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The Common-Core Voter's Guide to Choosing a Presidential Candidate: Republican Edition

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In my last post I tried, ever so gently, to take two prominent presidential candidates—Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton—to task for the way they're talking about education on the campaign trail. I stand by my comments. Rubio, in assailing Common Core as a federal takeover of education, is being disingenuous at best and willfully ignorant at worst. Clinton, for her part, demonstrated one of the worst habits of politicians—oversimplification of a complex issue—when she suggested that the solution to the problem of underperforming schools is to shut them down. Neither impressed me enough to have confidence that the country's education system would be better off if one of them became president.

Then again, maybe it doesn't matter. The new Every Child Succeeds Act is supposed to herald a new day in education policy, one in which the power of the federal government to lead the states on issues related to education is greatly reduced. We'll have to wait and see if or how that comes to pass, but even if the federal role is significantly reduced the next president's administration will still have the ability to influence the shape and direction of education policy. And that begs the question: what are the candidates saying about educational issues? A look at their views on Common Core, in particular, is pretty revealing.

Let's start on the Republican side. We know what Rubio thinks about Common Core, and we know that much of the rest of the field agrees with him. Rand Paul, the libertarian, predictably hates the standards. In an email he cleverly titled "Rotten to the Core," Paul informed his supporters that the Common Core contains "anti-American propaganda, revisionist history that ignores the faith of our Founders and data-tracking of students from kindergarten on." I've looked myself for evidence in the standards of "anti-American propaganda" and how they "ignore the faith of our Founders" but haven't had any luck yet. And data tracking? That's scary stuff, but there isn't any evidence to support the claim Paul seems to be making. Unless sending home a report card counts as data tracking.

Ben Carson doesn't like Common Core either. Promising to share "Common Sense on Common Core" in a Washington Times editorial, Carson wrote: "While I think it is very important to have standards, putting such a task in the hands of the federal government is naive." I guess the people who wrote the Common Core standards would agree; that's probably why they didn't ask the federal government to write them.

Trump hates Common Core. No surprise there; Trump hates everything, it seems, except himself. In an interview last year, Trump said "I think that education should be local, absolutely," and added: "I think that for people in Washington to be setting curriculum and to be setting all sorts of standards for people living in Iowa and other places is ridiculous." Wait; maybe that means he's in favor of Common Core, since Common Core doesn't do that.

Ted Cruz not only thinks Common Core is a federal takeover of education; apparently he thinks it's a federal law. He wants to "repeal every word of Common Core." I don't even know where to start with that.

Common Core has proven to be more popular among the Republican candidates who have actually run something. Jeb Bush and John Kasich, one a former governor and the other a current one, have both held fast to their support for Common Core in spite of the powerful political headwinds. Bush's candidacy looks like it might be on life support and his support for Common Core is often fingered as one of the culprits. (His last name doesn't help, either.) With his campaign flailing, Bush seems to be rethinking everything, in fact: in Iowa last August he said the phrase common core is "so darn poisonous" and added: "I don't even know what it means." Okay then.

Kasich's not dead yet but it's hard to see how Common Core does anything for his candidacy. To his credit, Kasich has said that he isn't going to change his position on Common Core "because there's four people in the front row yelling at me." It doesn't seem to be winning him any votes, anyway. And you should know, if you're a teacher, that Kasich wants to abolish teachers' lounges—those well known bastions of rebellion and critical thought where teachers commiserate about their jobs and hatch plans to enrich themselves by making life worse for the nation's vulnerable children. This may just be the reform we've all been waiting for.

Another governor, Chris Christie, has practically made hating on teachers his calling card, so we shouldn't surprised that he's flip-flopped his way to hating on something that teachers, by and large, seem to like more the more they know about it. (If you don't like that link, here's another one; and another one; and another one; and yet another one.) No, not every teacher likes Common Core, and support for the standards has declined as endless criticism has taken hold, but that support remains suprisingly strong among teachers who have worked with the standards. Imagine that.

At any rate, as Andrew Rotherham has pointed out, Christie, like a lot of his fellow candidates, is probably not as interested in Common Core as a policy choice as he is in using it as a proxy for other issues. In what may be the most succinctly correct sentence written on the political firestorm that Common Core has become, Rotherham wrote last year that "Common Core is a Rorschach test for various grievances about education—testing, accountability, control—or more general political views about the federal government or other national issues." In other words: when you hear politicians talking about Common Core, they're probably not talking about Common Core. Remember that.

I'll tackle the Democratic candidates in the next post. In the meantime, consider this: any candidate who says that Common Core is a federal takeover of education is either ignoring the truth or lying to you. Neither is a quality we ought to be looking for in a president. If these candidates are lying to you or won't do their homework on this issue, what reason do we have to think they won't cut corners on other issues as well? We should be wary of people who would distort the truth about an issue as important as how our children are educated just to win votes. People who lie for votes make a mockery of our democratic system. 

I continue to have my doubts about the effectiveness of Common Core as an educational policy change, and I certainly don't expect a revolution in student achievement to happen overnight because of it. I also don't disagree that the Department of Education, especially through Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers it granted, violated expected norms in an attempt to influence the direction of education policy. But this is not the same as letting mindless bureaucrats decide what our children get taught in schools. That isn't happening. 

What I don't doubt is the fact that outcomes for many students continue to be limited by an education system that doesn't even serve the well off as well as it could. I had a hard time knowing my own mind when it came to Common Core for the longest time, but the more the truth about the standards gets buried the easier it is to support them. Let me put it this way: if presidential candidates are scared enough of a policy change to lie about it for votes, then maybe it deserves a second look. And maybe we should start looking elsewhere for political candidates while we're at it.

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