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Criticizing Common Core is a reliable applause line for Republican candidates

"So Common Core's a total disaster, we can't let it continue," Donald Trump said in a video this week

But ending the program, which isn't run by the federal government, won't be easy

Washington CNN —  

Bashing Common Core education standards sits at the top of the pantheon of red meat lines, right along with defeating Hillary Clinton, criticizing President Barack Obama’s executive orders, defending the Second Amendment, or stopping illegal immigration.

It’s such a crowd-pleaser that when Donald Trump, the chief agitator of 2016, got very different reactions when he hit Jeb Bush for his support of Common Core and his stance on immigration at a rally in Concord, New Hampshire.

“He’s in favor of Common Core, I’m totally against Common Core, by the way. You gotta be against,” Trump said, adding the comment almost as an afterthought while talking about Bush. The crowd cut in with big applause.

Trump then added, “a guy like him, he’s weak on immigration,” but only got a few boos.

Common Core-bashing is a staple for almost every Republican candidate. The issue is synonymous among conservatives with Obama and the expansion of government, and while it’s not a federal policy, it’s lumped in with long-held conservative priorities on education.

“If I am elected president I will direct the U.S. Department of Education that Common Core ends today and I will fight to abolish the federal Department of Education,” Ted Cruz told a crowd in Osceola, Iowa, Monday.

What can a President do about Common Core?

For all the applause lines, the problem any President has is that ending Common Core isn’t really just up to the man or woman in the Oval Office. The educational curriculum and testing requirements are state programs intertwined with federal mandates for billions of education dollars.

Common Core came out of discussions between a small group of leaders for the National Governors Association and the national organization representing state school superintendents. They successfully lobbied Bill Gates to pour $200 million into the effort and education groups who often stood at odds on everything from school vouchers to teacher pay, came on board.

The standards were put into place in most states largely through state school boards, but Obama’s Department of Education, led by Common Core champion Arne Duncan, soon reworked federal rules so that adherence to Common Core was a de facto requirement for states to maintain control over federal education dollars.

The 2012 elections offered the first hint of a revolt on the issue, as tea partiers and conservatives began lashing out against it and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney offered a tepid rebuttal of the idea.

By 2013, governors in red states, including some who were eying potential White House bids, began searching for ways to end their state’s involvement in Common Core. The catch was that most of the state’s risked losing control over hundreds of millions of federal “Title I” education dollars.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence – at one time considered a possible dark horse contender for the GOP nomination – discovered how tough that balancing act was in 2014, when he trumpeted that he ended Indiana’s participation in Common Core and would be replacing it with state-fashioned standards. He had done what so many Republican candidates promise on the campaign trail, or at least he said so. But a requirement that the state adhere to federal rules to keep control of federal dollars led to a program that critics said looked like Common Core “warmed-over.”

Why conservatives hate Common Core

There are plenty of issues which fire up conservatives, like immigration and guns, but Common Core occupies a special place because it weaves together so many flashpoints for conservatives, said Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice based in Indianapolis.

“It has become a massive intrusion of the federal government into state … and on the conservative side Common Core became aligned with ‘You’re going to tell my kid what to think,’” said Enlow, whose group opposes Common Core, but often sides with education reformers on other issues.

It literally hits close to home for conservatives who are worried about what their kids are being taught, he said. “You mix that with the current administration love for it and you got a recipe for conservatives who would get really mad about.

And the conservative education reformers who support the Common Core standards have been waging a losing war since then to keep politicians, many who once supported them, on their side.

Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor who now runs the education reform website “The Seventy Four,” hosted six of the Republican candidates in August for an education forum in New Hampshire, and she pressed three sitting governors on why they flipped their support for Common Core.

Brown asked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker why they supported Common Core early on, but later did an about-face on the issue. The three offered variations of the argument that the more they learned about it, the more it looked like the federal government imposing control on state education decisions.

Christie said that he switched because he was responding to his constituents.

“There comes a moment when a leader has to listen,” he said.

And even though former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – one of the original champions of Common Core who has also been hugely influential crafting education policy in Republican-led states – has stood firm by the policy, he has also softened his tone on it sharply.

Bush has coined the Common Core term itself “poisonous,” an acknowledgement of how damaging it has become politically, but has stood fast by the policy. He pointed out, as many Common Core supporters have before, that the standards themselves are not actually created by the federal government.

“I’m for higher standards – state-created, locally implemented – where the federal government has no role in the creation of standards, content or curriculum,” Bush said in August.

All of which helps explain why Trump has been including Common Core knocks in his standard fare at rallies.

He solidified its importance in his arsenal with a direct-to-camera video that he posted to Facebook Tuesday – it had been viewed almost 1.8 million times by Wednesday afternoon.

“I’m a tremendous believer in education, but education has to be at a local level. We cannot have the bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to manage your child’s education,” Trump said. “So Common Core’s a total disaster, we can’t let it continue.”