Six Republican presidential hopefuls head to New Hampshire this week to take part in an education summit where they will be expected to dive deep into their visions for education reform. Wednesday's event will also be a test for candidates as they confront a thorny issue that has been riling up conservative activists for years: Common Core.
The event is sponsored by former NBC and CNN journalist Campbell Brown and The Seventy Four, Brown's nonprofit news site focused on education issues. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina will each participate in 45-minute, one-on-one conversations with Brown. They're expected to discuss how the federal government should -- and should not -- influence education policy in the U.S.
"Polling shows that education is the most important issue to our country - how our children get educated - and it ends up being very little in terms of what the candidates actually talk about," Brown told CBS News.
Yet this election cycle presents an opportunity to put the issue of education reform front and center due to an array of clashing ideas surrounding unions, vouchers, school choice and standardized testing.
"Last campaign cycle, Romney and Obama agreed on major education policy issues, and education barely got a mention," Brown lamented.
The biggest source of tension on Wednesday is likely to be the debate over the Common Core State Standards, an initiative that encouraged states to develop similar, competitive benchmarks for student achievement in math and language arts. Though Common Core initially enjoyed broad bipartisan support, some in the GOP turned against the program after the Department of Education tied the disbursement of grant money to an adoption of similar standards.
Jindal, Walker, and Christie once spoke favorably about the standards, but they now oppose them, and they may be asked Wednesday to defend their change of heart. Bush and Kasich, the only 2016 Republican contenders who still support Common Core, may be asked to explain themselves as well.
The standards have some high-profile defenders in the GOP. In an op-ed for The 74, William Bennett, the former U.S. Secretary of Education under President Reagan, criticized "Republican governors who once supported and implemented the Common Core but are now running from it under political pressure." He argued governors have a right to review standards in their states - and most states do - but in the end, they will end up creating standards similar to those of Common Core, just with a different name.
"Christie and the other Republican governors, should be courageous enough to defend the concept -- both in policy and in politics," Bennett wrote. "If a state ends up tweaking and renaming the standards, it will be acting in a way that is entirely consistent with how the Common Core was designed to function - as exemplar standards for states to improve and build upon."
Still, the term "Common Core" has stirred enough passion among the Republican base that even defenders of the program have had to wrestle with how they discuss the issue. Bush dubbed the debate surrounding Common Core "poisonous" last Friday while campaigning at the Iowa State Fair. And he added, "I'm for higher standards - state-created, locally implemented - where the federal government has no role in the creation of standards, content or curriculum."
Kasich told voters at a town hall in New Hampshire last month, "I'm going to make sure, at least in my state, that standards are high and local control is maintained. Now some may call that Common Core. I don't really know, but I'm telling you the way it is in my state."
Beyond Common Core, Brown aims to press candidates on how they'd confront other divisive education issues, including the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, President Obama's "Race to the Top" initiative, and how they plan to use dollars at a state or federal level to incentivize reform.
"There are Republican candidates who have argued that the Department of Education should be abolished... so why are you at this forum? You'll really have an opportunity to see whether or not they really know their stuff," Brown told CBS. "Not everybody can carry on an in-depth education policy [conversation] for 45 minutes. We'll see who has really done their homework."
Brown and The 74 are partnering with the Des Moines Register to host a second education summit for the Democratic candidates in Iowa in October.