September 10, 2013

Common Core rift confronts Gov. LePage

Two key Republican constituencies – the tea party and business – are on opposite sides.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

The Common Core education standards are reviled by tea party activists but glorified by business interests. That's become a thorny problem for Gov. Paul LePage, who needs the support of both groups for his re-election bid in 2014.

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The federal government's Common Core education standards are reviled by tea party activists but glorified by business interests. That's become a thorny problem for Gov. Paul LePage.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

LePage's effort to distance himself from Common Core was evident last week, when he disavowed support for the standards and, in a separate move, issued an executive order saying the state would not divulge personal student information to the federal government.

The governor's statements seemed aimed at his supporters on the right, who were crucial in lifting him to the Blaine House in 2010. But those statements won't endear him to business interests, which have emerged as strong backers of Common Core.

The grade-by-grade educational expectations for skills such as mathematics or science are being promoted by corporate entities, including ExxonMobil and the Republican-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They are also supported by the White House.

Yet education autonomy and student privacy are at the heart of a growing national rebellion against Common Core, an education initiative developed by states in collaboration with each other. The strongest backlash, amplified by political personalities such as Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin, originates in the tea party and the Republican Party's libertarian faction.

Other activists have taken the conspiracy further, claiming the initiative could be a plot between President Obama and the Gates Foundation, another backer of Common Core.

It's against that national backdrop that LePage and other Republican governors like Georgia's Nathan Deal began issuing executive orders to either clarify or distance themselves from Common Core. In each instance the reaction from concerned conservative activists, Democratic allies and independent observers has been the same: The executive orders aren't practical, they're political.

"This is more politics than anything else," said Mark Brewer, a political science professor for the University of Maine. "It's more politics aimed at shoring up support in (the tea party) part of the Republican Party."

That assessment was echoed by the order's intended recipients.

"Politically it's a great gesture, but it doesn't change anything," said Erick Bennett, founder of the Maine Equal Rights Center, a group collecting signatures for a ballot proposal that would overturn the Common Core initiative in Maine.

Other Republican governors -- six according to the National Conference of State Legislatures -- have appeased the resistance by delaying implementation of Common Core.

A similar move is likely harder for LePage. Stephen Bowen, his outgoing education commissioner, repeatedly advocated for Common Core. Bowen is also a member of Chiefs for Change, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's school reform group, composed of mostly Republican state education commissioners who include Common Core in a reform agenda that includes school vouchers and merit pay.

LePage has other political calculations to consider. Common Core is backed by monied, corporate interests. Microsoft founder Bill Gates is an advocate. ExxonMobil ran an advocacy campaign on TV commercials during the 2013 Masters golf tournament. The company is also a major political player, donating $625,000 to the Republican Governors Association in 2010 and $650,000 in 2012, according to disclosures.

The association also is a key factor in gubernatorial contests, spending heavily in targeted races.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is another major donor to the association, giving $2.25 million in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The association's Maine political action committee spent $1.2 million on LePage in 2010. The governor will be courting similar assistance in 2014.

Recently advocacy groups backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch have jumped into the anti-Common Core movement, attaching it to Obama. Some of the groups have dubbed the initiative "Obamacore," a spin on Obamacare, the pejorative nickname for the federal health care law that fueled the tea party in 2010.

(Continued on page 2)

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