Where Are the Conservatives?

When the Education Department was created in 1979, many critics warned that a secretary of education would turn into a national minister of education. Rep. John Erlenborn (R-Ill.), for instance, wrote,

There would be interference in textbook choices, curricula, staffing, salaries, the make-up of student bodies, building designs, and all other irritants that the government has invented to harass the population. These decisions which are now made in the local school or school district will slowly but surely be transferred to Washington.

Dissenting from the committee report that recommended establishing the department, Erlenborn and seven other Republicans wrote, “The Department of Education will end up being the Nation’s super schoolboard. That is something we can all do without.”

That’s why Ronald Reagan promised to abolish Jimmy Carter’s Department of Education in his 1980 campaign. And why House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich put abolition of the department in his budget proposal after the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress.

But things changed. Instead of eliminating or at least reducing federal intervention in local schools, Republicans in 2001 decided to dramatically escalate it with the No Child Left Behind Act. And now Jeb Bush, whom some conservatives call the best governor in the country, writes in the Washington Post (along with Michael Bloomberg) that we should strengthen NCLB. Make it tougher, they write, with real standards and real enforcement. Create data systems to “track” every student. Create federal standards for teachers.

If there’s an earthquake this week, it may be caused by Madison, Taft, Goldwater, and Reagan turning over in their graves. Imagine it: the leading conservative governor in America, considered a pioneer in education reform, wants the distant federal government to come into his state’s schools and impose tougher rules and regulations. And even the Wall Street Journal’s redoubtable editorial page deplores “rampant noncompliance” with federal mandates and “lax enforcement” by Big Brother in Washington.

In its new issue, American Conservative magazines asks two dozen leading intellectuals “What is left? What is right? Does it matter?” Not if leading conservatives have made their peace with federal control of local schools–and are demanding that the feds crack down on the locals.