During Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate, Marco Rubio had a hot exchange with Chris Christie, claiming the country could not afford to have a president supportive of Common Core. Rubio’s assertion was rather questionable though, and it’s because of a new law he should know about.
“I like Chris Christie, but we cannot afford to have a president of the United States that supports Common Core,” Rubio said. He was attempting to bash Christie for having too many similarities with President Barack Obama, adding that he also backed gun control, donated to Planned Parenthood, and backed the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
Christie fought back, claiming he had actually “eliminated” Common Core in New Jersey. That claim, as it happens, is only partly true, as New Jersey’s proposed replacement for Common Core is extremely similar to it. (RELATED: New Jersey’s Common Core Replacement Is Pretty Much Just Common Core)
But turning away from Christie’s actions for a moment, Rubio’s initial claim, that the U.S. “cannot afford” a president supportive of Common Core, is very dubious. Regardless of one’s position on Common Core, the country probably can afford a president who supports it, because the presidency now has almost no role in the issue.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed by Congress in December and subsequently signed by Obama, substantially overhauls the relationship between the federal government and state and local schools. One of its major provisions, though, is intended to directly address the debate over Common Core.
“The Secretary [of Education] shall not attempt to influence, incentivize, or coerce State adoption of the Common Core State Standards developed under the Common Core State Standards Initiative or any other academic standards common to a significant number of States, or assessments tied to such standard,” ESSA says. Numerous other parts in the law repeatedly clarify that states can adopt, repeal, or ignore Common Core entirely at their leisure, while the federal government is explicitly barred from influencing them in any way. The shift was the product of hard work by Alabama Republican Rep. Martha Roby, who had originally unsuccessfully pushed for the change via standalone legislation in 2013.
ESSA’s provisions prohibit several methods the Obama administration used to promote Common Core. Under the Race to the Top program, states that adopted Common Core could improve their chances of getting federal funds. Later, states using Common Core were at an advantage when they applied for waivers from No Child Left Behind requirements. Now, those tactics have been made illegal, giving the president essentially zero power to boss states around on the matter of school standards. To the extent the president can influence the issue, it’s only through the power of his personal ability to persuade others.
The only way for such federal interventions to become legal again would be for a new bill overhauling ESSA, which seems very unlikely given the bill’s bipartisan nature. Neither party is eager to overhaul federal education policy for some time.
If Rubio isn’t aware of the change in federal law, it may be because he didn’t vote on the final version of the bill.
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