Capital Goods: June 2014

Testing core values
Some Republican lawmakers and their business allies have split ranks over Common Core, the national education standards adopted in 2011.

By Scott Mooneyham

Since taking control of the General Assembly 3½ years ago, Republicans have made no bones about business being a key ally in retooling state government. “We need a united business community,” Phil Berger told a group of top executives, “as we take steps to reduce spending, lower taxes and reform North Carolina’s regulatory environment.” That was in January 2011, before he was sworn in as the Senate leader. The Eden lawyer’s vision of captains of commerce locking arms with GOP lawmakers to undo decades of Democratic policy prescriptions hasn’t become a reality. Most influential business groups cheered as the legislature addressed the issues he mentioned that day, but mostly they bit their collective lip when the honorables strayed into the politically prickly thickets of social conservatism.

Now that alliance is being tested by what many would consider an unlikely issue: Common Core. A set of national education standards to improve performance in math and English, it’s being condemned by critics as another federal overreach, this time into public education. That ignores the fact that, just four years ago, the National Governors Association, with the overwhelming backing of Republican governors, endorsed Common Core as a way to improve economic competitiveness. Forty-four states, including North Carolina, adopted the standards, which are not a curriculum but set benchmarks through all grades to gauge learning. The benchmarks, in turn, influence curricula.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has said he supports them. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, also a Republican, does not. The state’s loudest Common Core critic, he argues that it was adopted in haste and does not recognize unique needs of different groups of children.

In late April, a legislative study committee recommended scrapping Common Core and letting the state Board of Education, consulting with an appointed commission, adopt its own standards. “This bill puts education back where the Constitution says it belongs — in the hands of North Carolina,” says Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican.

Some business leaders were not happy about that. The North Carolina Chamber raised a ruckus. President Lew Ebert fired off a letter in which he predicted employers will do more hiring outside the state if Common Core is scuttled. To ratchet up pressure, chamber members were asked to voice their displeasure to legislators. “It is not acceptable to go backwards,” says Gary Salamido, the group’s vice president of government affairs. Abandoning standards adopted in 2011 does not answer 
the questions critics have raised about them.

The response is not surprising. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs of major U.S. companies, has backed Common Core since its inception. For years, business leaders, including Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, have pushed for clearer, tougher and more-standardized learning benchmarks. That support also helps explain the opposition against Common Core. Since the 2008 financial collapse, people of all political stripes have grown suspicious of institutional authority. When a large part of your retirement savings disappears, you tend to question the motives and competency of institutions that were supposed to prevent that kind of thing. That there has not been a robust recovery only adds to the angst. Confidence in big business has taken as big a hit as any, and President Barack Obama’s embrace of Common Core enrages right-wing activists, who have been the most energetic in efforts to eject it. Some have begun calling the standards “Obamacore.”

Opposition has not fallen strictly along partisan lines. Some liberals question the standards, with much of their criticism directed at the involvement — or lack thereof — of educators in developing them and question whether the early-grade benchmarks are appropriate. But it has been conservatives, nationally and in North Carolina, leading the assault. With their business backers being among the most ardent champions of Common Core, the fight has come to mirror the larger establishment-versus-tea party rift that many call a struggle for the Republican Party’s soul.

In that context — and during an election year — it will be interesting to see how many GOP lawmakers stick with the standards or side with 
a different kind of core: their activist constituency and a conservative tide that wants to wash away the Common Core. If the bill passes, it won’t end the alliance between the Republican legislature and some of the state’s most powerful business interests, but it would likely put a dent in the relationship that will need time to repair.

Scott Mooneyham has taken a job with the North Carolina League of Municipalities. This is his final column for BNC.