The Populist Uprising Against Common Core Is Libertarian and It's Winning

It recognizes that there is no one answer to fixing education in America.


Rebekah Lampman / Wikimedia Commons

When Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.)  announced last week that he would pull his state out of Common Core, he may have been sounding the death knell of the national education standards. Though a confluence of pushy and powerful interest groups have promised that they invented the solution to the American education crisis, people just aren't buying that more top-down standardization of America's education system is the answer.

The populist uprising against the national education standards is a dramatic and recent phenomenon, given that almost no one had even heard of Common Core until just two years ago. The standards were developed in 2009 by education policy bureaucrats at the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. President Obama's Department of Education took an immediate interest, and the federal government encouraged state governors and legislatures to sign on to the standards by bribing them with Race to the Top grant money. This led 45 state governments to commit to Common Core implementation, even though hardly anyone knew what that would cost (lots of money) or require (retraining teachers, purchasing new technology).

Since then, the American people have had ample time to learn about Common Core—and the more they hear, the less they like it.

Fierce opposition to the standards is remarkably nonpartisan. Both conservative grassroots organizations and teachers unions are urging state legislatures to resist Core implementation. Thousands of parents and teachers have shown up to town hall meetings to demand that their school boards don't hand over curriculum sovereignty to regional or federal education authorities.

The outrage among Tea Party groups is particularly problematic for Republican leaders and prospective candidates who signed on to the standards, including Jindal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a major Core cheerleader. It is very likely that being pro-Common Core will be a toxic position in any conservative presidential primary. Jindal's denunciation of the standards last week is as good an indication as any that he wants to keep the base on his side.

Still, the Core is not without its supporters. A confluence of powerful interest groups—the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, textbook giant Pearson, and standardized testing partnerships PARCC and Smarter Balanced—remain dedicated to the standards.

As a nominally conservative think tank, the Fordham Institute has led the way in arguing that concerns about Common Core being a federal takeover of education are unfounded. According to Fordham's Michael Brickman, "There are absolutely legitimate examples of federal overreach from the Obama administration. But I don't think Common Core is one of them because… it was something that was led by the governors and the state education chiefs."

People are unconvinced. While polling on Common Core varies wildly depending on how the questions are phrased, a recent poll release by pro-Core group Achieve, Inc. found that people who reported knowing something about the standards gave them an unfavorable review. Achieve, Inc. blamed Core "opponents who in the past year have made their opposition known through all media outlets, leaving a more negative 'impression' among voters."

The opponents are winning, and if Jindal's flip flop is any indication, the momentum seems to be shifting against Common Core. Libertarians should see this as a triumph.

Indeed, the populist uprising against Common Core is undeniably libertarian. It recognizes that there is no one answer to fixing education in America. It understands that a new wave of fancy government-enforced solutions is likely to fall short of solving anything. Instead, government needs to get out of the way, stop trapping kids in failing public schools based on where they were born, and stop using them as conscripted labor for standardized testing companies. Efforts that empower parents to fix their own local schools will always be more successful than cumbersome national initiatives.

After decades of politicians trying to solve the education problem by spending more money and proposing more standardization, people of all political stripes are simply unconvinced that there is one magic "fix" and that it will be invented in a federal laboratory. Instead, people are wising up to the demonstrable fact that more choice and local autonomy produce the conditions most favorable for students to discover and flourish in school environments that suit their individual needs.