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When they say it isn't about politics, as Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin said about Gov. Asa Hutchinson's timid stance on Common Core, you can be sure it's about politics. And politics is never more savage than when it deals with the schools, unless it is when it deals with health care.
Hutchinson is trying to navigate both political thickets, now labeled by their foes as "Obamacare" and "Obamacore," by appointing surrogate groups to fade some of the heat for him. In the case of the schools, it isn't working out so well — or maybe it is and the governor is just a lot cannier than we are.
Last week, Hutchinson took the advice of Griffin, the chairman of his working group on Common Core, and announced that the state would end its agreement with Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and its standardized tests, which are aligned with Common Core standards, and instead contract with ACT and ACT Aspire to do the Arkansas school tests for the next school year. That signaled to the dominant right wing of his party that Arkansas was going to abandon Common Core without actually doing it, at least not yet, which is the same strategy he pursues on health care reform. He has another working group, headed by a relative, to tell him whether to keep the Medicaid portion of the immensely unpopular Obamacare, which now insures more than 250,000 poor working Arkansas men and women.
But the state Board of Education, the citizen laymen appointed by governors to actually make these decisions, promptly said, 6 to 1, that we aren't abandoning the PARCC tests this year for the simple reason that, aside from politics, switching to ACT makes no sense. While seeking to measure Arkansas students against the rest of the nation, which Hutchinson himself said was one of the goals, switching to ACT would measure them against, well, maybe Alabama and Wisconsin. Even the editorial page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which reliably cheers the governor's every genuflection to the extreme right, had to point out the absurdity. Et tu, Brute?
The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the Common Core State Standards Initiative (Obamacore) share a common political trajectory. When President Obama asked Congress in 2009 to write a universal health insurance law based on the conservative Republican plan of the early 1990s, it looked like a shrewd way to reach the bipartisan supermajority needed to pass Congress. But once it was embraced by a black Democratic president, the Heritage Foundation-Republican plan was abandoned by every last Republican and, joined by the national chamber of commerce, right-wing groups and much of the insurance industry (they feared, wrongly, that it would include government insurance that would compete with private companies) they launched a multimillion-dollar attack on the still unwritten law. Persuaded by a blizzard of ads saying that government panels would order the deaths of sick oldsters and dictate what kind of medical care people got, and that the Obama plan would slash their Medicare benefits, terminate people's choice of doctors and hospitals, drive up health costs and budget deficits and throw millions of people out of jobs, people turned against the emerging law, especially in the South.
Hutchinson pretty clearly would like to continue the benefits of Obamacare, including the big one — Medicaid coverage for low-income adults — because it has been a fiscal bonanza for the state. But a big part of the legislature was elected on promises of scuttling "Obamacare." What's he to do? First, have a committee study it and hire some business consultants to tell him what's wrong with it.
Common Core began with greater fanfare. By the end of its first decade, everyone deemed the great George W. Bush school reform of 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act, to be a massive failure. Liberals and most education professionals never liked the high-stakes testing, which made a standardized test almost the sole end of classroom teaching. And since each state was left to set its own standards and devise its own tests, national comparisons were meaningless.
So a bunch of governors, mostly Republicans, and state school officers came up with the idea of true national standards and tests that would measure thinking skills and not just what kids memorized. They won over the world's richest business genius, Bill Gates, who invested megamillions in development of the standards, which he thought would raise the American workforce to the level of those Scandinavian countries that far exceeded the United States.
Republican governors everywhere became champions. Two presidential aspirants, the former governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Jeb Bush of Florida, claimed to be Common Core's fathers. When the tide began to reverse in 2012, Tea Partiers identified Huckabee and Bush as among the elitists who wanted to deliver America's kids to the socialists, Muslims, gay activists and America haters through Common Core.
Huckabee, like most of the GOP aspirants, scuttled away from Common Core and now blames it on Obama. Bush, who has heavily invested in Common Core, is stuck with it at the moment, but he has no more mettle than Huckabee. He'll cave, too, in degrees to win primaries.
The war against Common Core began, like Obamacare, with far-fetched lies from the paranoid right. It was part of the agenda to turn kids into homosexuals, it was part of the United Nations Agenda 21 plot, Islamists were behind it, and it would soften children up for socialism, science, evolution and central government indoctrination. Never mind that liberals, education unions and even the far left were also against Common Core, as they were No Child Left Behind.
Finally, when President Obama's education chief embraced Common Core and offered federal funds to states like Arkansas that implemented innovative school programs, they had the ultimate bugbear. It became the evil Obama's master plan. The appellation Obamacore was born.
What could the new governor of Arkansas do but turn to the master political tactician, Tim Griffin, who had for 20 years plotted political tactics for the Republican Party and the Bush White House, to guide him out of the thicket? But he's still there.