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Republicans walk fine line at education summit

A half dozen Republican presidential candidates are wading into the Common Core and school choice debate on Wednesday.

Republican presidential candidates waded into the Common Core and school choice debate on Wednesday, previewing the delicate dance that will play out on education in the 2016 election.

For GOP candidates, school choice is king, while the Common Core education standards championed by the Obama administration is a liability for the handful of candidates who supported it. At a New Hampshire summit hosted by Campbell Brown, the candidates worked to strike a balance on assuring Republican voters that they didn't support federally run schools, while assuring education reform advocates they supported strong standards to ensure students' can compete nationally and internationally.

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A comfortable and fired up Jeb Bush spoke first, calling education “a crisis” – one the next president “can’t deal with this in a tepid fashion.”

The former Florida governor defended his support for Common Core education standards, saying, “if you don’t like Common Core, fine, just make sure your standards are much higher than the ones you had before. We can’t keep dumbing down standards.” 

The former Florida governor highlighted his reforms in education, boasting of “dramatic gains” in schools and battling teachers' unions.

“We took on the teachers' union, but we won,” he said. “I’ve got tire marks on my forehead, but I’m most proud of that.” 

Bush’s record on education reform isn’t as rosy as he claims. The Washington Post reported in June that the charter schools Bush championed in Florida are disproportionately given failing letter grades, on par with traditional public schools on both math and reading test scores, and many of them have closed. 

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina spoke after Bush, blasting unions and arguing in favor of increased accountability. She called for a “top to bottom audit” of the Department of Education.

“I think we have to start with the fundamental question, should someone else be doing this? My bias is, it ought to be as close to parents and communities as possible,” she said. 

Another supporter of Common Core, Ohio Gov. John Kasich pushed back against Core critics.

"I’m not going to change my position because there are four people in the front row yelling at me," he said. “We had this war on Common Core, but did you hear anything about me that didn’t support local control? We’ve got to get out from behind the headlines and politics."

The Ohio Republican, who only announced his candidacy several weeks ago spoke compassionately about working with teachers unions to find a better result. "Sit down in the mud with them," he said, and let them know you want to help. 

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker portrayed himself as a happy warrior who wasn’t intimidated by the unions, arguing that the his survival of the recall effort at home and the protest at the Iowa State Fair recently was a sign of his strength. 

“They know I’m not intimidated,” he said. “I’m going to do what’s right for the people in my state, just like I’m going to do that nationally.”

He argued that the difference between him and the other Republican candidates running for president is that he’s a winner.

“We fought those fights, and we won those fights,” he said. “We actually got results and we got them without compromising our conservative values.”

Another presidential contender, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal spoke rapidly in a lengthy defense of the school choice reforms he has instituted in Louisiana and slammed Common Core – which he initially championed – arguing that the federal government misled them into passing a bill that are not “as great as some people think they are.” 

Nearly everyone bashed the unions as being on the wrong side of the issues.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie argued that he’d work with anyone to get good results, reminding the crowd that he’d collaborated with American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten to negotiate merit pay in Newark.

“I didn’t have a choice,” he said, adding that Bush’s suggestion earlier in the day that he couldn’t work with her was “failure.”

Christie embraced his change of opinion on Common Core. 

“It doesn’t work. I tried four years of Common Core in New Jersey,” Christie said. “What happened is three constituencies in my state hate Common Core: teachers, parents, students…. When something doesn’t work that we try, we then have to change it.”