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The next president's biggest education issue won't be Common Core

Jeb Bush answering questions after an Iowa event on Friday.
Jeb Bush answering questions after an Iowa event on Friday.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The media loves to talk about Jeb Bush's history of supporting Common Core. Voters in Iowa are asking about it. And new pro–Common Core ads are reminding Iowans that the standards exist, just as Bush arrives in the state to start campaigning.

There's no question that Bush's past support of the standards — which are controversial among conservative activists — is a challenge. But paradoxically, the focus on Common Core as his biggest ideological pitfall on education might not be so bad.

The Common Core fight takes attention away from a bigger, more consequential fight within the Republican Party over whether the federal government should play any role in K-12 education. And for conservatives who think it shouldn't, Bush's positions on accountability and testing, while in line with what some Congressional Republicans want, are as heretical as his views on Common Core.

The next president can't do much about Common Core. But he or she could have huge influence over how the federal No Child Left Behind law is overhauled. This means that even if Bush manages to neutralize the issue of Common Core, there will be a new and more complex set of education policy land mines for him to navigate.

The big education questions Bush isn't being asked

This sign is from a Common Core testing protest, but issues around testing and accountability are much bigger than the debate about the standards. (Craig F. Walker/Denver Post)

Bush tackled the question of what the federal government should do about K-12 education in a Washington Post op-ed on Friday. Congress, he wrote,

should work to create transparency so that parents can see how their local schools measure up; it should support policies that have a proven record; and it should make sure states can’t ignore students who need extra help. That’s it.

This leaves room for much more flexibility than No Child Left Behind did. It doesn't say the federal government should define academic progress or punish schools that don't meet it. And Bush also says he supports using federal money to create "education savings accounts" parents can use to send their kids to any school they choose — essentially a voucher system, an idea popular with conservative Republicans in Congress.

Still, even that pared-back version of the law would maintain a more muscular federal role in education than many Republicans want. Bush still wants states to test students annually. And he wants states to hold schools accountable for all students' progress, including students from disadvantaged groups — a key plank of No Child Left Behind.

The House of Representatives just tried to pass a bill that was slightly more conservative than Bush's vision. The Club for Growth and Heritage Action urged members of Congress to reject any bill that didn't allow states to opt out of federal mandates entirely. The effort fell apart because it wasn't conservative enough.

Bush is walking a party line on Common Core

Scott Olson / Getty

Chris Christie is another former supporter of the standards who now says the Obama administration was too pushy about making states adopt them. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

Bush's challenge on Common Core is real. The standards, for conservative activists, are a potent symbol of federal overreach into the historically local responsibility for education.

Still, it's not yet clear if Common Core is really a deal breaker for Iowa voters. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, a longtime supporter of the standards, easily won reelection to a sixth term in November. A recent Marist poll found that 57 percent of the potential Republican electorate in Iowa found a candidate who supports Common Core "totally" or "mostly" acceptable.

And for all the conservative energy around Common Core, efforts to actually get rid of the standards have stalled this year in Republican-dominated state legislatures. Republican-controlled legislatures in North Dakota, South Dakota, Mississippi, and Arizona have all rejected bills that aimed to get rid of the standards.

Bush has adopted what's becoming the Republican party line among Common Core supporters — that the standards themselves are good but the Obama administration went too far in getting states to adopt them. In the Post op-ed, Bush argued that Congress should make sure states and districts retain control over what students learn:

Most critically, we can use the reauthorization process to keep states and local districts in control of making vital decisions about standards, curriculum and academic content…No matter what, no state should be forced to adopt standards mandated by the federal government.

The federal government never mandated that states adopt the Common Core in the first place, although the Obama administration did everything it could short of an outright requirement. Two states, Oklahoma and Indiana, have gotten rid of the standards, and, after a back-and-forth with the US Education Department, neither was penalized for doing so.

So a provision in federal law that states should be able to choose their own standards probably wouldn't be too controversial — after all, the US Education Department is already legally prohibited from meddling with curriculums. It's far from the most critical question the next president will face about education policy. If the Common Core wars ever die down, Bush will have to deal with those issues

And because standards really do remain a state issue, that's not the most critical question the next president will face on education. If Bush survives the Common Core controversy, he'll have to answer questions about those issues next.