At the start of his re-election year Florida Gov. Rick Scott got up in front of Republican stalwarts gathered in Orlando and told them he had heard their concerns about Common Core.
Months later it appears that it still remains an issue that could impact Scott's re-election chances.
The Common Core State Standards set benchmarks for reading, writing and math but they have come under fire from conservative activists who see them as a federal intrusion into education. The standards are also opposed to by those who believe states already rely too much on high-stakes testing to measure learning and teacher performance. Florida initially adopted the standards four years ago, but phased in their implementation.
Scott at that meeting in January said he understood there was a "little bit of passion" about the school standards and vowed that Florida was striking out on its own path.
"These are Florida standards, they are not some national standards,” Scott said. “This is our state. We’re not going to have the federal government telling us how to do our education system."
Scott's remarks had come a few months after he had essentially ordered the state to pull out of the national consortium developing a test based on Common Core and after he had required the Florida Department of Education to hold public hearings on the state's standards. (DOE essentially did what Scott asked even though it can argued that Scott has limited legal authority over them.)
Shortly after Scott made his speech state education officials tweaked the existing standards (and which were drawn from Common Core) and made nearly 100 changes including maintaining an emphasis on cursive writing.
Then the GOP-controlled Legislature push through a series of measures also aimed at dousing the backlash: Legislators removed references to Common Core adopted a year earlier. They passed laws that placed controls on school districts use of biometric information and gave parents greater say over textbook adoption.
This was apparently enough for Scott to proclaim that Florida is now "out" of Common Core.
But as Florida moves into a school year where the "Florida standards" are now being implemented in all grades _ and the state develops a new test based on these standards _ Scott's actions have not been enough to end the furor.
While some education officials insist that the anger and outcry has begun to dissipate, the Scott campaign quietly dispatched an emissary this summer to Republican groups to explain what Florida was doing. Kim McDougal, who had been the governor's top education analyst in the Office of Planning and Budget, took a leave of absence (and is still on leave) to develop Scott's education platform for his re-election, but one of her other jobs was to explain to GOPers what Scott has done to address Common Core. She visited with groups across the state, including the Flagler County Republican Club.
Some of those who met with McDougal weren't all that convinced with one of the attendees saying "Sadly, our meetings were spent talking past each other with absolutely no progress."
It's not all that surprising that Common Core is still an issue. After the name changes and new laws, other Republican-controlled states have retreated fully from Common Core. One of the big battlegrounds right now is in Louisiana where Gov. Bobby Jindal is entrenched in a fight to end the use of Common Core in that state. (It is worth noting here that several people in Scott's orbit right now have ties to Jindal, including campaign manager Melissa Sellers.) Conservative commentator Glenn Beck recently hosted an event railing against the standards.
Common Core has also been a flash point in other Florida elections, be it at the school board level or in other elections like in this state senate primary in Southwest Florida. "“If we don’t like Common Core, we need to vote in a new governor and legislators,” the Crestview News Bulletin quoted Okaloosa County School Board incumbent Melissa Thrush. “I think what is most frustrating for our teachers is we keep changing the rules.”
Last week former Gov. Jeb Bush _ a Republican who has not retreated from Common Core amid the backlash _ tried his best to help Scott. According to John O'Connor during a campaign stop with Scott in South Florida Bush agreed with Scott that Florida was out of Common Core. But then Bush acknowledged that the new standards aren't "substantially different" from the previous ones.
And that's the political dilemma that confronts Scott.
Chief Democratic rival Charlie Crist is very much in favor of Common Core and has faulted Scott for his shifts on the issue. He stressed his support again last week at the start of his three-day bus tour although he wasn't clear about whether or not he supports a longer phase-in for the standards as school superintendents had asked for but did not get from the Legislature.
"I support Common Core,'' Crist said. "As you know (U.S. Education) Secretary Arne Duncan and Gov. Jeb Bush both support Common Core. This represents, I think, an issue where we can put politics aside and do what's right for our kids and have appropriate testing and not overtesting."
Scott could try to exploit this and fire up his base by declaring his staunch opposition to Common Core (after supporting the standards previously.) But if Scott came out forcefully against the standards he would be alienating Bush, who still remains a popular Republican in Florida and could help Scott this fall. (Scott would also cause a host of problems for school districts and the state education bureaucracy already moving ahead with the new standards.)
Scott has the backing of the GOP establishment now, but embarassing Bush (as he still mulls a presidential run) could cost support that Scott needs in his tight re-election battle with Crist. (There is a subplot here of those Republicans who think that those running the Scott campaign are outsiders who don't care about the future of party in Florida or of other Republicans but that's for another day to dissect.)
Yet those activists dedicated to Common Core could also cause problems if they sit at home in November and refuse to work to help get Scott re-elected.
In the next few weeks Scott is expected to roll out his education platform for his next four years in office.
This will show whether Scott World bellieves they have successfully come up with a political strategy to deal with the Common Core backlash or whether Scott has decided that he must move in a new direction in order to win back voters who may prove critical for re-election.