Phil Bryant speaks at the Westin Jackson Tuesday, November 5, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

If ever there were a political odd couple, it’s former Republican Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and former Obama administration Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The two recently served as panelists at a Ronald Reagan Institute education forum in Washington, and co-authored an opinion piece calling for an end to partisan politics in education policy.

This seems strange from two who were deeply entrenched in partisan politics in education policy during their tenures.

Bryant and Duncan were particularly diametrically opposed on national Common Core public education standards. Duncan was pushing for states to adopt the standards. Bryant called them a “bureaucratic federal education scheme” and issued an executive order in 2013 that, in his words, “affirmed that Mississippi, not the federal government, has the right and responsibility to define public education standards.”

But in their op-ed published last week, the pair said that setting national standards is a key to success in public education.

“The federal government is blocked from setting nationwide education standards, but that doesn’t mean we should have 50 different definitions of success,” they wrote. “On the contrary, all students from Maine to Maui must learn skills and knowledge for our era … regardless of what we call them and how we create them, we need agreed-upon national standards.”

In a 2014 op-ed, then-Gov. Phil Bryant opined, “What we don’t need is a one-size-fits-all program with federal government strings attached.” He said the state should “… implement Mississippi standards and curricula.”

Bryant and Duncan’s piece, which ran in publications across the country, also urged today’s leaders to “Keep politics out of the classroom,” and decried the current, often partisan and racially charged debate over teaching of critical race theory.

CRT — teaching that systemic racism exists in this country, making it more difficult for people of color to succeed — has drawn the ire of mostly Republicans across the country and prompted efforts in many state to ban it. Mississippi’s current Republican leaders, including Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, have vehemently criticized it and pledged to push legislation to ban it, despite the state superintendent saying it is not being taught in any Mississippi public schools.

READ MORE: First, it was Common Core. Now, critical race theory is the ‘biggest threat’ to Mississippi schools.

Bryant, during his two terms as governor from 2012 to 2020, was not often one to let a partisan social issue pass by or to not join in on a red meat Republican movement, be it education issues or others.

But in the shared-byline op-ed, Bryant and Duncan said that such “politics is threatening to undermine our progress in the classroom.”

“Exhibit A is the misguided debate over critical race theory,” the pair wrote. “Let’s agree to neither deny the painful truths of our ancestors nor blame their descendants. President Reagan once encouraged an ‘informed patriotism’ that is ‘grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.’ From our vantage point, that means an education where students can openly and honestly acknowledge the continuing remnants of racism in our society and make sure all children are grounded in the principles of civics and democracy needed to address them fully and finally.”

Duncan and the Obama administration were often at bitter odds with social conservative Republicans such as Bryant. But perhaps the seemingly strange bedfellows have politically mellowed. They called for more collaboration between local and federal government, “the former knows how to invest effectively in education, and the latter has the resource to make it happen.”

And they closed with: “As with so many other issues, progress will come when we move away from partisan bickering and embrace audacious bipartisan goals. The outcome of such collaboration — high achievement, high graduation rates, and more — is something every politician and American can rally behind.”


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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.