How the GOP Candidates Are Flailing on Common Core

The Republican hopefuls are all over the place on the controversial education standards.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

When a team convened by the National Governors Association began developing the Common Core curriculum standards in 2009, politicians of both parties rallied behind them, with every governor but Rick Perry and Sarah Palin committing to crafting them. Since then, the initiative—aimed at remedying disparities among state educational standards and testing after George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program failed to achieve its goals—has gotten caught in the political crossfire. Both Democrats and Republicans criticized Common Core for being hastily rolled out, unfair to teachers and students, and a handout to the testing and curriculum companies, but the Republican reaction has been particularly intense. Some Republican critiques have taken the usual form, equating the standards with a big-government takeover of America’s education system. Others have been more creative: Florida state Rep. Charles Van Zant claimed the standards would turn kids gay.

The rapid shift in opinion on Common Core has put the Republican presidential candidates in a tricky position, and they’ve responded in a variety of ways. Some GOP hopefuls’ support for the standards has not wavered: Call them the True Believers. Others are Contortionists whose flexible opinions about the standards bend and twist like any fine circus performer. The Die-Hards have never supported Common Core. The Debutantes only recently entered—or, in former New York Gov. George Pataki’s case, re-entered—public life as politicians, and may or may not have a track record of clear positions on the standards. The Conflicted rail against Common Core because it smacks of big government but were ardent supporters of the not-exactly-laissez-faire No Child Left Behind. Finally, one candidate is simply Out to Lunch, unaware until recently that there was even such a thing as Common Core. Below is the full taxonomy.

Two GOP HOPEFULS remain staunch supporters of Common Core.

  • Jeb Bush is the ultimate True Believer. His nonprofit, Foundation for Excellence in Education, which crisscrosses the country touting the benefits of the Common Core, has bagged more than $4 million in Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grants. Bush says critics who float “conspiracy theories” about the standards are “comfortable with mediocrity.” In May, while speaking at a Tennessee GOP dinner, Bush wondered, “Am I supposed to back away from something that I know works?” Recently, the former governor has been more tolerant of those who want to explore non-Common Core options. When Tennessee and New Jersey (home to newly announced opponent Chris Christie) revealed plans to consider new standards, Bush didn’t try to sway them otherwise (as he has in the past), but rather urged them to maintain high benchmarks for their students.
  • Another True Believer is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, expected to announce his candidacy in late July. Kasich has been known to call out his fellow Republicans who have suddenly backed away from the standards. “I’ve asked the Republican governors who have complained about this to tell me where I’m wrong, and guess what? Silence,” he said in an interview with Fox News in January. Ohio adopted the standards in June 2010, and Kasich was sworn in as governor of the state a little less than six months later. Even when Republican legislators in the state drafted Common Core repeal bills, Kasich maintained that he believes the standards are not only good for Ohio classrooms but that each state has much more control over them than his GOP opponents are letting on.

these Four candidates were once Common Core supporters, but they are now twisting themselves into pretzels to demonstrate their consistent opposition.

  • In 2012, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said the standards would “raise expectations for every child.” Today he is determined not only to get rid of the standards in his home state but to nix them nationally as well. Last August, Jindal filed a federal lawsuit against the US Department of Education and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for “impermissibly” using grant initiatives like Race to the Top to “manipulate” states into adopting the standards. Attacking the standards he once supported with the fervor of a religious convert, Jindal signed three Common Core-related bills last Monday, which among other things calls for reviewing the standards and scrapping the Common Core-aligned Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam, created by the controversial testing and curriculum behemoth Pearson. The next step, according to Jindal? “Elect leaders in Louisiana who are committed to getting rid of the Common Core.”
  • When former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee launched his official presidential campaign website this spring, he posted a page on education that didn’t mince words: “I also oppose Common Core and believe we should abolish the federal department of education. We must kill Common Core and restore common sense.” In late 2013, however, while speaking with the Council of Chief State School Officers, Huckabee gave the group some advice on how to deal with growing opposition to the standards: “Rebrand it, refocus it, but don’t retreat.” When Oklahoma considered dropping the standards (it eventually did opt out), Huckabee even wrote to legislators, urging them to reconsider. “It’s disturbing to me there have been criticisms of these standards directed by other conservatives,” he wrote. “They’re not something to be afraid of; indeed they are something to embrace.”
  • Only two years ago, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie praised the standards, signing up New Jersey to use them as part of the state’s application for a federal Race to the Top grant. “We’re doing Common Core in New Jersey and we’re going to continue. And this is one of those areas where I’ve agreed more with the president than not,” Christie said at a school summit in Las Vegas in 2013. A year later, he began distancing himself from the standards, saying he had “some real concerns about Common Core and how it’s being rolled out.” This May, he announced plans for New Jersey to develop new, non-Common Core standards. In June, when the Washington Post pressed Christie for details on why he felt Common Core was not working, he declined to comment.
  • In January 2014, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called for the standards to be replaced by ones “set by the people of Wisconsin,” and he created a commission to reassess the benchmarks. However, Walker spent his early years as governor working to ensure that all aspects of the state’s education plan were aligned with Common Core. In 2012, a state task force led by Walker and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers released a statement toasting Common Core as “a set of rigorous new standards that are benchmarked against the standards of high performing countries.”

Four candidates have been against Common Core from the get-go.

  • In 2011, Sen. Marco Rubio pushed back against Duncan’s plea that Florida adopt a tougher core curriculum, such as Common Core, in order to get a No Child Left Behind waiver. “The executive branch does not possess the authority to force states into compliance with administration reforms,” Rubio said at the time. While Florida has since adopted Common Core, Rubio has remained adamant in his disapproval of the standards, saying in April that they will lead to “a national school board.”
  • In March, Sen. Ted Cruz announced, “We need to repeal every word of Common Core.” The standards are voluntary and not a federal mandate, but Cruz could technically get rid of No Child Left Behind, the mandate that the Obama administration loosely tied to Common Core through waivers.
  • Rick Perry is one of just two governors who refused to participate in the process of drafting the Common Core standards. “I will not commit Texas taxpayers to unfunded federal obligations or to the adoption of unproven, cost-prohibitive national standards and tests,” Perry wrote to Duncan in a January 2010 letter formally rejecting the benchmarks.
  • Sen. Rand Paul has always been opposed to Common Core. According to Bloomberg, in January he sent his supporters an email with the subject line “Rotten to the Core.” In the email, he wrote that the standards contain “anti-American propaganda, revisionist history that ignores the faith of our Founders and data-tracking of students from kindergarten on.”

These THREE candidates have no recent national platform from which to discuss their position on education standards. But they still have opinions.

  • Ben Carson has come out of the gate against Common Core. In April, the neurosurgeon and motivational speaker wrote an op-ed for the Washington Times in which he said high academic standards are important, but that having the government responsible for both creating and enforcing them “is naive.”
  • George Pataki served as New York’s governor from 1995 to 2006, so he was out of the political spotlight during much of the Common Core hullabaloo. And even though he was in office during the introduction of No Child Left Behind, he did not speak publicly about the legislation; his education pet project was the expansion of charter schools. When announcing his run for the Republican nomination in May, Pataki vowed to repeal “oppressive laws like Obamacare and Common Core.” In a January interview with NH1, Pataki said, “Education has always been the prerogative of the states and should continue to be that.”
  • In January, Donald Trump used the Iowa Freedom Summit as an opportunity to dis both Common Core and Jeb Bush. “He’s totally in favor of Common Core,” Trump said. “That’s a disaster. It’s bad. It should be local and all of that.”

These TWO candidates may have been consistently against Common Core, but they have been inconsistent in their opinions on federal oversight of education.

  • “Put parents back in charge, not the government,” Rick Santorum said last February at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Back in 2012, I wasn’t for Common Core. And today, I’m still not for Common Core.” While he may have never been for the Common Core, in 2001 he voted for No Child Left Behind, the apex of federal accountability in schools.
  • In May, Carly Fiorina said during an appearance on CNBC, “I think Common Core is a really bad idea.” She added, “Giving more money to the Department of Education doesn’t improve learning in the classroom.” In 2010, when running for the US Senate in California, Fiorina often spoke about her support for the federal Race to the Top program, which encouraged states to adopt Common Core. In an education policy brief on Fiorina’s Senate campaign page, she not only praised Race to the Top for “put[ting] into place some critically important accountability measures,” but she commended No Child Left Behind for helping the “US set a high bar for our students.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham is anti-Common Core today. In February 2014, he even introduced a Senate resolution that “denounced the Obama Administration” for using federal funds to “coerce” states into adopting Common Core. But in September 2013—three years after his home state adopted Common Core—Graham had no clue about it. In this video, Graham, who at the time had been a South Carolina senator for 11 years, was asked what he thought about Common Core. His answer: “What’s Common Core?”


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.