In the run-up to the 2008 presidential-election cycle, Mitt Romney’s record on health-care reform was thought to be a hole card that would give him a record of conservative-minded accomplishment in the primaries and a patina of can-do bipartisanship in a general election. The calculations were profoundly different in 2012, after Obamacare turned a supposed asset into a severe primary-season liability. Romney was ultimately forced to expend a lot of precious time and energy trying to reassure and repair ties with the base.
We may be seeing something similar with Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who has been consistently polling near the very top of the GOP field for 2016. If Bush runs, it’s long been assumed that that his record on education reform would be a big boost in both the primaries (given his leadership on school choice) and a general-election bid (given Florida’s impressive accomplishments). Yet in the past twelve months, Bush’s involvement in the simmering fight over the Common Core standards in K–12 reading and math has threatened to transform education from an asset into an albatross. This development is hardly news to NRO readers who have read Michelle Malkin’s critiques of Bush and Common Core.
Keep in mind that, for more than a decade, Jeb Bush has been the Right’s unquestioned champion of school reform. As a two-term governor in Florida, he built a dazzling record. Championing smart accountability, letter grades for schools, expansive school choice, and an end to social promotion, he helped transform Florida from an educational backwater into a national model. Since leaving office in 2007, Bush has only extended his legacy. He launched the influential Foundation for Excellence in Education, whose annual summit has become a red-letter date on the education-reform calendar. He has been the go-to mentor for GOP governors on education and a leading proselytizer for digital learning.
Over the past three years, Bush has also been the most prominent Republican supporter of the Common Core standards, which 45 states and D.C. have adopted. As Bush told the American Legislative Exchange Council last week, “I can’t accept . . . the dumbed-down standards and expectations that exist in almost all of our schools today.” Created under the auspices of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and assisted by copious funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and enthusiastic support from the Obama administration, the standards (and accompanying tests) are intended to set a higher bar while making it easier to compare performance across schools, districts, and states.
It might seem astonishing that an attempt to modify K–12 reading and math standards has become a political football. After all, conservative activists have plenty of other issues to keep them occupied, such as health care and the IRS. And conservatives have long championed more rigorous standards. But skeptics are raising questions about the actual rigor of Common Core — and a bigger complaint has been that Common Core allows the Obama administration to aggressively push its way into state and local decisions about schooling. In using its Race to the Top grant program and waivers from No Child Left Behind to promote Common Core, the Obama administration has opened the door to increasing federal influence over what gets taught and tested in schools. Uncle Sam’s long track record of stumbling down slippery slopes raises fears that the administration is seeking to duplicate in education what it has done in health care.
While reasonable people can disagree about the quality of Common Core and its likely impact, Bush has made a serious case in its behalf. He has noted that common standards will allow charter schools, online providers, and publishers to focus on excelling against a common yardstick, instead of gaming or negotiating with 50 different state education bureaucracies. He partnered with former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein to advocate Common Core in the Wall Street Journal:
The Common Core State Standards define what students need to know; they do not define how teachers should teach, or how students should learn. That is up to each state. . . . This is the beauty of our federal system. It provides 50 testing sites for reform and innovation.
So what’s gone wrong? Bush made a crucial miscalculation: He failed to do anything that would signal to conservatives that he took seriously their concerns about federal overreach or potential Obama partisanship when it came to Common Core. This summer, when the House Republicans included a provision in their new version of No Child Left Behind that would have prohibited the federal government from meddling in state standards, Bush was nowhere to be seen. In contrast, Bush has often come across as Common Core’s emissary to the Right. He has pitched Common Core to the Right, but he has not publicly defended conservative concerns to his Democratic allies or incipient nationalizers. It would have been good politics and policy if he had publicly challenged the Obama team for politicizing and federalizing Common Core.
Without such pushback, the Obama administration, full of enthusiasm, unconcerned about an expanding federal role, and eager to score political points, has been only too happy to wade into this nominally state-driven exercise through Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind waivers, and much else.
Indeed, in 2012, the Democratic platform credited Obama with having been the driving force behind what is putatively a state-based, nonpartisan enterprise. In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama echoed that sentiment by claiming that his administration had played a crucial role in the success of Common Core.
Bush allies frantically worked back channels to try to dissuade the Obama camp from such public boasts, but Bush never followed through by calling out the president for politicizing the venture. Indeed, this summer, when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the American Society of Newspaper Editors that only a lunatic “fringe” of conservatives could imagine that the federal government was a driving force behind Common Core, Bush said nary a word. In a crowded 2016 field, education could and should be a critical asset for a potential Bush candidacy. What happens with Common Core over the next 24 months will determine whether it is.
— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.