Jeb Bush's 'Core' political challenge

  • 3 March 2014
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Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush in Long Island on 24 February, 2014.
Jeb Bush has been an outspoken advocate of "Common Core" education reform

With the rather dramatic crash of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's presidential stock following the George Washington Bridge scandal, establishment Republicans may be searching for a new candidate to back in the 2016 election.

One name that has been surfacing more and more often is a familiar one: Bush. In this case, Jeb Bush, brother to ex-President George W Bush.

The former governor of Florida has been out of public office for seven years, but thanks to his last name, and the extensive network of advisers and financial backers that come with it, he's never been really out of the national political picture.

Now he's becoming a hot topic of conversation for a Washington press corps that loves to obsess over the latest buzz, speculating on rumours that Mr Bush has put out feelers to his long-time fundraisers.

According to a New York Times/CBS poll, Mr Bush tops a list of "high-profile Republican Party leaders" whom Republicans would like to see run for president, with 41% backing his candidacy.

The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery talked to donors who had supported the winning primary candidacy of Mitt Romney in 2012 and found everyone they asked now favoured Mr Bush.

"The donors said that - like Romney - Bush's time as governor proved he can be an effective leader and manager," he writes. "His willingness to tackle (or attempt to, at least) tough policy initiatives such as education and criminal justice reform remind them of Romney's work on health care at the state level."

It's Mr Bush's work on education policy, however, that could present one of his biggest obstacles to winning the Republican presidential nomination.

The reform programme he supports, known as "Common Core", has been adopted by 46 states but is being fiercely resisted by the type of grassroots conservative activists who turn out for Republican presidential primaries in droves.

Common Core, originally developed through an association of state governors in 2009 and embraced by the Obama administration*, lays out expectations for students at each grade level and attempts to unify the hodgepodge of education standards that are set by local and state jurisdictions across the country.

The US spends more on education than almost all other developed nations, but students still lag behind their international peers.

Reform supporters say that high school students are graduating without many of the necessary skills needed to enter the workforce, such as financial knowhow and writing skills. The system focuses too much on testing, rather than education, unfairly quantifying the job that educators do.

"A set of bold, proven reforms holds the key to dramatically raising student achievement," Mr Bush wrote in an opinion article for the National Review last year. "If we don't completely transform education, we are defaulting on the American dream."

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin sees it differently, writing that he and his "big business/big government cronies" want Washington's liberal values enforced on local schools:

Jeb Bush routinely has dismissed those who protest Common Core's increasing federalization of local control over schools as conspiracy-mongers. But it's President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan who've made common cause with Bush and corporate elites in foisting Common Core standards, tests, technology and data-mining boondoggles on local school districts. Obama, Duncan and Bush have been meeting with deep-pocketed CEOs in Washington, not with ordinary parents outside the Beltway.

Conservative commentator Glenn Beck is another outspoken opponent of Common Core.

"This is a progressive bonanza, and if it's allowed to be in our schools in any form and become the Common Core of America's next generation, it will destroy America and the system of freedom as we know it," he said on his Internet show the Blaze.

Mr Bush countered in his National Review piece: "This is not the establishment of a national curriculum. Contrary to what Michelle Malkin and Glenn Beck tell you, higher standards won't harm parental choice, indoctrinate our children with a secret liberal agenda or infringe on the privacy of student data."

One of the unusual aspects of this debate is how it defies traditional party lines. Common Core has critics and champions on both sides of the aisle.

While many grass-roots conservatives worry that it leaves individual school districts with little to no authority, some liberals resent the continued focus on testing as a measure of a teacher's job performance.

Harry R Jackson for Townhall writes that the standards do more to hold back extraordinary students than to aid disadvantaged students. "The uncomfortable truth about America's current education system is that some students are doing just fine," he writes.

More affluent parents are already hiring outside tutors to make up for the flaws in Common Core, he says, but many lower-income families are left without options.

Focusing on another demographic in the American education system, the Atlantic's Katharine Beals writes: "Though most Common Core goals are abstract and schematic, collectively they constitute a one-size fits-all approach that, in practice, has severely straightjacketed America's special-needs students."

Forcing the 6% of the student population with cognitive disabilities to meet goals that are beyond their reach at the time is not just unrealistic, she says, it is detrimental to their learning.

Despite the criticism from across the political spectrum, Common Core still has an active base of supporters.

Writing for USA Today, Microsoft founder Bill Gates tries to debunk specific claims made by detractors.

"Americans want students to get the best education possible," he writes. "We want schools to prepare children to become good citizens and members of a prosperous American economy. The Common Core standards were carefully conceived with these two goals in mind. It would be a shame if myths and misunderstandings got in the way."

Some state legislatures have begun considering bills to roll back or repeal Common Core implementation, however. The editors of The Herald, a paper in South Carolina, which adopted the education standards in 2010, urge their state not to do so:

"Common Core has been the victim of considerable disinformation - either deliberately or out of ignorance," they write. "What's wrong with setting uniform national standards for education? South Carolina has had an educational system with near-total local autonomy regarding curriculum for decades, and that has not produced an educational system that many states would choose to emulate."

Politico Magazine's Rich Galen writes that he's confused at conservative resistance. Common Core is "so transparently a good thing that it's hard to figure out why anyone would be opposed," he says, especially conservatives who he writes are wired to be in favour of standardisation.

"What gives?" he asks.

When it comes down to it, though, the numbers show that more than half of Americans don't even know what Common Core is. 50CAN, an education reform advocacy group, released a study that showed that while only 31% of Americans support the Common Core, 66% support the establishment of uniform standards for education, which is arguably Common Core's main goal.

It's this perception that Mr Bush will have to overcome if he wants to make his education efforts, which have dominated a great deal of his time since he left the governor's office, the basis for a presidential campaign.

It's certainly possible he could pull it off. After all, Mr Romney garnered the Republican nod despite being a past champion of a type of healthcare reform that became anathema to the conservative base.

It's not the sort of strategy that Mr Bush and his backers should count on to work two elections in a row, however.

(Kierran Petersen contributed to this story.)

*NOTE: This post has been corrected to reflect that Common Core standards grew out of work by the National Governors Association.