Homeschooling and the Common Core

Education folk these days are a-flutter with talk about the Common Core State Standards.

Recently, William Estrada of the Home School Legal Defense Association has warned about the implications for homeschoolers of such national curricula.

Without an historical perspective, it would be easy for readers of recent headlines to assume that conservatives have always opposed greater educational centralism.  After all, Ronald Reagan came to office on a promise to eliminate the then-new Department of Education.  Recently, Republican Presidential hopefuls such as Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Ron Paul promised to fulfill Reagan’s plan.

Back in the 1920s, however, leading conservatives often made the strongest case for a federal department of education.  As I explored in a recent article in the History of Education Quarterly, the 1920s Ku Klux Klan hoped greater educational centralization would help Americanize immigrants and standardize Americanism education.  The main institutional opponent of such centralization in the 1920s, as Douglas Slawson’s wonderful book The Department of Education Battle, 1918-1932 points out, was the Catholic Church.  In that turbulent decade, social traditionalists, conservative Protestants, and many leading progressives all agreed that the nation needed greater centralization and increased educational funding.

By the 1940s, however, educational centralization had become a leading bugbear of anti-communist conservatives.  From the fringes of conservative anti-communism, influential pamphleteer Allen Zoll denounced federal aid to local schools as the central strategic goal of subversive communism.

Allen Zoll, They Want Your Child! (New York: 1949)

Allen Zoll, They Want Your Child! (New York: 1949)

In “They Want Your Child!” (New York: National Council for American Education, 1949), Zoll warned, “We had better stop smiling.  There IS a conspiracy.  The conspiracy against the American way of life, against everything that we hold dear, is probably the most completely organized, ruthless design against other people ever set in motion in all human history. . . . THE INFILTRATION AND CONTROL OF AMERICAN EDUCATION BECAME COMMUNISM’S NUMBER ONE OBJECTIVE IN AMERICA.  THEY WANT THE CHILDREN OF AMERICA.  THEY WANT YOUR CHILD.”  To Zoll and many of his readers, centralization of education meant that subversives could collect all the threads of education policy in their grasping claws.

Once the US Supreme Court began ruling in favor of school desegregation in the 1950s and against school prayer in the 1960s, the notion of greater educational centralization became anathema to wider and wider circles of American conservatives.  Centralization became associated purely with the long-standing enemies of traditionalist and conservative education: evolution science, progressive pedagogy, left-wing anti-racism, anti-patriotic politics, and secularism.

In his December 2012 brief, Will Estrada of the HSLDA made some of the traditional conservative arguments against greater educational centralism.  First, Estrada pointed out, states were pushed into accepting these common standards out of financial desperation, not out of any educational benefit.  President Obama’s Race to the Top funding, as Estrada noted, was often tied to adoption of common core standards.  Second, centralized education would decrease quantifiable student achievement, Estrada argued.  Scores on English and math tests would likely decrease after these standards were in place, at the cost of billions of dollars.  Perhaps most in line with the complaints of many American conservatives, Estrada warned that common standards weakened parental control.  “Top-down, centralized education policy,” Estrada wrote, “does not encourage parents to be engaged.”

Specific to homeschoolers’ interests, Estrada worried that centralized curricula would encourage greater pressure on homeschoolers to follow along.  If every college and every college entrance exam measured student achievement by success on common-core-linked tests, homeschool students would feel pressured to master that common curriculum.

Supporters of today’s Common Core State Standards argue that the standards will bring greater efficiency and equality to education in the United States.  However, the idea of centralization has had a checkered career among American conservatives.  Will Estrada of the HSLDA raised one voice in opposition to today’s centralization effort.

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