Conservatives on Common Core: Repealing Legislation That Doesn’t Exist to Protect Grant Money That Shouldn’t Exist

Since we’re going to be hearing a lot about Common Core education standards among the GOP presidential candidates, especially those using the topic to try to bury Jeb Bush, it’s kinda important to understand the many contradictions that underlay how conservatives talk about the initiative. Dave Weigel gives us a good start in trying to make sense of what Ted Cruz is saying about Common Core:

For at least five months, Texas Senator Ted Cruz has been punctuating his speeches with a demand to “repeal Common Core.” He previewed the line in a pre-midterm column, published by USA Today in October 2014; Common Core needed to be repealed, “so that local curriculum is not mandated by Washington bureaucrats.” When Cruz took this on the road, audiences dutifully clapped and cheered; reporters dutifully noted the applause. (Most reporters, not all.)

It took until March 16 for a progressive voice to ask what the heck Cruz was talking about. At ThinkProgress, Judd Legum reported on a Cruz tweet—”We need to repeal every word of Common Core!”—with the headline “Ted Cruz Makes Impassioned Plea For Repeal Of Federal Legislation That Does Not Exist.” Matter-of-factly, Legum explained that “Common Core is not, in fact, a federal law,” that its standards were “developed by the states,” and that the federal government played “no role” in writing them.

With all due respect to Legum, a lot of us have been writing for a long time about the absurdity of conservatives denouncing a state initiative to bypass the federal government in setting national education standards as an example of federal tyranny. But it’s true a direct challenge to Cruz, who’s really been demagoguing this issue, is very helpful.

“Common Core is a federally created curriculum that the state’s ‘Race to the Top’ grants are tied to,” offered Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Cruz. “So if the state does not adopt the standards, it gives up the grant money. But since the federal government created this mess, there should be a way to undo it.”

Fine: Cruz does not punctuate his orations with calls to “untether the grant money for Race to the Top from Common Core standards.” He condenses the matter into a line that fits lego-tight with his calls to “repeal every blasted word of Obamacare.” But he’s already on board with a proposal to shake off the standards. Cruz has co-sponsored the Local Control of Education Act, penned by Louisiana Senator David Vitter, which would strip Common Core mandates and “allow states that do not accept these standards to continue to qualify for federal grants and waivers currently limited to states that are in compliance with the standards.”

To put it another way, conservatives are claiming Obama fatally tainted Common Core–in itself an okay idea–by offering federal money for its implementation. That’s shaky enough as an argument–if it’s good, maybe it’s unnecessary to throw federal dollars at it, but why is that corrupt?–but it gets a lot shakier when you listen to some of the same people claim the feds should get out of the education business altogether. What’s the point of letting states get federal education dollars even if they refuse to implement their own Common Core standards if they shouldn’t be getting federal money to begin with?

For conservatives, however, the trouble with the “let’s kill federal aid to education” line is that a lot of them want to use federal aid to push states into “attacking the teachers union monopoly” and perhaps even bypass the states entirely to put money into the hands of homeschooling, private-school-favoring parents. That was pretty much what Mitt Romney proposed in 2012–“backpack” vouchers going straight to parents without any apparent conditions on their use–and is at the heart of what people like Bobby Jindal are trying to implement (though the courts have at least temporarily stymied Bobby).

So one person’s “carrot” or “stick” is another’s vehicle for liberating Americans from the tyranny of government schools. But you cannot kill one and preserve the other.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.