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Education Opinion

Jeb Bush, the Common Core, and 2016

By Rick Hess — April 07, 2014 4 min read
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A “Jeb Bush for President” boomlet is heating up, and for good reason. Amidst what’s shaping up to be a crowded field of intriguing candidates, he may offer the most impressive package of accomplishment, gravitas, people skills, policy smarts, and ready-made political machinery. That’s why Bush has been getting close attention of late from national columnists like George Will.

For those interested in schooling, a potential Jeb Bush candidacy is an altogether good thing. Keep in mind that, for more than a decade, Jeb Bush has been the Right’s unquestioned champion of school reform. During his two terms as Florida’s governor, he earned a reputation for his ambitious, transformative education agenda. Since leaving office in 2007, Bush has extended his legacy. He launched the influential Foundation for Excellence in Education. He has been the go-to mentor for GOP governors on education and a leading proselytizer for digital learning. Bush’s knowledge of education dwarfs that of anyone else in the field. Even if you disagree with him, a Jeb Bush candidacy ensures that education will get its fair share of attention.

Now, all that said, a Bush candidacy could also face a fascinating complication from the Common Core. Will noted this last week, when he observed that Bush’s bold stance on the Common Core and on immigration reform could put him crossways with the GOP base. What to make of all this? Especially in a crowded field where small advantages or disadvantages could turn out to matter a lot? Well, we can look back to recent GOP contests for some insight.

In the run-up to 2008, Mitt Romney’s record on health-care reform was thought to be a hole card that would give him a record of conservative-minded accomplishment in the primaries and a patina of can-do bipartisanship in a general election. Things looked profoundly different in 2012, after Obamacare turned a seeming asset into a primary-season liability. Romney ultimately had to spend a lot of time and energy trying to mend fences with the base.

Bush could face something similar with the Common Core. If he runs, it’s long been assumed that his support for accountability and choice would be a big boost in the primaries and that Florida’s track record would be a major asset in a general-election bid. Yet in the past year or two, Bush’s firm support for the Common Core standards has threatened to transform education from an asset into an albatross.

Now, keep in mind that politics is a funny business. Depending on how the Common Core fight evolves between now and 2016, Bush’s firm support could be seen as brave and farsighted. It’s also possible that, even if it’s a hindrance in the primary, his stance could prove appealing to independents and centrist Dems.

It might seem astonishing that an attempt to modify K-12 reading and math standards has become a political football. After all, conservative activists have plenty of other issues to keep them occupied, such as health care and the IRS. And conservatives have long championed more rigorous standards. But skeptics are raising questions about the actual rigor of Common Core -- and a bigger complaint has been that Common Core allows the Obama administration to aggressively push its way into state and local decisions about schooling. In using its Race to the Top grant program and waivers from No Child Left Behind to promote Common Core, the Obama administration has opened the door to increasing federal influence over what gets taught and tested in schools. Uncle Sam’s long track record of stumbling down slippery slopes raises fears that the administration is seeking to duplicate in education what it has done in health care.

While reasonable people can disagree about the quality of Common Core and its likely impact, Bush has made a serious case in its behalf. He has noted that common standards will allow schools and providers to focus on excelling against a common yardstick, instead of rewarding those able to game 50 different state education bureaucracies.

Bush’s challenge is that he has thus far failed to reassure conservatives that he takes seriously their concerns about federal overreach when it comes to the Common Core. Last summer, when the House Republicans included a provision in their new version of No Child Left Behind that would have prohibited the federal government from meddling in state standards, Bush was silent. In contrast, he has often seemed the Common Core’s emissary to the GOP. While he’s pitched Common Core to the Right, he has not publicly defended conservative concerns to his Democratic allies.

Without such pushback, the Obama administration, full of enthusiasm and unconcerned about an expanding federal role, has been only too happy to wade into this nominally state-driven exercise through Race to the Top and NCLB waivers. Indeed, the 2012 the Democratic platform credited Obama with having been the driving force behind what’s theoretically a state-based, nonpartisan enterprise. Bush allies frantically worked back channels to try to dissuade the Obama camp from such public boasts, explaining how it was coloring the effort in partisan hues. Their appeals fell on deaf ears, and Bush chose to remain silent after the fact.

In a crowded 2016 field, education could and should be a critical asset for a potential Bush candidacy. What happens with Common Core over the next 24 months will determine whether it is.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.