A half-dozen GOP presidential contenders descended on Londonderry High School in this important primary state Wednesday to talk education exclusively at an event put on by The Seventy Four, an online education news site.
During the day-long event, the six candidates—all governors or former governors with the exception of Carly Fiorina—sat down separately with moderator Campbell Brown of The Seventy Four for a one-on-one 45-minute Q&A.
They 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.
So did they break any news? Well, not really.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich still back the common core; N.J. Gov. Chris Christie still wants to give teachers’ unions a punch in the face; and on the whole, everyone wants to roll back the role of the federal government.
But we did hear them dive deeper into the nuances of their K-12 education policy stances than they ever have before. And we got a little bit of a personal peek into their educational upbringing as well.
For example, did you know that Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO, majored in medieval philosophy? Or that Bush remembers his years at the prestigious private school Phillips Academy Andover as “a perpetual headache”?
We broke down the candidates’ remarks issue-by-issue to give you more insight into their edu-policy stances.
The common core has long been a punching bag for Republicans, and as the presidential campaign comes into full throttle, GOP contenders have used it as a prime example of the federal government’s overreach.
In reality, most of the presidential hopefuls were for the standards before they were against them, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is currently waging the bitterest battle against the standards of them all.
Brown confronted Jindal about flip-flopping on the standards—a question he should have been expecting—and 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 rattling off a couple of grievances over the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competitive-grant program and its No Child Left Behind Act waivers.
When Brown asked Christie about his record on the common core, though, he outright owned flip-flopping on the topic.
“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.
On the other end of the spectrum, Bush and Kasich continued to dig in their heels in support of the common core, something they’ve taken a lot of flak from their party over.
“The whole objective needs to be about rising student achievement,” Bush emphasized. “If people don’t like common core, fine. Just make sure your standards are higher than the ones [you had] before.”
“This should not be federally driven,” he continued. “The federal government should have nothing to do with it.”
Kasich went a step further 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.”
“Do I like when [my children] they get A’s?” he asked. “Love it. But I’d rather know if they’re actually getting a B or worse so we can fix it.”
The candidates also answered questions about rewriting the ESEA; dueling bills are currently headed to conference between the the Senate and the House.
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,” said Bush, meaning the federal government should have some role in requiring states to track students. “We should make sure that there is at least some basis for measurement of students progress.”
Bush added that the testing should be left up to the state to decide 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.
Fiorina said she’d prefer the Republican-backed House ESEA overhaul, mainly because it preserves students’ right to opt out of federally mandated state tests.
Meanwhile, Christie said he would like to see some sort of accountability in the final legislation, but would not support something that goes as far as the accountability amendment offered by Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Corey Booker, D-N.J.
If there was one issue that every candidate agreed on, it was that teachers’ unions have been roadblocks to the types of education policies the Republican hopefuls support—surprise, surprise.
And as expected, they had some pretty tough words for the teachers’ unions. Walker and Christie, in particular, spent the bulk of their Q&A talking about the problem as they see it.
Walker is best known for rolling back the bargaining rights of teachers in Wisconsin, ditching teacher tenure, and instituting a new teacher-compensation system that pays teachers based on performance.
“They made me the number one target,” Walker said of the two national teachers’ unions. “Why? Because I threaten them. I care about getting things done, not just about talking about them.”
Christie doubled down on comments that got him in trouble a few weeks ago, once again reiterating that teachers’ unions deserve a punch in the face.
“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.”
But he pointed out that he has successfully worked with American Federation of Teacher President Randi Weingarten in the past to overhaul the teacher-compensation system in Newark, and that he will always be willing to work with union leaders in order get done what needs to get done.
Weingarten, in return, Tweeted a series of entertaining messages:
As for Bush: “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, whether you’re good or not. It discourages excellence.”
Kasich agreed, adding that the last-in, first-out layoff policy needs to be eliminated.
Outside the high school a group of about 50 people organized by New Hampshire’s National Education Association affiliate gathered to protest the school choice policies that the candidates were speaking to. 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.
Race to the Top
The Obama administration’s signature competitive-grant program, Race to the Top, was a recurring topic throughout the debate.
Bush said he didn’t think the grant has increased student achievement, though he did give a shout-out to his home state and to Tennessee—two RTT winners—for new education policies they’ve implemented during the time of the grant that have led to gains on national tests.
For the most part, the candidates came down hard on the administration’s competitive grants. Even Fiorina, who touted the RTT program during her failed 2010 Senate campaign, went on the offensive.
“What we have today is federal government money being used to pick winners and losers,” Fiorina said. “Programs like Race to the Top ... that’s not going to work.”
Later, speaking about the common core and other policies encouraged by RTT, she said: “States adopted it on their own, but they were incentivized to do so because money flowed. Sounds like a bit of a racket to me, honestly.”
But Christie said he wasn’t above using similar tactics to get more states to adopt various school choice policies.
“As a last resort, yes,” he said. “If I had to buy them, I’d buy them. I’d rather inspire them. But if I have to purchase them, sure.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post gave an incorrect year for Carly Fiorina’s 2010 race for U.S. Senate.
You can watch a replay of the entire event here.