ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson in 2015. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil who is being reported as President-elect Donald Trump’s leading choice for secretary of state, was a prime mover of the Common Core State Standards Initiative in the business world.

The Washington Post is reporting that Trump has decided to name Tillerson to the important post, though the nomination could face tough scrutiny in the Senate in part because of his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Tillerson has infuriated public education advocates by saying that public schools “don’t understand” that the business community is their “customer” and that they are “producing a product at the end of that high school graduation.” He further said, “Now, is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?”

Trump has been an ardent opponent of the core, vowing to “get rid” of it, as if it were federally mandated and a president could order its end. (It wasn’t and a president can’t. Boards of education and/or legislatures in the 45 states that fully adopted the core voted to do so, and most states still use it.  These bodies would have to decide to drop the core.)  Trump’s choice for education secretary, Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, has pledged to end it, too.

The Common Core initiative is a set of math and English language arts standards initially created with the hope that all states and the District of Columbia would adopt them and use common exams that would allow for cross-state comparisons of student performance. It was supported strongly by the business community, as highlighted in a 2014 video in which Tillerson, who has chaired the Business Roundtable’s Education and Workforce Committee, discusses the organization’s five education priorities, one of them being the core:

Our fifth priority is promotion for the adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards, and these are to provide a common set of standards that all states around the country would use to develop their educational programs, and these standards would also allow us to benchmark externally to other countries around the world.

In 2013, he wrote a piece on the core that said, in part:

As a nation, we must unite in recognizing the mounting evidence that the U.S. is falling behind international competitors in producing students ready for 21st-century jobs. . . . We have an opportunity to reverse this trend but it will take setting the right priorities. That starts with establishing high standards. It means leaders from government and business, and parents, need to defend the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted wholly or in part by dozens of states in recent years but are increasingly under attack from across the political spectrum. . . .

With these education standards under attack in many states where they have been adopted or are being considered, the Common Core needs support now more than ever if America is going to reverse its education decline and prepare its young people to compete in today’s dynamic global economy. To abandon the standards is to endanger America’s ability to create the technologies that change the world for the better.

Tillerson gave speeches promoting the core — and he lobbied policymakers in states to stick with the core when some began to back away during a revolt from across the political spectrum against the initiative. For example, in a 2013 letter to leaders of Pennsylvania’s state legislature and then-Gov. Tom Corbett (R), Tillerson went as far as reminding them of the “significant operations” ExxonMobil had in Pennsylvania.

The Obama administration made state adoption of “common standards” — which essentially meant the core — a factor in receiving federal funding from his Race to the Top program and in obtaining a No Child Left Behind waiver from the Education Department. The administration also spent some $360 million for two multistate consortia to create new core-aligned standardized tests.

Pennsylvania adopted the Common Core in 2010 before Corbett became governor and “joined” both of the testing consortia early on, but in 2013 it withdrew from both and chose to use its own standardized tests for federally mandated accountability purposes. In May 2013, Corbett agreed to delay full implementation of the core — and almost immediately Tillerson’s letter (see text below) was sent to Corbett, who had supported the core for some time before turning against it in 2014. In March 2014, Pennsylvania’s Board of Education repealed what was known as the Pennsylvania Common Core Standards, and adopted a new set of standards that were similar to the core.

In 2014, Tillerson was part of a Fortune magazine article about the Common Core, titled “Business Gets Schooled,” which detailed the involvement of big corporations in the core initiative. The subtitle was “When Exxon Mobil, GE, Intel, and others pushed for the education standards, they incurred the wrath of Tea Party conservatives and got a painful lesson in modern politics.”

The author, Peter Elkind, wrote, “In truth, Common Core might not exist without the corporate community,” and “[t]he education chair for that association of CEOs, Exxon Mobil chief Rex Tillerson, has played a particularly prominent role.”

Tillerson incurred the wrath of public education advocates with comments in the article. Elkind wrote:

It was a strange thing indeed to hear Rex Tillerson, CEO of Texas-based Exxon Mobil, bemoaning his impotence at a 2014 panel discussion in Washington, D.C.  But such is the frustration of serving on the frontline in this war. Like other CEOs engaged in education reform, Tillerson sees high national standards as a “business imperative.” Companies simply can’t find enough skilled American workers.

But Tillerson articulates his view in a fashion unlikely to resonate with the average parent. “I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer — that we, the business community, are your customer,” said Tillerson during the panel discussion. “What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation.”

The Exxon CEO didn’t hesitate to extend his analogy. “Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?” American schools, Tillerson declared, “have got to step up the performance level — or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.”

Here’s the letter Tillerson wrote to the Pennsylvania officials:


(Correction: Previous version said state legislatures approved the Common Core standards. In many cases it was state boards of education.)