Judd Gregg: Republicans and the education failure

Judd Gregg: Republicans and the education failure
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Our public elementary and secondary education system leaves a lot of kids behind.

This is obvious, and it has been true for a very long time.  

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Way back during President George H.W. Bush’s time in the White House, there was a gathering of all the governors of all the states called by the president for a specific purpose — the only second such meeting in history. The purpose was to come up with ways to fix our failing public education system.  

The conference took place in Charlottesville, Va., where Thomas Jefferson cast a long shadow. It grandly concluded that by the turn of the century, i.e. 2000, American students would lead the world in math and science. At the time, American students ranked fairly close to last among industrialized nations in both areas.

Today, American students still rank about last in math and science when compared to other advanced nations.  

Not much progress.

Now the Republican presidential race is mired in a debate over something called “Common Core.” It has become the proxy for the debate over education. It is a straw man. It is a staged debate, which will have no significant impact on even beginning to improve our educational malaise.

Common Core is now a term of art, a pejorative to many, most of whom have no idea what it is or how it evolved. Some politicians have told them that it represents excessive interference by the federal government. The substance of the program is rarely discussed; the debate is all about its perception. 

It is a great deal easier for some candidates and zealots to create an enemy to malign, such as the term Common Core, than to answer the real question of how to do something about our continued failure to educate our children.

Common Core was actually a well-intentioned effort put together not by the federal government but by the National Governors Association to try and get accountability into the education system.  

It did not set standards. There was no evil effort here by Obama bureaucrats to usurp control over local schools. Rather there was a grassroots, state-level effort to get some accountability into a system which was, and is, clearly failing — and where the teachers unions want nothing to do with accountability.  

The great irony of the attacks on Common Core by those making up the muttering right is that they are doing the work of the teachers unions. The unions hate the accountability that is inherent to the law.

The really debilitating effect of all this misdirection and hyperbole regarding Common Core is to distract the discussion from one area where Republicans could make a great case that would resonate with the American people.  

Why is our education system failing our kids, and endangering our competitiveness and long-term wellbeing as a nation? This should be the basic Republican argument, and it should come coupled with some other questions. 

Why not be for standards that test not the kids but the teachers unions that fail them? 

Why not have an education system where a concerned parent can find out what their child is learning in comparison to other children not only here but in other well-off nations?  

Why not give parents the ability to take their child to the school of their choosing and have the dollars that are spent on that child follow, so he or she can get a good education?  

Why not require that schools and teachers who consistently fail their students be terminated or changed?   

What is the justification for having no competition and a system of tenure in a society that is suppose to be a meritocracy and which is built on the idea of improving, not standing still or failing?  

Why not find ways to give single moms, especially in poorer urban and rural areas, the assistance they need to give their children options other then failure?  

Why not insist on the right of a parent to have the option of charter schools, both public and private?

The battle that we as Republicans should be fighting should be for fundamental change and improvement to our education system. It should not be between ourselves over some non-relevant term like Common Core.  

We should make a simple, powerful demand, directed at the education establishment, and the Washington and union elites: Free our children from the bonds of an education system that has not for a long time delivered opportunity and advancement.

We need to stop narrowing the terms of the debate on many issues, but especially on education.

This makes electoral sense, too. 

There are few areas more fertile for Republicans to grow support outside of our core constituencies than education. 

People will respond if we rattle the educational establishment for the benefit of parents generally — but especially those parents who find their children consigned to mediocrity or worse in a straitjacketed, failed school system.  

The Republican message should be that we will change this — really change this. We will give parents options. Schools will be safe. Teachers will be rewarded for teaching well. Kids will learn.

Stop the inane discussion on Common Core and let’s get the Republican message back to being about changing and improving our American education system.  

People will actually listen to this approach. They will respond with appreciation — and votes.

Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.