I follow up my observations about the challenges conservative reformers face with some thoughts about how those issues are playing out in the debate over Common Core educational standards. Stanley Kurtz’s observations on the subject in National Review Online are a pretty fair articulation of the right’s grassroots based activism against the Core. To be sure, he gets lost in his share of rabbit holes—raising the Fifth Amendment-taking IRS bureaucrat Lois Lerner as a bogeyman is about as irrelevant as Arnie Duncan’s comparing opposition to the Core to worrying about black helicopters; and Kurtz’s specter of liberals imposing “fuzzy math” sounds loopy because it is—but he highlights the dilemma rank and file Republican politicians are running into. And his claims raise an important question right of center Republicans ought to be stressing over: is education reform about to become the next subject that Republicans are about to cede to the left?
To be sure, the Core is not the most inspiring kind of fight. Liberals who spent the last decade waging trench war against national accountability standards are playing a hypocritical game by suggesting that resistance to Washington driven reform is now the province of Luddites and primitives. There is no question that curriculum content is being artificially elevated to the point that it is drowning out elements that are far more decisive to student achievement, like the deteriorating quality of entry level teachers, the impediments against parents transferring their kids out of under-performing schools, and the institutional protections that make replacing inept teachers all but impossible in many districts. It is also far from clear that state by state variations in the Core’s focus of math and science teaching are as substantial as some advocates suggest.
But Kurtz and some of the Core’s sharpest critics go too far in their suggestion that education should not even be on the table as a national agenda item, and it’s worth remembering that they hardly represent the only conservative vision on educational policy. In fact, for most of the last decade, the right’s critique of No Child Left Behind was not that it overstepped some constitutional line but that the law wasn’t aggressive enough about incentivizing ideas like vouchers or charter schools. True, a number of conservatives questioned the heavy handedness of the Race to the Top fund; but for much of the first Obama term, the case was made with equal force that it imposed too weak rather than too strong a set of rewards for tenure reform or merit based pay for teachers.
As sanguine as Kurtz is about the decision-making processes of local school boards and state legislatures, the local and state level have been venues where teacher unions have typically been far more effective than reformers in driving their cause. It’s an illusion that a locally driven debate is necessarily one that favors the interests of parents or accountability, and conservatives who think so should be discomfited by the ease with which the teacher unions mimic arguments about local control in their efforts to thwart the most rigorous goals within Race to the Top.
Until recently, the political right also seemed to enjoy a rough consensus that the values that underlay the effort to prod states and districts toward more demanding standards on education were conservative in nature. As much as today’s conservative libertarians denigrate George W. Bush’s forays into rewriting education law at the national level, those efforts deserve to be appreciated as a campaign to inject market driven notions of performance and results into education rather than some weak kneed effort to pander or out-promise Democrats.
To be sure, there are very few conservatives who don’t have a palpable suspicion of the federal government using the leverage of funding to compel states to do much of anything. And it’s not a revolutionary insight that reforms are most politically palatable on the right if they are linked to language and values that ordinary Republicans will embrace. Given those realities, Republican governors who are shortchanging populist initiatives like overhauling tenure and parental choice will probably find that they haven’t stored up enough capital with their base to take on fights like the Core.
But the uncomfortable dynamics of the Core shouldn’t dissuade reform minded conservatives from understanding what all of their cohorts on the right used to know instinctively. Education is a test of whether a society is built to compete in a global economy; educational excellence is plagued by the outsized influence of unions whose primary agenda is protecting their membership, and parents and children deserve a governing philosophy that doesn’t run and hide from the first two realities.