Politics & Policy

Jeb’s Common Core Hurdle

And how he could jump it.

Jeb Bush may be first (sort of) out of the gate for the Republican presidential nomination and have plenty of powerful supporters, but his stance on the Common Core could prove a significant hurdle in the primaries. Karl Rove predicts that the Common Core would be “the biggest challenge he faces.” George Will has written that if Bush does not understand that it could be the “thin end of a potentially enormous federal wedge, he should not be put in charge of the executive branch.”

If a recent interview with ABC’s John Karl is any indicator, Bush does not quite see it that way. When asked about the notion that the Obama administration is using the Common Core to turn the Department of Education into a “national school board,” Bush said, “Based on the facts, as I know them, that’s not accurate. . . . There’s a big fear on the right about this massive government overreach, and I totally appreciate that, but that’s not what this is.”

Bush thinks the standards are a step in the right direction. Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that he’s right. As a conservative, he still ought to be indignant about how they were adopted. The central conservative insight is that in our republic even the best ends don’t justify extraconstitutional means. The way the Common Core was adopted reflected a vision of the federal role in education that a principled conservative ought to recoil from. In short, states were bribed by the federal government to adopt the Common Core and are being coerced into retaining it.

As states were reeling from the effects of the Great Recession, the Obama administration set aside $4.35 billion of stimulus money for the Race to the Top competitive grant program. Race to the Top promised to dole out funds to states that committed to implementing the Department of Education’s policy priorities, the first of which was for “states to work jointly toward a system of common academic standards that builds toward college and career readiness.” The Common Core was the only game in town, and states tripped over themselves to pad their applications. Dozens pledged to adopt the standards before they were even officially unveiled.

Conservatives generally don’t like it when the federal government effectively bribes the states to implement policy, but it’s nothing new. What adds insult to injury is the lack of candor about the whole thing. No one pretends that the Medicaid expansion or raising the drinking age were anything other than federal initiatives. Yet Common Core advocates insist up and down that the effort was “state-led.”

What’s truly novel is how the Obama administration is coercing states to retain the standards. No Child Left Behind mandated that schools make “adequate yearly progress” toward demonstrating 100 percent student proficiency in grades 3 to 8 on reading and math by 2014. The authors of the law assumed that Congress would pass a new version long before the rubber really hit the road, but that didn’t happen. So now, under the letter of the law, the majority of schools in America are technically “failing” and subject to a cascade of federal sanctions.

The Obama administration offered states a wonderful deal: It would grant waivers for relief from these federal penalties . . . but only if the states adopted the administration’s preferred policy reforms. These reforms included a promise to adopt “college- and career-ready standards,” a thinly veiled euphemism for the Common Core. Oklahoma was one of the 43 states to accept the deal, but when it decided to go back to its old standards (which the pro–Common Core Fordham Institute determined were just as good), the Department of Education revoked its waiver. Even the Congressional Research Service warned that the administration’s use of waivers could be struck down in court as arbitrary and capricious.

None of the above is likely to bother a progressive. But it seems that a principled conservative, even one who is convinced that the Common Core standards are the greatest thing since sliced bread, would have some concerns. So it’s fair for conservatives to be anxious that Bush doesn’t see government overreach at work here.

It’s clear that Bush likes the standards on their merits, and easy to imagine that he wouldn’t want to appear to undercut the effort or look like a flip-flopper. But if, once he declares his candidacy, he wants to alleviate conservative anxiety, he could make three points: First, that he understands the concerns about aggressive federal overreach. Second, that he thinks what the Obama administration did was wrong and he would not do as they did. And third, that despite those concerns, he thinks the standards are the right thing for kids.

But if he really wants to clear the hurdle and hit the ground running, congressional Republicans have cleared the path for him. In the upcoming fight to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, the Republican bill will include language that says, “No officer or employee of the Federal Government shall, directly or indirectly, . . . mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s specific instructional content . . . including any requirement, direction, or mandate to adopt the Common Core State Standards.”

When the battle over the bill heats up this spring, Bush could weigh in and lay down an unmistakable marker that he believes the federal government should not bribe or coerce states to influence their standards or curriculum. If he does so, he will turn his position on the Common Core from an issue of principle into an issue of content, and have much firmer ground to stand upon in the primaries.

Max C. Eden is program manager of the education-policy department at the American Enterprise Institute.

Max C. Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Issues 2020: Public School Spending Is at an All-Time High.

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