Jeb’s Misleading Talk on Common Core

by Stanley Kurtz

When Common Core supporter Jeb Bush and Common Core opponent Marco Rubio faced off during last week’s Republican presidential debate, they barely seemed to disagree. After moderator Bret Baier posed a question on the clash between Common Core advocates, on the one hand, and opponents of federal involvement in education, on the other, Bush denied the contrast: “I don’t believe the federal government should be involved in the creation of standards, directly or indirectly, the creation of curriculum content. That is clearly a state responsibility.” So are Bush and Common Core opponents really on the same page when it comes to local control in education? Not in the least.

Jeb’s Common Core answer was well-practiced, yet profoundly misleading. The whole trick of Common Core is to make an end-run around the legal and constitutional barriers to a national curriculum, even as you deny that you’re doing it. Bush and his Common Core-supporting allies have been pretending to favor local control for years. Yet Jeb has repeatedly backed the most controversial Obama administration moves to consolidate what amounts to a national curriculum. A careful look at Bush’s record makes his actual views all-too-clear.

First you’ve got to understand the Orwellian world of Common Core advocacy, where day is night, war is peace, and Bush is Obama (well actually, that last one is true). The central goal of Common Core advocates is to replace the varying education standards of all 50 states with a single national model, placing special reliance on federal pressure to bring this about. The problem is that the Constitution leaves education to the states, while no less than three laws clearly bar federal direction, supervision, or control of state curricula. So the challenge is to nationalize the curriculum and circumvent the Constitution, and the law, while denying that any of this is happening.

The Obama administration’s solution has been to offer “Race to the Top” funding to states, or waivers of onerous federal education requirements, on condition that states adopt Common Core. And by the way, Race to the Top money was a component of the massive stimulus bill, appropriated with no indication that it would be used to build pressure for a national set of education standards, much less an actual public debate on the issue. The Obama administration has also directly funded two Common Core-aligned national testing consortia and charged them with developing curricular and instructional materials. This means that the federal government has set up and funded third parties to accomplish what it is legally prohibited from doing.

George Will has argued that all of this amounts to a violation of federal law. At minimum, it is an intentional subversion of the principles of state independence and local control. (You can find links to two important Pioneer Institute studies challenging the legality of federal action on Common Core here and here.)

The story of the profoundly undemocratic process by which Common Core was adopted by the states doesn’t end there. A devastating account by The Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton (hardly a Geroge Will-style conservative) lays it out. Federal carrots and sticks, along with massive infusions of Gates Foundation money, at a moment when state budgets were stressed to the breaking point by the financial crisis, stampeded more than forty states into adopting a completely untested reform, often sight unseen or before the standards themselves had been finalized.

A deliberative process that ought to have taken years was telescoped into months. In nearly every case, the change was made without a single vote by an elected lawmaker, much less a statewide public debate. And all the while, the Obama administration intentionally obscured the full extent of its pressure on the states.

Common Core proponents have concocted a fiction according to which this travesty of federalism and democracy was “state led,” using the fig leaf of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA), which helped to develop the plan. CCSSO is a private group, with no known grant of authority from any state. Likewise, NGA is a private group, and seems not to include all governors (the list of dues-paying members has not been made public, at least in previous years). None of this can begin to substitute for a truly “state led” process, which would change education standards via legislatures and governors, after full consultation with the public. The Obama administration has dismissed legitimate complaints about this process as a kind of conspiracy theory, yet its own liberal supporters have praised its tactics as a clever ruse to circumvent the constitutional, legal, and political barriers to a national curriculum.

I am sorry to say that Jeb Bush has been a leading supporter and cheerleader of this process from the start, often portraying what was in fact an illegitimate federal power-grab as a sterling example of local control.

In a co-authored 2011 opinion piece making “The Case for Common Educational Standards,” Bush and New York educator Joel Klein deny federal overreach and present the states as voluntarily enrolling in Common Core. They speak of two testing consortia “of the states,” without noting federal financing of these national consortia. Bush and Klein portray a program explicitly designed to create uniform national standards as embodying “the beauty of our federal system.” Day is night.

The day after the Republican presidential debate, former senior Obama adviser Daniel Pfeiffer mischievously tweeted: “When I worked in the White House, we were always grateful to @JebBush for his efforts to help us urge states to adopt Common Core.” I understand that Pfeiffer is trying to complicate life for a Republican presidential prospect, but he’s right. More important, the entire network of anti–Common Core activists has been buzzing about Jeb’s evasive answer for days. This issue is not going away, and so cannot be ignored.

The real danger is that the debate may have made Republicans complacent about Jeb’s Common Core problem, which is going to have to be far more directly addressed. Grassroots Common Core opponents know full well which side Jeb has been on. Their support in a general election cannot be taken for granted. The Republican establishment believes that the notion of a low-turnout by the base for Mitt Romney in 2012 is a myth (as it may well be). So they worry only about broadening the party’s appeal. But there was no anti-Common Core movement to speak of in 2012, and the base is more upset with the establishment now than it was with Romney then.

The Washington Post recently reported on Jeb’s appearance with Obama in March of 2011 to push the president’s education agenda. Bush’s alliance with the Obama administration on education policy was in fact broad and deep. They differed on school choice, yet were aligned on much else, Common Core above all.

Consider the following 2010 video of an appearance by Obama education secretary Arne Duncan at Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. Duncan goes on about how many states have adopted Common Core (between 7:10 and 9:50), while repeatedly denying federal responsibility for the change. The secretary doth protest too much, methinks.

After Duncan’s talk, he and Jeb jointly take questions from the audience. Here it becomes obvious that on education policy, Jeb sees himself as allied with Duncan and Obama — in opposition to local-control-loving conservatives (as well as liberal teachers’ unions). Jeb’s political solution to attacks on the Common Core is to “push the two groups who are not reform-minded further away from what I think is the mainstream.” (See video between 27:30 and 29:30.)

In an illuminating post on the Republican debate (covering Rubio as well as Jeb), Common Core critic Emmett McGroarty notes that in a 2011 appearance on Morning Joe, Jeb praised Obama’s efforts to herd the states into Common Core: “I think Secretary Duncan and President Obama deserve credit for putting pressure on states to change, particularly the states that haven’t changed at all. They’re providing carrots and sticks, and I think that’s appropriate.” So Jeb’s debate claim that “I don’t believe the federal government should be involved in the creation of standards directly or indirectly,” is misleading at best, and flat out inaccurate at worst.

Nor was that Morning Joe quote an isolated utterance. In a 2012 Education Week interview, Jeb praised Obama’s use of Race to the Top funding to “change behavior.” Then he said, “I don’t believe that Common Core is a federal initiative . . . I don’t think it’s coercive.” Here, then, is the key to Jeb’s debate response. By denying that Common Core is federal interference at all, Jeb can pretend to be against federal interference. (Similar statements by Bush can be found here.)

As McGroarty points out, the deeper problem with Bush’s debate position is the false claim that Common Core represents high standards. In fact, Common Core standards are themselves dumbed down to a mediocre middle.

Here we approach the wellsprings of Jeb’s support for Common Core. Bush touts his education accomplishments as Florida governor, and they were real. But Jeb raised a bottom-performing state to average, which is easier than moving from the middle of the pack to the top. Jeb has been promoting Florida as a national education model since he left office, but this misses the federalist point. Common Core has killed off some of the very best alternative models, like Massachusetts, which moved from slightly above average to top-of-the-heap, with standards far superior to Common Core.

Common Core tends to attract governors, like Bush, from very poorly performing states, because its merely average standards represent an improvement from their perspective (although even this is debatable when you consider the unprecedented diminishment of literature in the English Standards.) Some governors from very poorly performing states may even like the idea of dumbing top-notch states down to a mediocre mean. It makes their home states look better by comparison, which helps efforts to attract businesses.

Progressive supporters of Common Core operate on the same principle: a misguided notion of social justice that seeks to cancel out the educational achievement gap. By aiming for a merely average level of achievement, they can raise up low-performing students (often poor and minorities), while reducing the number of students who perform far better.

On this issue at least, Jeb has thrown in his lot with these misguided progressives and turned against conservatives in his own party. What’s more, Bush’s debate answers obfuscate everything important about this move — the real stakes on federal involvement, and the actual quality of the Common Core.

I’d like to say that Jeb’s problem here limited to education issues, but I’m not entirely certain that it is. Jeb’s unfortunate claim that he might have to “lose the primary to win the general election” was an unnecessary and ill-advised slam at the base. Again, he likely takes them for granted, on the theory that they will have nowhere else to go. But the base is more alienated in 2016 than it was in 2012, Common Core is more of an issue, and Trump is roiling the waters. Jeb’s very real alliance with the Obama administration on education policy, his 2010 plans to marginalize opponents of Common Core, and his recent comments about losing the primary to win the general form a picture that is too consistent for comfort.

Jeb Bush is a candidate of real ability, and a strong conservative in many respects. But obfuscation on Common Core will not suffice.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at comments.kurtz@nationalreview.com

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