NASHVILLE - More than two decades before national Common Core education standards became a target for critics, then-President George H.W. Bush and his education secretary unveiled their own ambitious strategy for improving the nation's ailing schools.
Dubbed "America 2000," the multifaceted strategy among other things called for the development of national standards in five core subjects, including math and English. And the strategy provided for the creation of tests that states could voluntarily adopt.
The main pitch man for the 1991 proto-reform idea? Bush's education secretary. That was Republican Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor and education reformer who as a U.S. senator now finds himself this election year walking a careful line over controversies related to Common Core standards and testing.
During his GOP primary campaign, Alexander's tea party challenger, Joe Carr, hammered the two-term senator for not being sufficiently anti-Common Core, which has become poison to conservative hardliners as federal overreach and by many Democrats for often different reasons.
And now, in the Nov. 4 general election campaign, Alexander's Democratic challenger, Gordon Ball, has embraced the anti-Common Core crusade. Last month he even attended an anti-Common Core rally, donning an anti-Common Core T-shirt with other opponents, including Andrew Ogles, executive director of the Tennessee chapter of the Koch brothers-aligned Americans for Prosperity.
In one of his numerous challenges to Alexander for debates, Ball charged Alexander backs Common Core, noting "we can even discuss Common Core, which Lamar Alexander supports."
During a wide-ranging sit-down interview with Times Free Press editors and reporters this week, Alexander drew a series of distinctions between the America 2000 strategy to improve education, which Ball has not raised, and Common Core.
"The word voluntary is really crucial there," Alexander said of the America 2000 concept, which the Bush administration at the time labeled a "strategy," and not a plan per se. "It was called voluntary national standards. That was part of America 2000 in 1991 and '92."
The idea was "they would be agreed upon by the governors, and the Congress was to stay out of it. That was the deal," Alexander said. "And we began to develop those with states working together. That's good. We need higher standards. I mean, if you want a good job at the Volkswagen plant you need to know more."
What he objected to back in 1991 and 1992 "was that Democrats kept saying, as they often do, well, we know quite a bit up here so let us get involved and make decisions about what those standards should be. I said no, that's a national school board.
"So that was my position 20 years ago and that is what it is today," Alexander said of Common Core. "Washington should have nothing to do when deciding whether Tennessee has Common Core or not. That's for the state" to decide.
Alexander has repeatedly leveled the charge that President Barack Obama has effectively created a national school board.
He said that's the result of Obama's use of the Race to the Top education initiative, which encouraged states to innovate and through which Tennessee received a $500 million grant, in combination with President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program.
The Common Core standards were an initiative of the National Governors Association and states' top education officials.
But to hear Alexander describe it, the administration is now muscling states into accepting Common Core standards and testing through means of the No Child Left Behind program.
"No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001, was out of date, [and] is not operable unless you get a waiver from some of its provisions," Alexander said. "You have to apply to the secretary of education to get a waiver."
And what Education Secretary Arne Duncan is telling governors, Alexander said, is, "I'll give you one [waiver] -- but only if you'll do the following six things: Adopt this academic standard, Common Core, or one other [standard]. Adopt this test, adopt this way of dealing with failing schools, adopt this way to evaluate teachers. And then I'll give you it to you.
"So," Alexander said, "he's nationalizing the decisions that ought to be made by the states."
As for Ball's assertions that he backs Common Core, Alexander indicated it's a Tennessee decision to be made by fellow Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and the state GOP-controlled Legislature.
Tea party Republicans and Democrats have put Haslam on the defensive and he is currently having to rebid a contract on tests that have draw fire from critics.
Alexander said he has legislation now and will press in the next Congress, if re-elected, "which would end the national school board and send all the decisions about Common Core back to Tennessee. And if Tennessee wants to have Common Core, it can. Or if it doesn't want to have it, it doesn't have to, and Washington has zero to do with it."
It also makes federal education funding largely a block grant, giving states freedom in spending it how they like, he said. Moreover, it includes a voucher provision that would allow parents to use federal tax dollars to attend private schools. But it doesn't mandate that, instead leaving it up to states to decide if they want a voucher program.
Regarding Ball's criticisms of Common Core, Alexander said, if he "wants to make a decision about Common Core, he should have run for governor, not go to Washington and try to tell Tennessee what to do."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.