Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli seem to think so. As part of their Gates-fueled pro-standards juggernaut, they have a piece on National Review Online arguing that conservatives should support the current national standards effort. They write:
Conservatives generally favor setting a “single standard” for everybody. Setting different standards for different people — think affirmative action, for instance — is an idea most associated with the Left.
If by “conservative” we mean people who think that decisions should be decentralized, Finn and Petrilli have it exactly backwards. National standards are a centrally-imposed, one-size-fits-none approach that would make most conservatives shudder.
Let’s be clear — national standards are being centrally imposed because states are financially punished if they don’t adopt them because they would receive lower scores on their Race to the Top proposals and almost certainly lose out on getting their share of those tax dollars. National standards are “voluntary” in the same way that federal highway funds are voluntary. You can disobey the federal dictate as long as you don’t mind having the tax dollars your residents pay go to other states.
Let’s also be clear that conservatives do not generally favor a “single standard” for everyone. Conservatives do not think everyone should meet a single standard of fashion by being required to wear the same clothes. Nor should everyone be compelled to meet a single standard of nutrition by being required to eat the same foods. On what basis would we think conservatives would want every school child to be required to learn the same thing at the same time? To the contrary, conservatives generally favor allowing consumers (of food, clothing, education, or anything else) to decide how best to serve their own needs by having choice among competing providers with differing products.
It’s true that there are some people who are called conservatives who tend to favor centralization over choice and competition, but those people tend to have more of an authoritarian streak than a liberty-loving streak. It is one of the weaknesses of our language that the same word — conservative — is used to describe both Benito Mussolini and Milton Friedman. But no one should be fooled into thinking that policies favored by a “conservative” like Mussolini would also be favored by a “conservative” like Friedman.
The real divide here is between people who think that policies are best when decisions are decentralized and choice and competition are enhanced versus people who think that there is a “right way” that should be imposed centrally and should constrain choice and competition.
Nor are Finn and Petrilli accurate when they assert that national standards are being supported broadly by conservatives except for “a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with.” Is the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which came out against national standards, just a handful of libertarian crazies? Is the Heritage Foundation, which also opposes national standards, just a handful of libertarian nut-jobs? Or how about the Pioneer Institute? And look who’s supporting national standards — fine conservatives like the American Federation of Teachers.
Just because the education bureaucracies in a bunch of red states have signed up for national standards doesn’t mean that the idea has conservative support. It just means that their budgets are really tight and they want to be in the running for federal Race to the Top dollars as well as gobs of Gates “planning” grant dollars. The fact that there has not been more active conservative opposition can mostly be explained by the speed with which this is being crammed through in the midst of a severe state budgetary crisis.
But conservatives who favor decentralization, choice, and competition should take heart. Many of those states will change their minds if they don’t get federal dollars to stay on board. And the grand national coalition for these standards will probably fall apart as the airy-fairy standards are converted into actual practice in the form of national assessments. We’ll see how well the Linda Darling-Hammond led national assessment, which I can only imagine involves the testing of drum-circle collaboration, suits conservatives like Finn and Petrilli who so far have supported this enterprise. And with more time and greater imposition on actual practice, rank and file conservatives will become more mobilized in opposition.
There is a risk that the Obama Administration will link larger amounts of federal dollars, like Title I funds, to full adoption of these standards and a national assessment, in which case conservative opposition may be too little too late. But if the Obama Administration and the AFT do triumph no one will think it will be a conservative victory.