- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Common Core education standards continue to cleave the Republican presidential field, with two of the contenders defending them Wednesday as successful ways to raise students’ achievement, but others who have now abandoned their support, insisting the standards are a symptom of dangerous federal overreach.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, speaking at an education forum in New Hampshire, said the standards pushed local school boards in his state to improve curriculums, delivering a better education to students, which he said was more important than pleasing parents’ ideological concerns.

But New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who initially supported Common Core but has now backed away from it, said it just didn’t work, with teachers, students and parents all coming to dislike the added federal involvement. Mr. Christie said he stood apart from other opponents in that he at least gave it a shot, however.

“I’m still critical of the people who reflexively ran away from it, but I did what I think you’re supposed to do when you lead,” he said. “Something that looks like a good idea — you give it a try. If it does not work, then you can’t be worried about somebody asking you a gotcha question [saying], ‘Well, are you a flip-flopper for political reasons?’ Well, no. I actually have a thinking, operating brain. And when something doesn’t work that we try, we then have to change it.”

Six Republican presidential candidates — five current or former governors and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina — attended the forum, hosted by the American Federation for Children and the Seventy Four, another education advocacy group, which gave each candidate more than half an hour to chat about their own education achievements, their plans for the future and their vision of federal involvement.

The candidates all agreed the federal role should be limited, and vowed to do what they could to return money and decision-making to states and localities. Still, they differed on the degree to which the federal Education Department should set and enforce goals.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has faced skepticism from many conservatives on the campaign trail over his positions on education and immigration, has stuck by his advocacy for the Common Core K-12 standards, but said if people have alternatives, they can have at it.

“The whole objective needs to be about rising student achievement to deal with [this] skills gap that we face where a third of our kids ends up not being college or career-ready,” Mr. Bush said. “So in my mind, the debate needs to be broader. It needs to be about real accountability, school choice, high standards — if people don’t like Common Core, fine — just make sure your standards are much higher than the ones you had before. We can’t keep dumbing down standards.”

The state-level Common Core standards lay out basic facts and principles students should learn at the end of each grade level but aren’t a national curriculum. The White House did not engineer them, but did incentivize states to adopt them through grant funding, which has led to some of the conservative opposition.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was one of the governors who’s pushed back against the standards, trying to prevent local school districts in his state from having to comply with them.

“I want high standards. I just want them set by people at the local level,” Mr. Walker said, touting his state’s high college aptitude test scores as evidence that his plans — including battling to limit teachers’ collective bargaining rights — haven’t hurt children’s learning.

He was pressed by Campbell Brown, former television reporter and now head of the Seventy Four education nonprofit, who said it was fine for a governor to argue for local control, but as president he would be responsible for all kids. Mr. Walker told her she had the premise wrong.

“I don’t think the president of the United States is responsible for holding the governors accountable. I think the people are responsible for holding the governors accountable,” he said, drawing applause from the audience.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who also appeared at the summit, said the federal incentives tied to the program ended up presenting states with a tough choice.

“The states adopted it on their own, and they were incentivized to do so because money flowed with it. I mean, that’s a heck of a choice,” Ms. Fiorina said. “‘Look, you do it our way, you get the money that you desperately need. You don’t do it our way, you don’t get the money you desperately need.’ Sounds like a bit of a racket to me, honestly.”

For his part, Mr. Kasich said Republicans made a “mistake” in the 1990s when they talked about killing the Department of Education, saying it sent the wrong message to independent voters.

“When we used the rhetoric that we’re going to kill the Department of Education, you know what independents heard? ‘Oh, so the Republicans want to kill education.’ We’ve got to be careful with the way in which we use our rhetoric,” the former chairman of the House Budget Committee said.

Mr. Kasich defended Common Core as a valuable tool to push local schools to set higher achievement levels, and said the role of president is to promote best practices and that he would encourage states to experiment and copy each other.

He said he would combine dozens of federal education programs into a single grant back to the states, but said the federal government has a role to play in making sure they’re using the money for schools rather than siphoning it off “to pave the roads.”

And Mr. Kasich drew criticism when he said he wished he could “abolish all teachers’ lounges,” saying that’s where union-based gripes fester.

The Democratic National Committee said that was demeaning to teachers.

“Teachers are among the hardest-working women and men in America. John Kasich’s insults of teachers are as horrible as his policies,” said T.J. Helmstetter, a DNC representative.

Teachers’ unions were a frequent target for the GOP governors, who portrayed them as roadblocks to needed reforms.

And the Republican candidates all pushed for more options for school choice, and the governors detailed the ways they’ve expanded vouchers and charter schools in their states.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said the experience of New Orleans, which went to what he called a “100-percent choice” model after Hurricane Katrina, proves giving parents the power to choose schools can be successful.

Pre-Katrina, he said, only a little more than half of New Orleans students were graduating from high school, and 60 percent of students were attending schools deemed “failing.” Now, less than 10 percent are in failing schools, and the graduation rate is more than 70 percent, Mr. Jindal said.

“Other cities and states have come to study the New Orleans model,” he said.

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