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Critics don’t budge Jeb Bush from backing school testing

Jeb Bush spoke to the Economic Club of Detroit on Feb. 4.
Jeb Bush spoke to the Economic Club of Detroit on Feb. 4.Paul Sancya/Associated PRess

WASHINGTON — Jeb Bush has pledged to campaign “joyfully” if he runs for president in 2016, proud of all aspects of his record.

That joy will be seriously tested when it comes to his support of Common Core, a national education standard designed to boost student achievement but seen as a symbol of big government by the Republican Party’s conservative base.

The former Florida governor has steadfastly embraced Common Core as he considers whether to enter the race, despite increasing criticism from potential rivals and demands that he reconsider his support for the program. Just saying the name Common Core generates animosity among some GOP primary voters.

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“It’s become Obamacare for education,” said John Brabender, a Pennsylvania-based Republican consultant who has been an adviser to Rick Santorum. “Even people who cannot articulate why they are for or against it — they still consider it toxic.”

To a limited degree, the dynamics are similar to Mitt Romney’s tortured relationship with conservatives over his universal health care plan in Massachusetts. Bush and other Common Core advocates from both parties are seeking to correct what they see as a major failing in the United States: poorly prepared students.

The Common Core standards were developed in 2009, largely through the National Governors Association and with help from state leaders. The aim was to address concerns that American students were lagging behind other countries on basic math and reading skills. The standards set goals — such as teaching kindergartners to count from one to 100 — but leave how to get there to local districts.

In 2009, President Obama’s administration began giving participating states favorable treatment in grant awards.

Although Common Core is despised by many conservatives, mainstream and pro-business Republicans are more supportive. It has the backing of the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The Wall Street Journal editorial page wrote in December that Bush “needn’t repudiate his support for national education standards.”

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And he hasn’t.

“In my view, the rigor of the Common Core State Standards must be the new minimum in classrooms,” Bush said in November. “And so for those states that are choosing a path other than Common Core, I say this: That’s fine. Except you should be aiming even higher and be bolder and raise standards and ask more of our students and the system.”

Bush advisers say he has not changed his position since November and that he will continue calling for higher national standards.

During a recent forum on education, Bush did not bring up Common Core specifically but he did say that the federal government role should be limited to requiring annual testing.

“Having that baseline accountability matters,” Bush said. “But beyond that, I think it has to be pretty clear that the federal government’s role ought to be to enhance reform at the local and state level, not to impose it. Because that doesn’t work.”

Forty-five states adopted Common Core for language arts and math by 2012. But a backlash has begun. Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina decided to withdraw from the standards last year, and several other states are re-evaluating their participation. Many potential candidates for the GOP nomination are speaking against it, even those who once supported it.

“Local parents, local teachers, local leaders need to make these decisions,” Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said recently. Jindal supported Common Core but has turned into a chief critic as he mulls a presidential bid. “In our entire history as a country, we’ve never allowed the federal government to make these decisions for us. Now is not the time to start.”

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An Alexandria, Va.-based group called the Constitutional Rights PAC said it was airing national television ads criticizing Bush.

“Jeb supports [immigration] amnesty, increased taxation, and Common Core,” a narrator says. “We must show the GOP that we do not want another Bush as our presidential nominee.”

Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, has said flatly that anyone who supports Common Core does not deserve the Republican nomination. Rick Perry did not sign onto the program when he was governor of Texas and has criticized it by saying, “The academic standards of Texas are not for sale.” Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, came out in 2013 against it.

Several other governors who once embraced the standards have taken a quick U-turn. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who once supported the standards, said in Iowa last month that they had been transformed into a “frankenstandard.”

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who once said Common Core was “one of those areas where I have agreed more with the president than not,” told a crowd in Iowa recently that he was now more skeptical.

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who once showed tacit approval of the standards, called for their repeal last year and, in a budget released this month, removed funding for Common Core testing.

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In a survey conducted this month for Bloomberg Politics and Saint Anselm College, 20 percent of New Hampshire Republican primary voters said Bush’s support for Common Core was a “deal killer.” Only 40 percent said it was not a real problem, while 28 percent said they would have to consider the issue; 12 percent said they were not sure.

Polling also shows that while many Republican voters are unfamiliar with the policies around Common Core, the phrase itself has become toxic and closely associated with Obama. One survey conducted by Vanderbilt University found that 38 percent of Tennessee Republicans opposed national education standards implemented across the states; that number rose to 61 percent when it was called “Common Core.”

Education has been a cornerstone of Bush’s public life, and it was a major focus during his two terms as Florida governor. He pushed reforms that required testing for all students and that graded schools on an A-to-F scale, and he advocated for more charter schools.

Bush was not in office when Common Core was being adopted by states, but he has been a vocal proponent, largely through a nonprofit he started after leaving office called the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

“Common Core is so closely associated with Obama and given the antipathy Republicans have for Obama, it’s not really a political winner. . . . Bush is going to have to change the conversation a bit,” said Joshua D. Clinton, a political science professor at Vanderbilt. “He has to either persuade people that what they think about the policy isn’t what the policy actually says, or he has to convince them to change their mind. That’s a tough task.”

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Bush’s advisers do not anticipate that he will walk away from his support for the standards and say instead the program will be a badge of honor: He is sticking by his position, they say, even as some of his opponents switch theirs to a more politically expedient one.

“I just don’t feel compelled to run for cover when I think this is the right thing to do for our country,” Bush told Fox News last April. “And others have, others that supported the standards all of a sudden are opposed to it.”


Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.