Bush’s Common Core obfuscation

Many informed voters who watched Thursday’s GOP presidential debate may have come away confused about Jeb Bush’s stance on education. Bush is known to be a supporter of Common Core. Yet there he was insisting that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in creating educational standards.

Bush said: “I don’t believe the federal government should be involved in the creation of standards directly or indirectly, the creation of curriculum or content; that is clearly a state responsibility.” He added that he’s for higher standards, but not for federally created ones.

Given Bush’s past support for Common Core, Marco Rubio wasn’t buying Bush’s disavowal of support for federal standards. He responded:

Here’s the problem with Common Core: the Department of Education, like every federal agency, will never be satisfied. They will not stop with it being a suggestion, they will turn it into a mandate. . .They will use Common Core or any other requirements that exist nationally to force it down the throats of our people and our states.

Bush countered: “If states want to opt out of Common Core, fine; just make sure your standards are high.”

Informed voters weren’t the only ones confused by this exchange; some experts in education policy seemed confused, as well. Rick Hess, an education scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Washington Examiner:

There’s no real disagreement when Bush and Rubio agree that they’re for high standards for children, Bush says the federal government shouldn’t be involved, and Rubio says curriculum reform is needed at the state and local level.

But a careful reading of the exchange reveals disagreement. Bush said, in effect, that he’ll rely on states to push back against the feds and that they better be sure their standards are good enough. Rubio doesn’t want the feds to be “suggesting” or evaluating standards in the first place.

Furthermore, as Stanley Kurtz shows, the disagreement between Bush and Rubio goes even deeper than this. Sure, Bush says that states can opt out of Common Core. But he has been at the vanguard of a movement to make it very difficult for the states to do so. Kurtz writes:

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.

What are these “controversial moves”?

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. . .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. . . .

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.

Where did Jeb Bush stand on this? According to Kurtz:

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.

That’s not all.

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.)

No wonder Obama operative Dan Pfeiffer tweeted after Thursday’s debate: “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 agree with Kurtz’s conclusion: “Jeb Bush is a candidate of real ability, and a strong conservative in many respects. But obfuscation on Common Core will not suffice.”