Commentary

They’re All Federal Educators Now

For decades, conservatives stood against big-government intrusions into American education. They defended local control of schooling, championed parental choice, and pushed to abolish the federal Department of Education. But then, tragedy struck: Republicans took power in Washington, and conservatives suddenly learned to love big government. Indeed, some are now so enamored of it that they are proposing what was once unthinkable: having the federal government set curricular standards for every public school in America.

A few weeks ago, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a leading conservative education group, launched a major campaign to get this done. In the report they released to kick off their initiative — titled “To Dream the Impossible Dream” — the Fordham folks pointed out that states have proven incapable of imposing high standards on themselves, and that the federal No Child Left Behind Act has precipitated a standards “race to the bottom.” Fixing these problems, they argue, will require uniform federal standards.

Thursday, their idea got two huge endorsements. In a Washington Post op-ed, former U.S. secretaries of education William J. Bennett and Rod Paige seconded Fordham’s call for national standards and tests, paradoxically arguing, like Fordham, that because current federal policy is broken, we need much more federal control.

Unfortunately, perhaps because they are desperate for change, Paige, Bennett, and Fordham are all wearing massive political blinders. Quite simply, national standards — or government-imposed education standards at any level — are at best doomed to mediocrity. The way government shapes policy preordains failure.

For one thing, the compromise demanded by democratic politics will always require that the nation’s numerous ethnic, religious, pedagogical, and other groups be accommodated in the creation of standards. This is perhaps as it should be, but it inevitably pushes standards to lowest-common-denominator levels. Education historian Diane Ravitch — another conservative supporter of national standards — shows this brilliantly in her book The Language Police, which demonstrates how textbooks adopted by state governments are hopelessly politicized and, as a consequence, hopelessly banal.

Even more debilitating, however, is that government standards always have to pass through vested interests like teacher unions and education administrators, who have strong incentives—and heaps of political power — to keep standards weak. Indeed, if there’s just one lesson that decades of failed big-government education should have taught conservatives, it’s that groups like the National Education Association have almost endless time, money, and incentives to get their political way, while parents, children, and conservatives do not.

In light of that political reality, greater federal control over schooling is a hopeless solution to our education problems. Bennett and Paige almost admit as much in their Post piece, conceding that they are “painfully aware that national standards and tests are hard to get right—and even harder to get through Congress.”

Perhaps that pain needs to become a little more acute, because no matter how much conservatives wish it weren’t so, decades of monopolistic public schooling have proven that government will never provide desirable standards. Indeed, the numerous inherent problems of government are among the many reasons that the framers of the Constitution gave Washington no authority over education. They are also good reasons why Paige and Bennett should not simply dismiss the Constitution, as they did in their op-ed, on the grounds that, even though “the Constitution says nothing about education, in a world of fierce competition we can’t afford to pretend that the current system is getting us where we need to go.”

Of course the current system isn’t getting us where we need to go. But government control isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.

Thankfully, we can still get high standards, but to do that conservatives will have to give up on doing good through government, and return to fighting for the principles they once championed. School choice — giving parents the ability to take education money to schools that work, and away from those that don’t — is the only hope. Only choice will obviate the need for constant political compromise, avert the gate-keeping power of special interests, and impose real accountability on schools by forcing them to attract and keep customers.

As Congress moves inexorably closer to next year’s scheduled reauthorization of NCLB, conservatives must reject calls for federal standards and tests, and remember the principles that they once held dear. Politically compromised, big-government policies will simply never provide the education our children need and deserve. Only pulling government out of education, and empowering parents and families with school choice, will do that.

Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.