The Tea Party movement, largely lacking a cohesive goal since its 2010 fight against Obamacare, is putting the momentum it gathered from the IRS scandal to a new cause: stopping what they have dubbed "Obamacore." The Tea Party has recently launched a very winnable initiative to stop the implementation of a bipartisan plan backed by the White House to overhaul the nation's public schools called the "Common Core State Standards Initiative."
In the past few weeks alone the Tea Party has successfully pressured Republican governors in nine states to reconsider, or altogether drop, their support for the Common Core program, which aims to "provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teacher and parents know what they need to do to help them."
The rigorous Common Core learning standards, written in large part by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, set ambitious and consistent math and reading standards for years K-12. Although this challenging, writing-intensive approach would set a nationwide academic standard to end the patchwork of widely varying state-by-state standards, it would still give states and teachers the flexibility to chose what to teach and how to prepare children for the Common Core standardized tests.
Before the Tea Party began its opposition movement the standards had already been accepted by 45 states and were set to be in place by 2014. The Tea Party has successfully gotten lawmakers in nine states to introduce legislation to temporarily block the standards, citing that Common Core amounts to a federal takeover of education. A Republican National Committee resolution approved last month called the Common Core reforms an "inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children so they will conform to a preconceived 'normal.'"
The Common Core program, that began before Obama was elected and has received pledged of financial support from such education philanthropists and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has been subject to significant political spin. In an attempt to gain broad support, the Obama administration has presented Common Core as a decentralized reform with non-federal funding that creates a framework in which states have control.
The opposition is putting a different spin on it, calling it a creation of private interests, underwritten by private interests, and propelled by the Obama administration using federal grant money. Further, while supporters are citing the education board as the right body to approve the reform, opponents are suggesting that by bypassing the state legislatures the White House is trying to implement the change with minimal public scrutiny.
The American Principles Project, a Washington-based conservative group, has been leading the Tea Party's opposition efforts. They are sending out information and talking points, as well as deploying speakers to venues and shows like the Glenn Beck radio program, all in an effort to frame Common Core as big brother intrusion, and to make this issue the new purity test for the GOP. Glenn Beck called the program part of "the biggest story in American history." "If you don't stop it," he warned, "American history is over as you know it."
One Republican governor who is standing up to the Tea Party pressure is Florida's Jeb Bush, a respected GOP voice on education and a strong supporter of the initiative he calls a "clear and straightforward" strategy that would "allow for more innovation in the classroom, less regulation … If I felt this was a federal plan or a plot to take away responsibility for how children learn from states and local communities, I would be opposed to it."
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan answered opponents with frustration: "It's not a black helicopter ploy and we're not trying to get inside people's minds and brains." In a 2010 press release, Duncan laid out the need for this once-in-a-generation plan to overhaul our outdated education system and bring it to the highest international standards: "The hard truth is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades. Americans need to wake up to this educational reality, instead of napping at the wheel while emerging competitors prepare their students for economic leadership."
Despite the Tea Party's cries that this program will take away state sovereignty over education, by requiring states to use "college- and career-ready" academic standards to compete for federal grants, the White House has offered states alternatives to the Common Core. Virginia and Minnesota, for example, have adopted alternative standards that were approved.
Many federal and state-level education reforms have failed in the past two decades; however, this latest initiative is a rare opportunity to adopt a bipartisan initiative setting a national framework of core standards within which states can make decisions as to how to best educate their students. By balancing federal oversight of standards with state sovereignty of the curriculum, the Common Core could very well succeed in bringing the United States out of its education crisis. However, with the Tea Party setting its sights on the Common Core program, it is difficult to predict the outcome of this policy reform initiative.