Politics & Policy

Does Scott Walker Have a Common Core Problem?

(Whitney Curtis/Getty)
He was for it before he was against it, but conservative primary voters have reasons for supporting him nonetheless.

Amid its recommendations for improving Badger State students’ literacy, Wisconsin’s Read to Lead Task Force noted in January 2012 that the state had already taken strong initial steps to encourage improvement in reading:

In response to the need to improve state standards and create a common set of expectations for children across the country, Wisconsin was among the first of 48 states and territories to adopt the Common Core State Standards, a set of rigorous new standards that are benchmarked against the standards of high performing countries. These standards create a common set of expectations for children across the country.

For Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who chaired the task force, that was apparently a good thing at the time. Two years later, on July 17, 2014, Walker released a statement: “Today, I call on the members of the State Legislature to pass a bill in early January to repeal Common Core and replace it with standards set by people in Wisconsin.”

Walker is, of course, not the only high-profile Republican to backtrack on his support for Common Core — and the glut of conversions raises an interesting possibility. It has been widely observed that the Republican presidential primary campaign is bound to feature a debate over Common Core. But with one contender, Jeb Bush, in support (two, if one includes Ohio governor John Kasich), the debate is likely to feature not proponents versus opponents but those whose positions have not changed versus those whose positions have.

Consider: Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, initially a Common Core supporter, has become perhaps its most outspoken opponent, even filing suit against the Department of Education for tying federal money to the adoption of Common Core, which, Jindal argues, violates Congress’s intent and the Tenth amendment.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee supported the standards, too — but now says Common Core “has morphed into a Frankenstandard that nobody, including me, can support.”

And after declaring in 2013 that “we’re doing Common Core in New Jersey, and we’re going to continue,” New Jersey governor Chris Christie said earlier this month that he has “grave concerns” about the program, “especially the way the Obama administration has tried to implement it through tying federal funding to these things.” New Jersey’s Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments is now reconsidering the standards.

Meanwhile, former Texas governor Rick Perry and Texas senator Ted Cruz have opposed Common Core from the beginning, as have Florida senator Marco Rubio and Kentucky senator Rand Paul. Jeb Bush, former Florida governor, has been an unyielding supporter.

Political conversions are always problematic for politicians on the campaign trail, but on an issue as toxic as Common Core — one where not the position but the intensity of the position is key — the appearance of a politically expedient change of heart could prove harmful.

It may prove so for Walker. The co-opting of Common Core by the Department of Education, which tied an originally state-led effort to federal largesse, was revealed as early as March 2009, when the Obama administration’s Race to the Top (RTTT) program was announced. To be eligible for a RTTT grant, a state had to promise to implement the “college- and career-ready standards” and the only feasible option for most were the Common Core standards still in development. Under Democratic governor Jim Doyle, Wisconsin embraced RTTT (narrowly missing out on a round-one grant), and in June 2010 the state adopted the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and Language Arts.

Yet Walker gave quiet support to the standards when he took office in January 2011. His first budget directed the state’s Department of Public Instruction to develop assessments that would measure “mastery of Common Core Standards.” The Read to Lead Task Force backed them, and state superintendent Tony Evers has been (and remains) a strong supporter.

According to Kirsten Kukowski, communications director for Walker’s 527 organization, launched in January, “Wisconsin’s education standards have needed an improvement for some time, hence Wisconsin adopting the standards before Walker was governor. As soon as the deficiencies of Common Core were understood, Governor Walker stopped funding and asked the legislature to hold hearings on new state-based standards.”

Perhaps — but it is also true that the policy of Common Core has been largely the same for several years now. It’s the politics that have changed.

Walker has, since 2013, maintained his strident opposition. In January 2014, speaking at the State Education Convention in Milwaukee, he encouraged the legislature to reconsider the standards in language very similar to the statement issued last July. And his proposed budget for 2015–17 would eliminate the Smarter Balanced test, a Common Core–aligned standardized test for grades 3 through 8 to be given for the first time this spring, for a Wisconsin-created examination. Kukowski says that it is all part of Walker’s effort “to put education decisions back in the parent’s hands — not Washington, D.C.’s, or teachers unions’.”

Still, if Walker has a Common Core problem, he also has (for the moment, at least) this small advantage over his opponents: A large swath of likely Republican primary voters view him as the strongest alternative to Jeb Bush and the Republican “establishment.” He has a grassroots brand (as opposed to Christie), national viability (as opposed to Huckabee), gubernatorial experience (as opposed to Rand Paul and Marco Rubio), and electoral success in a purple state (as opposed to Rick Perry). And that may be enough for voters to give his conversion the benefit of the doubt.

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