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Common Core won't sink Jeb Bush's presidential run

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Within seconds of Jeb Bush announcing that he would start to think about maybe running for president, another narrative had started up: Jeb Bush is doomed because he supports Common Core.

The Republican Party isn't fond of the Common Core, a set of expectations for what students should know and be able to do in reading and math shared by 43 states. The most recent Gallup poll found 76 percent of Republicans oppose the standards. This summer, the Pew Research Center found opposition was nearly identical among both pro-business conservatives and cultural conservatives.

The question is how much this will matter. Previous Republican nominees haven't always walked in lockstep with the party consensus on every issue. And while Common Core has a lot of symbolic political potency, it doesn't carry a lot of policy weight.

1) Bush isn't the only possible Republican candidate supporting Common Core

Bush has become the Republican face of Common Core because he's been particularly vocal about his support for the standards. And because he isn't currently in office, he hasn't had as much national exposure on other issues. (Immigration is an exception.)

It's possible that if Bush agrees with every other possible Republican candidate on every other more important issue (taxes, immigration, foreign policy, health care, and so on), Common Core will take on an outsize importance as a way to distinguish him from the rest of the pack. But Bush isn't even the only possible candidate who supports Common Core. Several other possible contenders have Common Core support in their past — Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee — even if they've renounced the standards now. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie remains a stalwart Common Core supporter for now.

2) The president can't do much about Common Core

Whether to support Common Core has become a shibboleth for all kinds of conservative causes. But it's not clear that it matters much if the next president is pro- or anti-Common Core. At this point, the reality of the standards matches a popular talking point from their supporters: they really are a state issue. Governors and state legislatures can successfully throw out the Common Core. The federal government can't.

This means Bush's heresy isn't on a conservative issue where he could make an immediate difference. Even if voters elect an anti-Common Core president, getting rid of the standards requires action from the 43 states currently using them. The only possible way the White House could swing things would be offering incentives for states to ditch the standards — the same approach that Obama used to get states to adopt them in the first place, and which Republicans criticize as big government overreach.

3) Education is a second-tier issue at the federal level

This one really is a liability for Bush, but not because he supports Common Core. It's because It's because his national leadership on education issues as a whole might not be all that important. Education has been a backwater policy issue in the Republican Party, with the exception of George W. Bush's first campaign.

When the Pew Research Center asked voters about the most important issues in the 2014 election, education didn't even show up on the list. And the back-burner nature of education issues is particularly true for Republican voters. In 2012, 84 percent of people who voted for Obama said education was "very" important to their vote. Just 52 percent of Romney voters said the same.

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