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Jeb Bush wrestles with Common Core: Higher standards yes, federal government no

via @lesleyclark

Jeb Bush on Wednesday sought to put space between himself and his support for controversial Common Core education standards -- but said all states need to set high bars for students.

The standards -- and Bush’s support -- have been a sticking point for conservatives who fear a federal role in education, but Bush said Wednesday at an education forum that standards are critical.

“The debate needs to be about real accountability, school choice, high standards - if people don’t like Common Core, fine - just make sure your standards are much higher than the ones you had before,” Bush said. “We can’t keep dumbing down standards.”

Pressed on how states could determine whether they have high standards if there is not an overall standard, Bush acknowledged: "It's not like pornography where you know it when you see it, but clearly low standards, you know it. That's what most states have had.”

Bush went on to say the federal government should have “nothing to say” about the standards -- a move that earned applause from the New Hampshire audience.

“The commonality to me is not as relevant as the highness” of the standards, he said. “But states ought to drive this.”

The set of Common Core educational standards which were adopted by more than 40 states have sparked criticism among conservatives -- and backtracking among politicians who once endorsed the measures.

Conservatives have charged that the Common Core standards were developed by the federal government and “extreme leftists,” but the federal government wasn’t involved in the standards, which were developed largely by governors and state school officials. (The Obama administration’s Race to the Top school grants competition did give points to school districts that have standards, though, any standards, not necessarily the Common Core.)

Bush’s presidential rivals have largely assailed the standards: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who signed off on adopting Common Core in 2010, earlier this year proposed abandoning them and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who also once backed the standards, has called for a new approach.

Bush, who has largely backed the standards while allowing room to criticize a federal role, acknowledged the controversy as moderator Campbell Brown said Common Core has been a “divisive” issue for Republicans.

“What’s that?” Bush said. “Common Core?”

“Your favorite subject,” the former CNN host joked back.

Bush said he benefited from high standards at Phillips Academy, a prestigious Massachusetts high school that he said was a “perpetual headache” because it was so difficult.

He said a 10th grade teacher at the prep school insisted the students would read the great works in Spanish -- before Bush, who married a woman from Mexico, was bilingual.

“It was so hard, it was impossible for me to imagine,” Bush said of reading Cervantes and others in Spanish. But he added, his teacher said, “You’re going to do it, you have to do it, you can do it.”

Doing so, Bush said, “gave me a sense that high lofty expectations really matter.”

--LESLEY CLARK, McClatchy Washington Bureau