I have long thought, as progressive blogger Anthony Cody discussed a couple of days ago, that libertarian types might form some sort of alliance with progressive educators against national curriculum standards. By and large progressives dislike the rigid standards and testing regimes that have been turning education into a clone assembly line, while libertarians want freedom, which is, of course, utterly incompatible with top-down standardization. But just because we have a common enemy will not necessarily make us policy friends.
As I’ve written before, it is pretty clear that many progressives don’t want educational freedom, they want local monopolies controlled by progressive educators who, often, eschew standards and testing not because all kids and families are different and standardization kills innovation, but because standardization curbs teacher power. Writes Cody:
While there are areas of agreement, there are some areas where progressives clearly part company with some conservatives. Progressives generally do not want public funds going to schools that promote religion. It seems reasonable to have a set of education standards that guides schools as to the focus of instruction at each grade and in each discipline. These standards should be developed by educators, in consultation with academic experts, and should reflect current scientific understanding. Democratic processes matter, so we support public schools overseen by elected school boards, and collective bargaining for teachers.
This doesn’t describe true community control of education, much less freedom. This is a system in which employees – especially teachers – have a huge political upper-hand. Teachers and their associations have greater motivation to be involved in education politics because their livelihoods are at stake, and are better able to organize than both parents, who have full-time jobs, and other citizens, who don’t even have the motivation of having a child in the schools. This is why teacher associations often dominate local school boards.
Note also that there would be standards in Cody’s ideal, but developed by “educators, in consultation with academic experts,” and designed “to reflect current scientific understanding.” So not only would citizens – who are supposed to ultimately control public schooling – apparently have no say in standards-setting, the standards would be based in “current scientific understanding,” as if there were scientific certainty about major educational issues. But there isn’t: From how best to teach reading, to what grade to cover Algebra, disagreements abound and the science is in dispute.
Finally, Cody offers the feel-good assumption that public schools are institutions that bring diverse people together and unite them. But as I often discuss – and we debated at Cato just last week – this doesn’t comport with the reality of public schooling, which was long based in homogeneous communities, systematically excluded out-groups, and today foments constant conflict. And frankly, the demand that those who want religion in their children’s education pay twice for schooling – once for government schools and again for the education they desire – is a gross violation of the basic American principal of equal treatment under the law.
All that said, it would be better to have local monopolies than state or federal. At least you could move to another monopolist if your present one were particularly horrible. But that would be cold comfort, because all government monopolies are heavily inclined toward curbing freedom, and toward serving the people who are supposed to serve the citizens.
I’ll be as happy as anyone if progressives start seriously challenging federally driven, national curriculum standards. But just because we share a common enemy won’t necessarily make us friends.