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Fierce Debate: Fmr. Reagan Secretary of Education Bill Bennett vs. Gov. Greg Abbott on Common Core

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS SUNDAY: Chances are you've heard of common core, education standards for grades K through 12 that 46 states adopted just three years ago. But now the program has become so controversial among conservatives several states have dropped out. Joining us to debate common core, Texas Governor Greg Abbott who says the program is banned in his state. And here in D.C., former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, author of the new book "Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana is Harming America."

Mr. Bennett, let me start with you. A number of Republicans considering Iran for president in 2016, have made opposition to common core a key issue. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE, R-FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: Why is the federal government getting involved in an issue where there is no mention whatsoever in the Constitution education.

RICK SANTORUM, R-FORMER PENNSYLVANIA SENATOR: We need less common core and more common sense.

SCOTT WALKER, R-WISCONSIN GOVERNOR: No school district in the state is required to use common core standards.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: Mr. Bennett, are they all wrong?

BILL BENNETT, FORMER SECRETARY OF EDUCATION: Yes, they're all wrong. Because -- but it's understandable why they're wrong. Common core has been vilified because there's been tremendous amount of misinformation about common core that it requires teaching of Islamic radicalism, you have to read all of Barack Obama's speeches. It's a code of political correctness. A whole mythology is built up around common core.

Common core are state standards for math and reading by grade. That's all they are. Anybody who questions what they should read what the standards say. and they say such tendentious things as kids should focus on arithmetic in the early grades, learn how to count, multiply, divide and subtract. And in reading they should emphasize phonics, the meaning of words and good, clear expression.

WALLACE: Governor Abbott, I mean there's another myth about this, contrary to wide-spread public belief this program wasn't started in Washington, in fact, it was started by the nation's governors and by the nation's state education chiefs. So, why this thought that this is a federal takeover of education?

GOV. GREG ABBOTT, R-TEXAS: Well, two things, Chris. One is we have seen buyer's remorse by the governors and states that bought into it to begin with. And they bought into it at a time before its implementation began. What we have seen after its implementation is now the federal government is tying billions of dollars to whether or not states comply with what is becoming a national standard. And so what we're dealing with is a one-size-fit-all national standard being pushed down from the top, from the Obama administration and that is why suddenly we've seen so many parents, so many states, so many school districts reject it so harshly.

WALLACE: All right. Well, let me pick up on that, because while the feds didn't start common core, Mr. Bennett.

BENNETT: Right.

WALLACE: The fact is that they have used grants under the Race to the Top program to try to encourage states to adopt common core and you, even as a big conservative supporter, say that was a mistake.

BENNETT: Absolutely mistake. And the governor's got a point, there are three quarters of a point there. The government put its big foot on this and said if you want government money, federal money, race to the top money as it was called then, this would be a very good, there are smart thing for you to do, common core. From there it went to the notion that the federal government was dictating it. Now, one can understand --

WALLACE: Let me ask, is the federal government dictating it?

BENNETT: No, it isn't. And by the way, there's legislation that's been passed and more legislation coming that will prohibit the federal government from being involved in the common core. However let it be said, as a conservative, one is rightly suspicious of this administration getting into matters that is none of its business. Internal vigilance is the price of liberty. Nevertheless, these standards were developed locally. They are administered locally. In terms of governor's buyer's remorse, talk to Governor Branstad in Iowa, talk to Governor Kasich in Ohio, talk to Governor McCrory in North Carolina, they're very happy with these standards.

There's a reason we had to do this, Chris. When states were reporting their own numbers in math and English, I saw this when I was secretary, we had this like woe be gone effect. 85 percent of the students, you know, were proficient in math and English. Then when you took the national assessment of educational progress test, students in that state turned out 40 percent were proficient. You have to have some kind of independent assessment, some kind of benchmark standards in order to see how our kids are doing.

WALLACE: Governor Abbott in Texas, the use of common core has been banned by the state legislature and you as the attorney general before you became governor said it is banned in the state. But, there are reports that two thirds of the math program that Texas set up your own standards, in fact, overlap with common core. And I want to put up this report which speaks to Mr. Bennett's last point. In education weeks, state report card, your state of Texas got an overall grade of C minus and ranked 39th among the 50 states in the country. Meanwhile, the top nine states in terms of their performance, governor, all have adopted common core.

ABBOTT: Well, let's clarify a couple of things. First of all, what I believe is the correct approach for education is to return genuine local control, which is what I have charted the pathway for as governor. And we will improve our schools from the bottom up by allowing teachers to excel, by increasing parental involvement, by engaging students. And the best way to do that is not with these one size fits all mandates from Washington, D.C. Or even from Austin, Texas. But instead giving flexibility at the local level ...

WALLACE: But let me...

ABBOTT: Starting with building a strong foundation.

WALLACE: We want to have a debate.

BENNETT: Local control is what we have. And local control is what we should have. Curriculum is set locally.

ABBOTT: I've got to disagree.

BENNETT: Curriculum is set -- but you just set you want a local control. You've got local control. You decided that common core wouldn't be in Texas, so it's not in Texas. And Texas can teach math any way it wants. But what Texas can't do is change the nature of mathematics and what mathematical reasoning and mathematical sequence becomes. Excuse me.

WALLACE: Governor?

ABBOTT: Chris, I have got to strenuously disagree with that. And this is going to be easy, frankly. I hope all your viewers will go to Google and plug in nine plus six common core. And when you do that, if you just plug in nine plus six common core, you will find a video that shows the way that math is taught under common core. And remember this ...

WALLACE: But wait, put me out of my misery because I would think nine plus six is 15. So, what's the deal?

ABBOTT: You would think so. And when you plug in nine plus six common core you'll find it's going to take you more than a minute to see how a teacher teaches a student to learn how to add nine plus six.

WALLACE: Is that true?

ABBOTT: These are the -- Chris, these are the common core standards that are now being pushed down from the top that we must get away from.

WALLACE: Wait, wait, wait. Excuse me, you made your point. Go ahead.

BENNETT: It's an easy way to resolve this. I haven't seen this but I'm going to tell you if it's crazy, it probably isn't common core. It's probably one of these myths that's developed. We understand why it's developed. Here is what the audience can do. Here is what you can really do. Download the standards themselves. The common core standards. That's what they did in Idaho, that's what they did in Utah and they said to the citizens, do you have any objection to any of this? Not what someone said the standards were. Not what Google reported. Not what some citizens group decided was common core, but the actual standards themselves. They are public. And anybody can examine those standards. You tell me what's wrong with saying, kids should learn how to parse and diagram sentencing, memorize, read the declaration of independence. That's what I want to know what's wrong with it.

WALLACE: Governor, you know, everyone from teachers' unions to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is in favor of this and at a time when by international standards you see us falling -- us as a country, falling behind, what is the idea about having some standards so that you can measure how students in Texas are learning as compared to students in Ohio and how students in Texas are learning as compared to students in England?

ABBOTT: And let's clarify some of the misinformation that you had in your statement. You said that unions are in favor of this. Remember this, go back to 1993, you saw Massachusetts create one of the premier education programs in America. Now it has turned out that Massachusetts is going down the pathway of common core. The president of the teachers union in Massachusetts has come out against using common core in Massachusetts. What we're seeing here, Chris, is every time we peel another layer off of exposing what common core really is, everyone, whether it be parents, or teachers, or local school districts or states or governors, they're running from it like a house on fire and there's a reason for it. That's because common core violates the four core principles and the four core pillars of education, which is parental involvement, excellent teachers, student engagement and adaptability for the uniqueness of each particular student.

WALLACE: Mr. Bennett?

BENNETT: I've been for those principles since before Governor Abbott was born. I would say, I think I have a pretty good record as a conservative on education. Once again, we can resolve this dispute by looking at the standards. Governor Haslam of Tennessee, a Republican said, before we had these common standards, these agreed upon standards agreed upon by governors, said, we were dishonest in reporting the proficiency of our students to their parents. And that's what parents want to know, are our kids learning? So, why not a voluntary basis of agreement for assessment? By the way, there's an intellectual problem. If you decide to go it on your own in math and English? How do you validate those standards? What's your benchmark? How do you say this is what kids in Texas learn compared to kids in other states? By the way, the common core standards are the first standards to be developed that approach in math and reading, the standards that we see internationally. That's why the states that are using them I think are going to continue to rise to the top.

WALLACE: 30 seconds left, Governor Abbott, you get the final word.

ABBOTT: Sure. Using Secretary Bennett's words, there is an intellectual deficiency here and it was shown by the professor at Stanford who was the only person on the common core committee looking at mathematics and that professor said that the mathematics portion of common core will set students back in the United States of America as opposed to advancing them forward.

Again, the more we learn about common core, the more problematic it is.

WALLACE: Listen, I never thought that we were going to solve this, but I hope that we have provided some light and not just some heat to I think a very important issue. We are going to stay on top of this. Governor Abbott, Mr. Bennett, thank you both, thanks for coming in.

BENNETT: Wish I could be with you at Chris Kyle Day tomorrow, Governor Abbott.

WALLACE: Oh, yes, I do want to say -- yes, yes, you are exactly right. I want to point that out. Governor Abbott, you're having Chris Kyle Day after the whole fuss about "American Sniper" to honor a true American hero. We thank you for coming up with that idea. That's a great program.

ABBOTT: Thank you.

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