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Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio had a surprisingly revealing debate about Common Core

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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.

If you want to understand why Common Core is so virulently opposed by much of the Republican Party, a brief exchange between former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and current Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at Thursday's Republican debate provides a great explanation.

Moderator Bret Baier did everything he could to push the two former allies into a fight. "You are one of the few people on the stage who advocates for Common Core education standards, reading and math," he said to Bush. "A lot of people on this stage vigorously oppose federal involvement in education. They say it should all be handled locally."

"I’m for higher standards, measured in an intellectually honest way," Bush responded, adding that he thinks the states should create those standards.

"Here’s the problem with Common Core," Rubio shot back. "The Department of Education, like every federal agency, will never be satisfied."

Bush and Rubio's exchange wasn't just a rhetorical battle — it was a substantive argument that illustrated why the Common Core has become so controversial among Republicans.

At the heart of their disagreement are two opposing ideas about the federal government's role in education that, until recently, both had a home in the Republican party. The first is that the federal government has a role to play in holding schools accountable. The second is that taking federal money is a devil's bargain that inevitably ends in more federal control.

The George W. Bush agenda: The federal government should hold schools accountable

Top-Polling GOP Candidates Participate In First Republican Presidential Debate

Jeb Bush fields a question Thursday night.

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Congress spends a lot of money on K-12 education — $79 billion per year. Beginning in the 1990s, Republicans began to argue that there should be some guarantee that it's getting something for its money. This was the underlying principle of No Child Left Behind, which threatened schools with consequences if they didn't make "adequate yearly progress" toward the ambitious goal of getting kids able to read and write by mid-2014.

This was the driving force behind George W. Bush's education agenda. And while Jeb Bush clearly favors a much smaller federal role in education than his brother did, he didn't entirely disavow the idea that the federal government should ensure quality.

"If states want to opt out of Common Core, fine," Bush said in response to Baier's question about the role the federal government should play in education. "Just make sure your standards are high."

Bush didn't say if he trusted states to make sure their standards were high on their own, or if the federal government should play a role, as it has during the Obama administration. But his answer went on to talk about national spending and national results: "Today in America … after we spend more per student than any country in the world other than a couple rounding errors, to be honest with you, 30 percent are college- and/or career-ready."

The Ronald Reagan agenda: The federal government shouldn't spend any money — or play any role

Rubio during the first Republican debate on Aug. 6.

Rubio during the debates Thursday night.

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Rubio, on the other hand, warned that federal education spending will eventually lead to federal control of education.

They will not stop with it being a suggestion. They will turn it into a mandate.

In fact, what they will begin to say to local communities is, you will not get federal money unless do you things the way we want you to do it. And they will use Common Core or any other requirements that exists nationally to force it down the throats of our people in our states.

This didn't quite happen with Common Core — it wasn't a federal mandate, although the Education Department did everything it could to get states to adopt Common Core short of making it an actual requirement. And after that experience, the next version of No Child Left Behind is likely to tie the Education Department's hands when it comes to things like academic standards.

But it's true that accepting federal money comes with federal obligations.

Rubio's argument — that if the Education Department pays the piper, it gets to call the tune — is a more sophisticated reframing of calls to get rid of the Education Department, which some parts of the Republican Party have been calling for since the department was established.

What this means for the Republican primary

Rubio's position is clearly more popular within the party right now, but that doesn't mean Bush is doomed.

First, education remains something of a backwater issue. Polls repeatedly show that most Americans' opinions on the issue are incoherent and not particularly ideological. "Americans may value education, but as an issue it is not at the forefront of their minds," wrote Michael Henderson, research director of the Louisiana State University Public Policy Research Lab, at the Brookings Institution this week.

Second, the uncomfortable truth even for candidates who want to "repeal Common Core" is that the train has left the station. A Republican presidential administration could make clear that states would face no penalties for abandoning the standards, but the Common Core is now fairly entrenched in many states, and that probably wouldn't start a stampede.

Third, Bush is likely to be more conservative than his brother. He hasn't released an education plan yet, but he pivoted pretty quickly off Common Core to talk about his record of establishing statewide voucher programs in Florida. As the campaign gets underway, it's likely Bush will emphasize those more conservative parts of his record — not his real differences with Rubio.