Why Are Conservatives Still Listening to This Common Core Supporter?

Former Secretary of Education William Bennett (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)
Former Secretary of Education William Bennett (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Education Week reports that former Education Secretary William Bennett is leading a new education-policy group called Conservative Leaders for Education (CLE). The goal is to take advantage of the demise of No Child Left Behind to push state policy-makers to implement “school choice, local control, ‘transparent’ and ‘timely’ accountability, and ‘high academic standards’ chosen by states.” CLE is currently made up of lawmakers who chair state education committees in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Utah, and Wisconsin, and the group hopes to expand to other states.

In the Education Week interview, Bennett expressed concern that teachers’ unions will flex their muscle at the local level — “that’s why I think they’re giving at least two cheers for ESSA” (the Every Student Succeeds Act, which Bennett claims, misleadingly, restores local control over education). The unions, such as American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, would certainly oppose school choice and probably push for less stringent accountability measures for schools.

But although Bennett continues to present himself as a conservative on education issues, his full-throated support for the Common Core national standards belies that image. Bennett seems to have taken his talking points from good friend Chester Finn, whose Gates-funded Fordham Institute has been the most vociferous proponent of Common Core. Parroting Fordham, and apparently without understanding the standards (he argues that Common Core is welcome because it ensures all American students will read the same classic novels such as Huckleberry Finn, which Common Core manifestly does not do), Bennett has taken to the airwaves and the pages of the Wall Street Journal to tout the national standards.

Given his defense of the statist, progressive Common Core standards, it is troubling that some state lawmakers are now taking advice from Dr. Bennett. Especially is this so when many of those lawmakers, as pointed out by CLE member Rep. Amanda Price of Michigan, “aren’t necessarily veterans of education policy and political battles” and therefore won’t recognize the buzzwords and understand the dangers they conceal.

Asked about his contact with the Donald Trump campaign on education issues, Bennett said he had offered to advise Trump on education but hasn’t heard back from the candidate after one “brief conversation.” Given Bennett’s position on Common Core, that’s probably a good thing. But Bennett did offer that he has “shared his ideas” with Trump economic advisers Stephen Moore and Lawrence Kudlow. Since neither of those men is likely to be well versed in education issues, let’s hope they don’t overly rely on some of the views of Bill Bennett.

Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project. Emmett McGroarty is the American Principles Project’s Director of Education.