Spearheaded and signed by a Republican governor, No Child Left Behind passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming support. The creation of the Common Core academic standards was backed by a bipartisan coalition of 48 governors and supported by conservative education leaders like Jeb Bush and William Bennett.
Much has changed since then. Republican supporters of the Common Core have all but evaporated in response to political pressure; presidential nominee Donald Trump has strongly denounced the standards; Republicans in Congress sided with teachers unions to weaken test-based accountability in the new national education law and ensure the feds can’t require teacher evaluations; and the Republican platform criticizes “excessive testing and ‘teaching to the test.’”
Has the long Republican love affair with testing and accountability in education come to an end? Well, it depends on whether you’re looking at national or state policy.
On a federal level, it’s clear that Republicans have deeply soured on any federally driven approach, for several reasons.
The Common Core was seen (mostly incorrectly) as an Obama initiative and new tests of the standards were funded by the administration. Implementation of the standards across the country was met by a surge of resistance to “federal overreach.” Testing grew substantially, driven by new teacher evaluation methods, pushed by the feds, requiring student data. A slew of conspiracy theories and misconceptions about the standards flourished in right-of-center forums and media.
All these factors conspired to make the GOP more hostile to standards-based reform, particularly when it comes from the federal government.
Education policy by and large gets made on the state level, however, and it’s probably too soon to judge how much local Republicans have cooled on these reforms — though support has clearly (if not uniformly) waned.
Take Colorado, a cradle of reform and a good example of how partisan lines have become more confusing than ever. When students increasingly opted out of state tests, the teachers union and conservatives in the legislature worked together to reduce testing. Previously solid Republican support for standards and testing had begun to break apart.
By contrast, an effort to remove test scores from Colorado’s controversial teacher evaluation system — which passed in 2010 with significant support from the GOP — was blocked by Republicans on the state senate education committee.
In California, where state Democrats have steadfastly opposed test-based accountability for schools and teachers under Governor Jerry Brown, the Republican minority has called for reforms to teacher evaluation and tenure. Still, the state party opposes Common Core.
In Florida — a stalwart for conservative standards-based reform under Jeb Bush — Republican Governor Rick Scott signed an aggressive evaluation law in 2011 that incorporated student test scores. Last year lawmakers approved a bipartisan bill, signed by Scott, to let districts reduce (but not eliminate) how test scores factor into teacher evaluation and to shrink students’ total testing load. Jeb Bush’s education reform group supported the recent law. The structure of Scott’s evaluation system appears to remain largely intact, however.
These states aren’t necessarily representative of the whole country — and that’s part of the point. Although it’s clear that in many respects both state and national Republicans have backed away from testing and accountability, it’s hard to generalize. Many state-level Republicans are hostile to the Common Core and sympathetic to concerns about over-testing, but in some places there is continued support for teacher evaluation connected to test scores.
Education in the U.S. remain based largely on local and state politics; the evolving Republican position on testing, standards, and accountability will be as well.