Is This the Issue That Sinks Jeb?
Why conservatives care so much about the education standards—and what it means for 2016.
I love it when political coverage can actually inform us, and such was the case when former Education Secretary Bill Bennett and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott squared off on a substantive debate over Common Core this weekend on Fox News Sunday.
The debate is not only important in terms of its policy implications, but also because former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush supports this controversial policy, which is so passionately opposed by much of the conservative base. Just as Mitt Romney was plagued by his support of “RomneyCare,” Jeb’s support of Common Core poses a particularly nasty challenge.
The original goal of Common Core was for states to voluntarily band together to set some common standards (read them here). It sounds pretty modest and aspirational, but things get complicated when government coercion comes into play.
Thanks to Obama administration policies, states that complied with Common Core were more likely to receive federal dollars, and to become eligible for waivers allowing them to opt out of the No Child Left Behind’s most onerous mandates. In short, strings were attached.
There are, of course, wildly incorrect conspiracy theories about liberal indoctrination (many of these are debunked when one grasps that the standards are for reading and math, only—not social studies or science). But the easiest part of Common Core to legitimately lampoon has to do with math.
Common Core seeks to change the ways students approach solving math problems. As Gov. Abbott said on Fox News Sunday, if you Google “9 plus 6 Common Core,” you will see a video that demonstrates the absurdity of Common Core, at least, in terms of how it teaches addition.
The goal is to get past rote memorization and force students to conceptualize math problems. In other words, the cognitive process is more important than coming up with the correct answer. Don’t get me wrong: There is some validity to this. But the problem is that it also feels like a Rube Goldberg machine.
A while back, RedState’s Erick Erickson wrote something that I think really hit the nail on the head:
I think the people who support Common Core out of good intentions do not realize the bad side of Common Core. Beyond the emotional arguments, the philosophical arguments, and the crazy arguments—there are a lot of crazy arguments against Common Core—there is a very practical argument the Common Core supporters have no answer for.
Moms cannot help their children with math homework. Reporters who are single and Common Core supporters without kids may not be able to relate here or identify with this, but that’s why this is such a sleeper issue. Moms cannot help their kids with math homework and that’s creating most of the rage against Common Core.
This is an important point, and I suspect (as Erickson suggests) one not fully comprehended by people who don’t have kids (and, I imagine, by some highly educated elites, or people who can afford tutors for their children).
Imagine a mom or dad who already works 50 hours a week, devoting another dozen to helping little Johnny spend a full minute adding 9 plus 6. Parents who don’t have the time (or, in many cases, the capacity) to deal with this somewhat esoteric project will be made to feel stupid, frustrated, angry, and ultimately inferior.
And this speaks to why this issue is so dangerous for Bush. There are plenty of legitimate and rational reasons to oppose Common Core on its merits. One can do so under the assumption that education is appropriately the purview of states and local communities. Or, one can concede the well-intended motives, but also acknowledge the fact that—at some point—this went off the tracks.
But you and I both know that’s not how politics work. In politics, emotion always trumps logic, and that’s why this issue is a powder keg.
Ever facet of life today has been amped up. Marketers push our buttons like never before, and the people who sell politics have gotten hip to this. Rather than having intellectual policy debates, political strategists have learned to make sure every issue becomes an emotional issue that fundamentally challenges the dearest things we value as humans. They bypass the brain and instead tap into emotions like anger and fear. And there are some issues—such as health and education—where it is inherently easier to tap into our primal, reptilian brain.
We are seeing this happen right now over the anti-vaccination debate, and we certainly saw it play out over still-raging immigration-reform debate, and the battle over ObamaCare. This is what all the talk about “death panels” and rationed care was about. I’m not even suggesting these weren’t legitimate concerns—what I am suggesting is that they arouse our passion and action in a way that an anodyne discussion about “premium support,” for example, does not.
So Jeb can expect to have at least as much trouble with this issue as Romney had over health-care reform. And, in fact, I do think you could argue that there is something that makes education unique, and perhaps more dangerous, for Jeb.
People probably tend to downplay the notion they will get sick, or to believe that only the very old will need a doctor. However, education is inherently about the future—not the past. If you have kids or think you might, there is no way of fooling yourself into believing that this won’t impact you.