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Common Core Is Premier Education Issue in GOP Presidential Debate

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Thought education might never come up during the Republican presidential debates on Thursday night? You weren't alone.

Thank goodness for the Common Core State Standards.

After just the briefest mention of education during the 5pm "undercard" debate, the subject finally exploded onto the scene about an hour into the primetime show, featuring the 10 highest polling GOP presidential candidates. Fox News moderator Bret Baier asked former Florida governor Jeb Bush whether he agreed with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that most of the criticism of common core is due to "a fringe group of critics."

Bush has taken a lot of flak from his GOP opponents for supporting the common core standards, a position he's steadfastly backed, even as his conservative contemporaries have battled against them.

"I don't believe the federal government should be involved with the creation of standards directly or indirectly, or the creation of curriculum or content," Bush responded. "It's clearly a state responsibility."

"I'm for higher standards measured in an intellectually honest way with abundant school choice," he added.

Bush, who oversaw major changes to Florida's education system and later founded a national K-12 policy group, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, has the longest education record of the Republican presidential contenders.

He's especially well-known for successfully pushing his state to adopt the A-Plus Plan, which required schools to be rated using A-F letter grades, and establishing a new series of standardized tests to measure students' academic performance. The plan also instituted new "Opportunity Scholarships" that allowed students greater freedom to attend schools of their choice through vouchers.

Bush, with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is also one of just two candidates in the GOP field  who support common core. And the question on the standards opened the door to the other candidates, nearly all of whom have bashed Bush over his continued support of the initiative. In particular, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has had a close relationship with Bush in their home state, took advantage of the situation.

"Here's the problem with the common core," said Rubio. "The Department to 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."

"In fact," Rubio continued, "what they will begin to say to local communities is: 'You will not get federal money unless you do things the way we want you to do it.' And they will use common core or any other requirement that exists nationally to force it down the throats of our people and our states."

In reality, the Education Department never required states to adopt the common core. But Duncan and company encouraged adoption of the standards through the Race to the Top competition and later, waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act.

Here's the entire Bush-Rubio exchange:

Bush: I don't believe the federal government should be involved with the creation of standards directly or indirectly, or the creation of curriculum or content. It's clearly a state responsibility. I'm for higher standards measured in an intellectually honest way with abundant school choice, ending school promotion. I know how to do this because as the governor of the state of Florida, I created the first statewide voucher program in the country, the second statewide voucher program in the country, and the third statewide voucher program in the country. And we had a rising students achievement across the board because high standards, robust accountability, ending social promotion in third grade, real school choice across the board, challenging teachers' unions and beating them is the way to go. Florida's low-income kids had the greatest gains inside the country, and our graduation rate improved by 50 percent. That's what I'm for.

Rubio: I too believe in curriculum reform. It's critically important in the 21st century. We do need curriculum reform and it should happen in the state and local level. That's where education policy belongs. Because if a parent isn't happy with what their child is being taught in school, they can go to that local school board, their state legislature, or their governor and get it changed. Here's the problem with the common core. The Department to 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. In fact, what they will begin to say to local communities is: "You will not get federal money unless you do things the way we want you to do it." And they will use common core or any other requirement that exists nationally to force it down the throats of our people and our states.

Bush: States ought to create these standards. If states want to opt out of common core, fine. Just make sure your standards are high. Because today in America, a third of our kids after we spend more per student than any country ... 30 percent are college and or career ready. If we are going to compete in this world we are in today, there is no possible way we can do it with lowering expectations and dummying down everything. Children are going to suffer and families' hearts are going to be broken that their kids can't get a job in the 21st century.

Education made a quick appearance during the non-primetime debate, featuring the seven candidates who didn't make the top 10. Former Texas governor Rick Perry touted increasing high school graduation rates. And Gov. Bobby Jindal quickly referenced his record on school choice.

Unfortunately, that's where the edu-debating begins and ends. Surprisingly, higher education issues didn't even get a shout-out.

Better luck next time?

Republican presidential candidates from left, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and John Kasich take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday in Cleveland. 

--Andrew Harnik/AP

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