santorum common core_00000615.jpg
Rick Santorum opposes Common Core
00:30 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Republicans gathered in New Hampshire to discuss education policy

Jeb Bush has long been a supporter of Common Core educational standards

Other supporters in the party have changed their minds about the standards and testing

Londonderry, New Hampshire CNN  — 

Republicans trekked to New Hampshire in search of the mantle as top conservative education reformer Wednesday and were promptly met there by Common Core – the flash point that has become shorthand for too much testing and has split the party and riled conservatives.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a leading proponent of the education plan now often derided as “Obamacore,” tempered his language on the issue before the crowd at Londonderry High School in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

“If people don’t like Common Core, fine. Just make sure your standards are … much higher than the ones you had before. We can’t keep dumbing down standards,” said Bush, who’s previously been a fierce advocate for Common Core but has toned down his support since running for president. Instead, he has pushed for a broader definition of higher standards.

RELATED: Bush campaign raves over how he handled Common Core at debate

Pressed by moderator Campbell Brown, however, on how states can measure higher standards if they’re not common, Bush argued that alternatives would be apparent.

“It’s not like pornography where you know it when you see it, but clearly low standards – you know it. That’s what most states have had,” he said, later adding that the “commonality” of standards is “not as relevant as the highness of them.”

Bush has previously described the term “Common Core” as “poisonous,” but has stood firm behind the policy.

The Seventy-Four, an education news site that advocates for education reform and was founded by former CNN anchor Brown, and The American Federation for Children, started by Republican donor Betsy DeVos, set up shop at the high school gym for the day.

Bush was followed by former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who said that Common Core had outgrown its original purpose. She also took on the teachers unions, who she said kept bad teachers in schools.

“What do unions reward? Seniority,” she said. “A seniority system over time discourages excellence, a seniority (system) over time, as opposed to a meritocracy, rewards you for just sitting in a chair.”

RELATED: John Kasich says if he were ‘King of America’ he’d ban teachers’ lounges

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who’s been supportive of Common Core, defended his decision to keep the standards in place. “I’m not going to change my position because there are four people in the front row yelling at me. I just don’t operate that way,” he said. “On the other hand, I know the public has been very concerned about this.”

Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of New Orleans are three governors who implemented Common Core in their states but later moved to dismantle the standards.

For his part, Christie readily admitted Wednesday that he “backed away” from it, saying he tried it for four years but heard a chorus of complaints from teachers, parents and students.

“I’m still critical of the people who reflexively ran away from it. But I did what I think you’re supposed to do when you lead,” he said, emphasizing that he listened to his constituents. “You give it a try. If it does not work, then you can’t be worried about somebody asking you a gotcha question asking, ‘well, are you a flip-flopper for political reasons?’ Well, no! I actually have a thinking, operating brain. And when something doesn’t work that we try, we then have to change it.”

Walker said he wants high standards, but prefers that they be set “by people at the local level.”

Jindal, meanwhile, has been one of the most vocal opponents of Common Core in recent years and filed a lawsuit against the administration. “If you want to send your child to a place, a school that teaches Common Core, I’m not saying you shouldn’t have the right to do it,” he said on stage. “I’m saying the federal government shouldn’t force it in our classrooms.”

RELATED: Christie bails on Common Core

Correction: This post originally referred to The Seventy-Four as a conservative group. The group considers itself to be non-partisan.