Editor's note: The following column by Ben Velderman's column originally appeared on EAGnews.com, the website of the Education Action Group.
When future scholars write the history of the school choice movement, Jeb Bush will be remembered as one of its founding fathers.
Bush was a charter school advocate years before most Americans had even heard about the alternative public schools. Through the work of Bush and other leaders, there are more than 5,200 charter schools in the U.S. that serve an estimated 1.7 million students. The schools can be found in 41 states, including Florida, where Bush helped establish the very first charter back in 1996.
Over the years, Bush has courageously thrown his support behind various school voucher plans and parent trigger laws – both as governor of Florida and as a private citizen – all with the goal of helping families escape the K-12 public school monopoly.
And to benefit those students who stay in the traditional system, Bush has been a champion for tougher teacher evaluations and merit pay plans to ensure that government-run schools are being staffed by the best individuals possible.
Bush’s service to the causes of school choice and improving public education has benefited an untold number of families, and for that he deserves the thanks of a grateful nation.
However … Bush is jeopardizing 20 years’ worth of hard-won school choice successes by stubbornly promoting and defending the Common Core math and English learning standards. He doesn’t seem to realize that the one-size-fits-all standards are likely to have the practical effect of making instruction in all types of schools – public, public charter, private and even home schools – depressingly similar and mediocre.
The non-traditional schools will be forced to be less creative in their approach to learning, and will therefore have less value to the public.
A high price to pay
Despite a lack of tangible evidence, Bush and other Common Core supporters are adamant that Common Core will represent a huge upgrade over the ragtag group of learning standards states have been using for years.
They’re also convinced Common Core will lead to more “rigorous” instruction, which will produce high school graduates with better “critical thinking” skills. Those better-prepared graduates, the theory goes, will boost the struggling American economy.
That’s the main selling point Bush and company use to sell Common Core to the skeptical masses.
Common Core supporters spend much less time talking about the other, larger goal of the nationalized learning standards, which is to create a uniform K-12 system that synchronizes grade-level instruction among the states.
The idea is that Common Core-aligned standardized tests will generate apples-to-apples student data that will allow education “experts” to crack the “science” behind student learning and improve teacher training programs. The student data bonanza will also allow K-12 technology companies to create software and programs that “personalize” the learning process for students.
According to this theory, public education is just a few years away from historic possibilities that could finally restore America’s K-12 greatness.
The problem is it’s just a long-shot theory. Common Core has never been field tested anywhere in the country, so the overall academic results are anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, implementation of the standards throughout the nation has not gone well. Teachers don’t understand much of the material, so students have little chance of grasping it. Standardized test scores have dropped significantly in early Common Core states. Millions of concerned people, including teachers, union officials, school administrators and parents have become highly critical of Common Core over the past year or two, and numerous state legislatures are debating the idea of dumping the standards altogether.
Bush has already paid the price politically for his stubborn support of Common Core. Many conservative Republicans – the voters who make or break GOP presidential candidates in the state primaries – despise Common Core and mistrust those who support it.
As writer James Pethokoukis put it last summer, “In a startling turnabout, an education record that has looked to be an unvarnished plus for Bush may now be a liability. Long viewed as a potential contender in the 2016 presidential race, Bush has taken considerable heat from activists on the right in recent months for his support of the Common Core.
“Several of his potential rivals for a GOP nomination, among them Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, have outflanked him by coming out against the Common Core, which many Tea Party activists see as a heavy-handed federal intrusion into local control of education.”
And even if Common Core were to prove ultimately successful, it will come at a huge cost.
Not only will the long-held American principles of locally controlled schools and privacy rights for students be seriously compromised, but it will render school choice – the focus of much of Bush’s life’s work – virtually meaningless.
Creating carbon copy schools
We have to wonder how Bush would respond to various experts who convincingly predict that Common Core will have the effect of stealing away the unique qualities that make many charter and private schools so different and special.
Hillsdale College professor Terrence Moore argues the Common Core could conceivably lead to the creation of fewer “classical” charter schools – those steeped in the classics of Western thought – throughout the U.S.
In an interview with Heartland.org, Moore said unique, “classical” based charter and voucher schools –many of which produce amazing results with students – may not be allowed to open by state or school district officials because their curricula don’t mesh with Common Core’s emphasis on post-modern literature and “informational” texts.
Moore also warned existing classical schools might become so consumed with trying to meet the expectations of the Common Core-aligned state assessments that they might have to “stop what they’re doing and have to teach to the test in order to prepare students.”
That would “gut their curriculum, especially knowing that so many principals are very skittish about test scores (and) what they have to do to prepare for the tests,” Moore added.
That reality is already settling in for at least one charter school leader.
Principal Derek Anderson said Common Core poses an “existential” threat for Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.
“PARCC (a Common Core-aligned test) is truly the enforcement mechanism that will coerce schools into adopting the Common Core curriculum,” Anderson wrote in an email to conservative columnist Michelle Malkin. “We cannot do this. It is entirely against the mission and philosophy of our school.”
To our knowledge, Bush has not addressed any of these concerns. Bush has declined our requests for interviews.
Schools will be pressured to cooperate
The Common Core infection seems likely spread to private voucher schools, too. Here’s how Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post explained it in a 2013 article:
“Students in every state take the high-stakes college admissions exams, the SAT and the ACT, as well as the newly designed GED, the high school equivalency test used as an alternative way to get a high school diploma. And all of those exams are going to be aligned to the Common Core standards, at least that is what their respective owners say.”
Deduced Strauss: “It turns out that the standards could wind up affecting students in every state — even if their legislatures reject the initiative.”
The unavoidable effect of Common Core on all types of schools is obvious: Any institution worth its salt will do whatever is necessary to help students continue their education at a college or university. And according to the new rules of the game, that means making students fluent in Common Core, if for no other reason than to pass the ACT and SAT tests.
And on the off-chance that some officials at private or charter schools don’t care about that, they will still have a very tough time finding textbooks and instructional materials that haven’t been designed to comply with the dictates of Common Core.
The bottom line is this: Jeb Bush has spent a career extolling the right of families to send their children to the school that best meets their needs.
But, logically speaking, how does choosing their child’s school benefit parents if all the schools are teaching the same concepts at the same pace, and – thanks to the “hammer” of Common Core testing – essentially the same lesson plans and learning materials?
What’s the point?
In a Human Events editorial published last fall, Bush maintained that Common Core doesn’t “harm parental choices.”
We suppose that’s true. You can’t harm something that no longer exists.
Looks like Bush is still in denial that his zeal for Common Core could turn his life’s work into ashes.
Ben Velderman is a communications specialist for EAG and joined in 2010. He is a former member of the Michigan Education Association.