Several Republican presidential candidates had a great opportunity over the last two weeks to take the lead on an issue critical to millions of conservatives – federal control over public education. A couple helped their cause, a couple did not, and one blasted further down into the crater he’s been in from the beginning.
On Wednesday, the Senate followed the House in passing the conference report reauthorizing No Child Left Behind. Propaganda for the new bill, called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), trumpeted that it would return education control to the states, allow them to discard the Common Core national standards, and prohibit the Secretary of Education from dictating standards and assessments.
In fact, ESSA will have pretty much the opposite effect. It lays out particular requirements for state standards and uses code language throughout that gives the federal government the tools to pressure the states to stick with Common Core rather than risking their federal money by adopting something better. It maintains the federally dictated testing regimen and requires states to implement assessments that are expensive, that have been proven to be ineffective and unworkable, and that operate not by assessing students’ academic knowledge but rather by measuring their attitudes and dispositions.
Equally bad are ESSA’s new preschool program (extending federal tentacles over toddlers) and its institution of President Obama’s pet project, “21st-century community learning centers.” The latter means that schools will be expanded to replace family and church as the center of every child’s life, offering myriad “services” including mental-health programs. Few things should alarm parents more than the prospect of the government’s assessing their child’s mental health and proceeding to fix any problem the government claims to find. But this is what the Republican Congress has given us.
This bill is so progressive that it was supported by every single Democrat in Congress. It was supported by Barack Obama. It was supported by the owners of the Common Core national standards (National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers). It was supported by every other pro-Common Core and pro-progressive education interest group in the country. And it was adamantly and eloquently opposed by over 200 anti-Common Core grassroots organizations.
So where did the candidates come down? Of the senators, Rand Paul was the only one to be appointed to the sham conference committee that rubber-stamped the bill. He voted against it there, voted against cloture when it came to the Senate, and voted against final passage. Ted Cruz voted against cloture but missed the final vote (although he did issue a statement opposing the bill). Although Marco Rubio voted against the original Senate version last summer, he missed both the cloture vote and the final vote on ESSA. And Lindsey Graham, polishing his establishment credentials, voted in favor of both cloture and final passage.
Another candidate emerged from this debate in even worse position among the grassroots than he had been in before. That, of course, is Jeb Bush. In an interview on Fox News before the vote on ESSA, Bush touted all the propaganda about “local control” and the “end of Common Core.” Given that Bush’s reputation as Mr. Common Core has sunk his campaign, his scandalously overpaid consultants apparently saw the ESSA vote as a way to rehabilitate the candidate among the grassroots. What they didn’t realize is that the grassroots know the truth about ESSA and have not fallen for the marketing blitz. To see Jeb Bush on TV repeating Republican establishment talking points they know to be false is to validate every negative opinion they had of him.
We’re still waiting for a candidate to offer full-voiced leadership on the education crisis (which is a constitutional crisis) in our country. Who will lead the “Repeal ESSA” campaign?
Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project.