From Avoiding the National Curriculum Debate, to Smothering It, Just When We Need It Most

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush cares about education. He made major education reforms in the Sunshine State, including many centered on private school choice. He has established the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and dedicates much of his time to education reform. Unfortunately, when it comes to national curriculum standards, it seems his genuine caring has led him to avoid—and now attempt to quash—critical debate on both the dubious merits of national standards, and the huge threats to federalism posed by Washington driving the standards train.

As I’ve complained on numerous occasions, it’s clear that supporters of national standards have employed a stealth strategy to get their way: back-room drafting of standards, content-free Language Arts, and, especially, employing the maddening mantra that national standardization is “state-led and voluntary.” Sadly, you can now add quashing debate to that, even among conservatives and libertarians with longstanding and crucial federalism and efficacy concerns. And according to Education Week, it appears that Jeb Bush—whose foundation just a couple of years ago invited me to participate in a panel discussion on national standards—is taking point on the smothering strategy:

In this space, we’ve been telling you about a few efforts in state legislatures to complicate adoption or implementation of common standards … A move that had the potential to involve many states unfolded last week in New Orleans, but was stopped in its tracks. And none other than former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush, revered by many conservatives, was involved in stopping it.

The Education Week report links to a letter that Mr. Bush sent to a subcommittee of the American Legislative Exchange Council that was slated to simply take up discussion of model legislation opposing national standards. Mr. Bush urged members to table the proposal. In other words, he urged them to not even talk about it, because apparently even considering that the Common Core might have dangerous downsides should be avoided, even among people who believe in individualism and liberty.

Unfortunately, quashing debate arguably wasn’t the worst aspect of Mr. Bush’s letter. No, that was the fundamentally flawed pretenses he offered for why Common Core should be embraced without debate. 

For starters, the letter assumes that Common Core represents “rigorous academic standards,” an assumption challenged by several curriculum experts. Underlying that are the illogical  assumptions that there can be a monolithic standard that is best for all children no matter how un-monolithic children are, and that the creators of the Common Core know what the “best” standards are. Add to these things that there is no meaningful empirical support for the notion that national standards lead to better outcomes, and from a purely pragmatic standpoint not only should there be strong, public debate over national standards, there must be.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of Bush’s letter, though, is that he repeats the ”state-led and voluntary” falsehood, and does so just as the Obama administration is preparing to force states to adopt national standards if they want relief from the disastrous No Child Left Behind Act. Writes Bush:

There is concern that this initiative will result in Washington dictating what standards, assessments and curriculum states may use. But these voluntarily adopted standards define what students need to know without defining how teachers should teach or students should learn.

Adoption of the Common Core is not ”voluntary,” any more than is handing over your wallet to a mugger. The federal government takes tax dollars from taxpayers whether they like it or not, and tells states that if they want to get any of it back they must “voluntarily” adopt federal rules. It’s what the $4 billion Race to the Top did for national standards. It’s what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he, for all intents and purposes, will do with NCLB waivers. And it is how failed, bankrupting  federal education policy has been imposed for decades.  And lest we forget, Washington is spending $350 million on national tests to go with the Common Core, which the Obama administration wants to make the accountability backbone of a reauthorized NCLB.

So no, this is not voluntary. Nor is it state-led: state legislatures represent their people, but the groups that ran the Common Core State Standards Initiative were unelected professional associations—the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers.

I have no doubt that Jeb Bush has the best interests of children at heart. But even the best of intentions don’t countenance avoiding or snuffing out open debate over public policy, especially a policy as riddled with holes as national curriculum standards. Add to that our standing on the verge of unprecedented, unconstitutional federal control of our schools, and this debate must be had now, and it must be had so that all may hear it.