Education may not get much attention during prime-time presidential debates, but it was center stage at Londonderry High School, where six GOP candidates took a deep dive into K-12 policy.
At an Aug. 19 event hosted by The Seventy Four, an online education news site, and sponsored by the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization, the Republican hopefuls—five of them current or former governors—talked Common Core State Standards, teachers’ unions, the role of the federal government, the pending Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization, charter schools, and more.
And while they didn’t break any news or roll out any new education platforms, they did expose nuances in their policy stances during their one-on-one, 45-minute Q&A with The Seventy Four’s Campbell Brown.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for example, owned his decision to flip-flop on the common core, having supported it when he first came into office in 2010 and now distancing himself this year.
“I did back away from it,” he said. “It doesn’t work. I tried four years of common core in New Jersey. ... I stuck with it ... fought for it.”
Ultimately, Christie said, he had to listen to what he termed as the majority of his constituents who were begging him to put it aside. Notably, his comments came after a story in the Wall Street Journal reported that his current negative stance on the academic benchmarks was costing him potential wealthy donors.
Bush continued to peddle what’s become his standards soundbite: “The whole objective needs to be about raising student achievement,” he said. “If people don’t like common core, fine. Just make sure your standards are higher than the ones [you had] before.”
But Kasich took a different approach and tried to set the record straight on how the academic benchmarks were developed and why more-rigorous standards are important. He explained how former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, also a Republican, cobbled together a group of bipartisan governors who worked with education policy experts to develop the common core.
“President Obama doesn’t write the standards or curriculum,” Kasich said. “I’m always willing to change my mind ... but you’re going to have to make a good case. I concluded in my state that we needed to raise standards.”
Brown confronted Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal about reversing course on the standards, which he once supported but now fiercely opposes. He stumbled a bit.
“I like the concept of what we thought common core would be,” he said. “We were told ‘voluntary high standards.’ Who would be against that?”
But he didn’t quite articulate his reasoning for backing away, other than citing a couple of grievances over the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competitive-grant program and its No Child Left Behind Act waivers.
Rewriting the ESEA
The Republican candidates also revealed traces of difference in how they view accountability—a topic that’s at the heart of congressional efforts to rewrite the ESEA.
Like many of the most conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker pushed back on the idea that the federal government has any role to play in K-12 education. If left up to him, he said, all federal money would be block-granted to states to use and funnel to districts.
“I’m going to be challenging some of my own party [with that stance],” Walker acknowledged. “That’s OK. I’ve done that before.”
Bush, on the other hand, took the opposite tack.
“If you don’t measure, you basically don’t care,” he said. “We should make sure that there is at least some basis for measurement of students’ progress.” Bush added that decisions on how to use testing for accountability should be left up to states and should be based on gains in learning.
The former Florida governor also said that he supports allowing Title I dollars for low-income children to follow them to the school of their choice, and the same for the federal investment in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Former Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Carly Fiorina—the only non-governor or former governor in the group—said she’d prefer the Republican-backed House ESEA overhaul, mainly because it preserves students’ right to opt out of federally mandated state tests.
Christie also said he would like to see some sort of accountability in the final ESEA legislative overhaul, but would not support policies that go as far as the accountability amendment offered by Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Cory Booker, D-N.J. That amendment would, among other things, require states to set academic goals for subgroups of students and then ensure schools hit those goals, and require states to identify their poorest performing schools and those with especially low graduation rates.
Hammering Teachers’ Unions
The GOP candidates blasted the two national teachers’ unions, which cumulatively represent more than 4 million educators, arguing they’re blockades to the types of school choice policies the candidates prefer.
Indeed, Christie doubled down on comments that got him in trouble a few weeks ago.
“I have no problem with saying teachers’ unions deserve a political punch in the face because they do,” he said, adding that they “buy the legislature—lock, stock, and barrel.”
He noted, however, that in the past, he’s worked with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to overhaul the teacher-compensation system in Newark, N.J., and that he will always be willing to work with union leaders in order get done what needs to get done.
In response, Weingarten composed a series of tweets, saying in one that it’s a “sad state of affairs when the only GOPer willing to talk about listening to teachers also wants to punch us in the face.”
Walker, who’s best known for rolling back the bargaining rights of teachers and other public employees in Wisconsin, ditching teacher tenure, and instituting a new teacher-compensation system that pays teachers based on performance, warned about the political influence of the unions.
“They made me the number one target,” said Walker, who survived a recall election in 2012 prompted by the collective bargaining changes. “Why? Because I threaten them.”
Even Bush, who hasn’t been one to throw fireballs, got in on the action.
“I’d love a day where Randi Weingarten and I could hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ ” he said. “She’s cordial and she’s charming, but she’s not going to change.”
Fiorina said she would work to find a way to better reward excellent teachers, and blasted the policies that unions have historically pushed.
“What do unions reward? Seniority,” she said. “The longer you’re in the job, the better you do [financially], whether you’re good or not. It discourages excellence.”
Kasich agreed, adding that the last-in, first-out layoff policies in many state laws and union contracts need to be eliminated.
Outside the high school where the event was taking place, a group of about 50 people organized by New Hampshire’s National Education Association affiliate gathered to protest the various school choice policies that the candidates voiced support for during the forum.
They argued that policies like Title I portability and increasing caps on charter schools take money away from public schools that are already cash-strapped.
The New Hampshire event was formatted as a forum, rather than a head-to-head debate, so the candidates didn’t get to press each other on their nuanced stances. But they will meet again, alongside their 10 other opponents in the bulging Republican field, for the second prime-time GOP debate Sept. 16 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in Simi Valley, Calif., which will be broadcast on CNN.
The Seventy Four is planning a Democratic education forum in Iowa, another primary state, in October, co-hosted with The Des Moines Register.
A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2015 edition of Education Week as GOP Candidates’ Forum Puts Ed. Policy Front and Center