Are National Standards Conservative?

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.

10 Responses to Are National Standards Conservative?

  1. matthewladner says:

    Someone turn over the cosmic hourglass and start the countdown until Checker and Mike are against the national standards themselves.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    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.

    As I’ve said before when they’ve made this kind of ridiculous assertion, what conservatives favor is not a single model of life imposed on everyone, but a single set of rules everyone is equally obligated to follow. The reason we want this is precisely because we value the individual liberty that allows everyone to do things their own way. Governing society by a neutral set of rules where everyone is under the same obligations is the only way to allow everyone to follow different and individually chosen life arrangements. National standards represent a step toward standardizing everyone’s life arrangements, and therefore a step away from the conservative model of governance grounded in netural rules of obligation.

    • Patrick says:

      If conservatives should be in favor of national standards for the reasons they gave above, shouldn’t the left wing be against it?

      • Some left-wingers are. See the EPIC piece by Mathis.

        As it turn out, the world can’t neatly be divided into 2 teams as much as their op-ed tried to.

      • MOMwithAbrain says:

        EXACTLY Patrick. This reminds me of Bush embracing Kennedy’s NCLB. Who was the one who caught all of the flack on NCLB? Bush, even though it was pushed on him by Kennedy.
        When will Republicans learn? Now you have Obama reinstating NCLB.
        Looks like we’re going to waste a lot more money before we get done destroying educaiton in this country

  3. MOMwithAbrain says:

    BRAVO. This Conservative understands the role of the federal govt. and obviously Checkter needs to go back and read the 10th Amendment!

    Mathew you are exactly right. When Kevin Jennings injects his political agenda in the standards, maybe they’ll wake up.
    When P21 inject their “soft skills” in the standards, maybe they’ll wake up.
    When our students are graduating as political activists and community organizers who don’t know how to add/subtract, spell or write, maybe they’ll wake up.

  4. Brian says:

    As regular readers of this blog know, I too am offended when a distinct philosophy that I identify with is used to promote policies that I believe are inconsistent with said philosophy. But maybe it is a losing battle to continually ty to make these corrections. It may be time for libertarian-leaning people on the right and the left to let go of the terms liberal and conservative alltogether…so much has been done to undermine both terms that I don’t know that they are truly salvageable. Power corrupts, and the moment so-called conservatives and so-called liberals feel that the balance of power has shifted their way, they instantly turn into authoritarians. This cycle, playing out over the last 100 years or so, has only grown the size of the state, with each side taking their turn to try and manufacture desired outcomes as opposed to sticking to their core philosophies. I think from here on out, I am going to simply claim to be a libertarian. The chances of libertarians gaining power is slim. As such the chances of the term being corrupted are equally slim.

    For those who want to keep fighting to salvage the terminology, consider this additional excerpt from Checker and Petrilli’s column:

    ‎”Three years ago, an Education Next poll asked whether people favored “a single ‎national standard and a single national test for all students in the United States? Or do ‎you think that there should be different standards and tests in different states?” ‎

    It wasn’t even close. A whopping 73 percent of respondents wanted a single test, and ‎Republicans were likelier to support this idea than Democrats. Those self-identifying ‎as “extremely conservative” were by far the most enthusiastic about national testing: 88 ‎percent of them favored the single test approach, versus 64 percent of liberals.”‎

    That’s worth re-stating: 88% of those who self-identified as “extremely conservative” favored the centralized option. Taking back the term “conservative” against numbers like that seems like a sisyphean task of enormous proportion.

  5. Eric S. Howard says:

    Several good points have been made in the comments regarding the seemingly paradoxical alignment of self-identified “conservatives” and their support for the proposed national standards. Most likely related policy concerns such as accountability and the use of high stakes testing play a role in driving some of the support for centralization.

    Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), interestingly the same volume that contains Hayek’s essay “Why I’m Not a Conservative,” that education in particular requires multiple perspectives and standards: “There is not – and cannot be in a free society – a single standard by which we can decide on the relative importance of different aims or the relative desirability of different methods. Perhaps in no other field is the continued availability of alternative ways so important as in that of education, where the task is to prepare young people for an ever changing world” (p. 385).

  6. Thanks for this. I stopped reading the Finn/Petrilli piece after the claiming the Common Core adoption was “occurring with little outcry from the right, save for a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with.”

    Not only are they wrong about the level of criticism, and completely distort libertarians, but the main reason there has been “little outcry” is that few voters know this is happening. It was buried in the stimulus legislation, and has since been overshadowed by health care, Wall Street “reform”, unemployment benefits extensions, Cap & Trade, and other policy matters.

    I would hypothesize that if we took a poll today on “Do you support [your state’s] board of education adopting the Common Core Curriculum?” the results would be:
    Yes: 7%
    No: 6%
    Huh?: 87%

  7. […] blog are much more skeptical.  They have weighed in on the issue AGAINST national standards here, here, here, and especially here.  Their position can best be summarized with these remarks from […]

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