability system and our trajectory of continued success,” they wrote. They added: “Florida must do what it has always done in the field of assessments, which is to lead.” (The Sunshine State got a sixth-place ranking from Education Week this year.)
The letter was a tacit rejection of Bush, who has been the polestar of his state party for over a decade—and it may have struck him as a bad omen, to boot. While many have assumed education will be Bush's calling card if he runs for the presidency in 2016, this controversy in his back yard could leave him vulnerable where he had banked on being strong. And Rubio’s defection has a personal sting. In a piece in this magazine about the two men's relationship, Marin Cogan quoted a state politician as saying, “If Marco were to run against Jeb, or to run before Jeb has taken himself out, there would be a general feeling that Marco had betrayed his mentor.” Since golden boy Rubio can’t help but make headlines, he must have known he wasn’t helping his tutor by letting loose on Common Core.
Though 45 states and the District of Columbia originally signed on to use the standards—which set the same, high achievement benchmarks for students across the country (but, contrary to Tea Party rhetoric, leave individual states to determine curricula)— a growing number are wavering. In May, The Washington Post called opposition to the Common Core “the newest front for the tea party movement” and reported that a groundswell of protests are “creating complications for the GOP, particularly governors, as conservative activists say they are starting to consider Common Core a new test of purity.” This spring, Indiana and Pennsylvania postponed implementation of the Common Core, and Michigan blocked all funding (Republican Governor Rick Snyder acquiesced despite having supported the reforms). Georgia and Oklahoma followed in the footsteps of Alabama and Utah when they declared they would write their own tests—a decision that could undercut the effort to make diplomas interchangeable across state lines. It’s impossible to say how many other Republican-held states will back out before the 2014 implementation deadline arrives.
The standards have created the kind of strange bedfellows that don’t sit well with the GOP’s right wing: While some liberals, and in particular teachers unions, have decried the rollout’s emphasis on testing, most Democrats support the Common Core. And so does Obama, whose Department of Education probably did more harm than good when it started offering incentives for the standards’ use, lending credence to the Tea Party claim that they amount to a federal takeover of classrooms even though they were written by a bipartisan group of state officials. Glenn Beck is so worried about the feds’ nefarious play for the minds of the next generation that he says “American history is over as you know it" if Common Core isn’t stopped. Meanwhile, the conservative blogosphere is buzzing with the allegation that “there will be a massive data tracking system on each child with over 400 points of information collected. … Big brother will be watching your child from preschool till college.”
For a relative moderate like Bush—who already risked his standing with the right wing by defending comprehensive immigration reform—a high-profile battle over Common Core could spell doom in the primaries. But he has worked too long and too hard to dissociate himself now, using his nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education as a platform to promote the standards, and even dissuading the powerful American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, from coming out against them in 2011. Last week, he wrote an impassioned appeal on the Common Core’s behalf, using the most conservative terms he could muster: “To elevate our kids, we must measure them against the best. Effective tests backed by accountability provisions drive results. What gets measured gets done.”
He closed his entreaty, “The pressure to put the adults first will never subside, but that comes at the expense of far too many children whose success or failure in life depends on those few years spent in a classroom.” That point seems germane to Rubio, who has been busily amassing conservative credentials ever since he bared his right flank in the immigration debate. Though he indicated skepticism of the Common Core as early as 2011, it seems savvy of him to weigh in on it now.
Maybe Rubio had Bush in mind when he followed up on his off-the-cuff response to Shark Tank with a statement that qualified, “Common Core started out as a well-intentioned effort to develop more rigorous curriculum standards.” But he didn’t walk his criticism back. He continued: “However, it is increasingly being used by the Obama Administration to turn the Department of Education into what is effectively a national school board. This effort to coerce states into adhering to national curriculum standards is not the best way to help our children attain the best education.” Rubio and the rest of the Tea Party may have been hoping to hose Obama when they attacked the Common Core, but Bush is the one who they left out to dry.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follor her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.