At the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, the supposed evils of the Common Core educational standards were front and center. So, too, was an unmistakable case of pandering.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared, "We need to remove Common Core from every classroom in America." New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie blamed his predecessor for forcing his state to adopt the standards and said that he is now deeply concerned about "the heavy foot of the federal government coming in."
Both now preach this opposition message with the zealous conviction of converts — because they are converts, having carried until recently a very different message. And their explanations for their flip-flops border on the absurd.
In April 2013, I interviewed Jindal at an education conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Back then, Jindal was a passionate proponent of Common Core, whose development was driven by the nation's governors and which had been adopted by most every state, including Louisiana. Jindal made a strong case that day for how vital the standards were to improving education in his state.
His big reversal came when he began openly exploring a presidential run. Now he calls the standards a top-down, meddlesome approach that is terrible for public education. His beef, like that of many Republicans opposed to Common Core, is that the Obama administration ruined a good idea when it tied federal dollars to the voluntary standards. Jindal has gone so far as to sue the federal government for offering financial incentives to states that sign up.
A basic lesson in recent history shows why Jindal's conversion appears so disingenuous. The Obama administration announced in the summer of 2009 that federal dollars would be available to states that embraced Common Core, yet Jindal remained a champion until late 2013. Did it really take him more than four years to discover that the federal government was involved? Maybe that alone should disqualify him from being a serious presidential candidate.
Christie's inartful attempts to disguise his flip-flop have been no better. In 2013, he was also a big Common Core proponent, saying, "This is one of those areas where I've agreed more with the president than not." Last year he blasted other Republicans for opposing the standards, saying they "care more about their primaries than they care about anything else." Yet, lo and behold, Christie has developed "grave concerns," as he told Iowa voters last month, because the federal government is tying federal funds to the initiative. He has even asked a commission to reexamine New Jersey's implementation "in light of these new developments from the Obama administration" — developments that were announced five years earlier.
All this, of course, is not about education. Or facts.
Jindal and Christie are running from Common Core with an eye on the presidential primary, where attacking any intrusion into local affairs is an applause line for conservatives. And they are not the only Republicans backtracking all over themselves.
How about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker? He was an early supporter of implementing Common Core in his state but, during a tough reelection campaign in 2014, he abruptly called for its repeal. Now his position is mush; he says he supports high standards but wants school districts to know they can opt out if they want.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has also flip-flopped. In 2013, he was still willing to admit that high standards across the states were a good thing but suggested a name change to solve the standards' branding problem. Now he, too, is withdrawing his support and blaming the feds.
Indeed, some states such as Arizona have dealt with the backlash against Common Core by keeping the standards but changing the name. We are reduced to sleight of hand. Meanwhile, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has become a target for standing by Common Core as a voluntary minimum level of rigor for all states. His message to governors: Go ahead and set your own standards if you want; just make them at least as rigorous.
Let's be clear about what Common Core is. It spells out what students should know at the end of each grade. The goal is to ensure that our students are sound in math and literacy and that our schools have some basic consistency nationwide. But the standards do not dictate a national curriculum, and teachers are not told how or what to teach.
The unpopularity of the initiative with segments of the public has been caused by rough implementation in some states and the tests linked to the standards. That frustration is legitimate and can be addressed. But abandonment of the initiative for political reasons is craven.
Those running from Common Core may find that the political risks have been overstated. A recent NBC/Marist poll of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina Republicans found that the number of people willing to back a pro-Common Core candidate was greater than the number who said support for Common Core was a deal- breaker.
Education never quite gets the attention it deserves in presidential campaigns, but monster flip-flops surely do. So here's some advice for people running for office: If you want to campaign against core standards, perhaps you should try having core standards of your own first.