Parents fighting the Common Core watched the Fox News GOP debate hoping to hear a candidate who spoke with certainty and conviction and who clearly would champion their cause.
Only two candidates were directly asked about the Common Core.
When Jeb Bush was asked to defend his support of Common Core he responded that the federal government shouldn’t be directly or indirectly involved in the creation of standards. He then went on to say that, if a state wants to get out of Common Core, it should adopt high standards. What he glosses over is that he has a long history of defending Common Core and federal involvement in it. For example, on Morning Joe, in 2011, he praised the efforts of the Obama Administration to herd the states into Common Core:
I think (Education) Secretary (Arne) Duncan and President Obama deserve credit for putting pressure on states to change, particularly the states that haven’t changed at all. They’re providing carrots and sticks, and I think that’s appropriate.
And he has turned a blind eye to the reasons underlying opposition to Common Core and instead used straw-man arguments to dismiss opponents as relying on “Alice-in-Wonderland logic.”
He also overlooks the well-documented qualitative defects of Common Core. The English language arts standards are not evidence-based and are not rigorous. They will not prepare children for authentic college studies. Regarding Common Core math, Marina Ratner—professor emerita of mathematics at Cal-Berkeley and one of the world’s premier mathematicians—stated last year in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that “students taught in the way that these standards require would have little chance of being admitted to even an average college and would certainly struggle if they did get in.”
He ignores, too, the age-inappropriate character of the Common Core. In that regard, Dr. Carla Horwitz of the Yale Child Study Center argues, “The Core Standards will cause suffering, not learning, for many, many young children.”
Mr. Bush has been unapologetic in pushing these standards into the states. On the day of the debate, here’s what Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior advisor to President Obama for strategy and communications, tweeted:
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
— Dan Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer) August 7, 2015
Bush has done all this to the great detriment of children across the country. Such poor standards were adopted so quickly, by so many states, because President Obama used a carrot-and-stick system as an end-run around the constitutional safeguards intended to ensure that parents, and their elected state legislators, would be the decision-makers. And Bush praised President Obama for that.
Rubio, for his part, said:
Well, first off, I too believe in curriculum reform. It is critically important in the 21st century. We do need curriculum reform. And it should happen at the state and local level. That is where educational policy belongs, because if a parent is unhappy with what their child is being taught in school, they can go to that local school board or their state legislature or their governor and get it changed.
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.
In fact, what they will begin to say to local communities is, you will not get federal money unless do you things the way we want you to do it. And they will use Common Core or any other requirements that exists nationally to force it down the throats of our people in our states.
As Cato’s Neal McCluskey commented, Rubio is right to be concerned about what the federal government might do because, well, it has already done those things. And, in fact, that’s how the federal government, at the behest of special interests, pushed the Common Core into the states.
So why did Rubio present the danger as to what might, or would, happen in the future? Was he being sarcastic? A rhetorical device, perhaps?
For their part, GOP proponents of Common Core have responded to the pushback movement by arguing that the problem is not with the Common Core itself but rather that the federal government hijacked the initiative by using carrots-and-sticks to push the standards into the states. Rubio’s response smacks as a shade of that argument: Everything is fine with Common Core, but beware of the Feds. (That’s certainly consistent with Rubio’s statement that, as president, he would consider eliminating the Department.)
However, as good as it was, Rubio’s answer ignores the immediate most pressing concern of parents, grandparents, and teachers. It gives short shrift to the parents who have been fighting this. We fight it primarily because of what the federal government has done to our children—not because of what it will theoretically do.
Another problem with Rubio’s answer is that it skirts around the nexus between the poor quality of the Common Core and federal involvement. In late 2008, private groups convinced the incoming Obama Administration to push the standards into the states with a carrot-and-stick approach. Those private groups then drafted the Common Core standards in response to the ensuing federal grants. They drafted the standards on the premise that they would be a monopoly. They did not draft them on the premise that the standards would have to pass parental muster or would have to be better than world-class standards like the old Massachusetts standards.
Whether intentional or not, Rubio skirted these all-important issues by casting the problem as potential rather than presently existing.
This is the key takeaway for the candidates. When the perversion of our governance structure harms citizens, first and foremost acknowledge the harm caused to the citizens. Don’t pretend we are primarily concerned about something in the abstract. To do so leaves the impression that you don’t understand the urgency of the issue or that you lack the courage to fight the good fight.
Emmett McGroarty is the executive director of APIA Education.