Salon Article Wrong on the Right

Do conservatives hate the Common Core?  Like anything in cultural politics, it all depends on what we mean by “conservatives,” “hate,” and “the Common Core.”  In other words, I understand that this is a tricky subject. But it is still painful to read writers like Gabriel Arana get the Right so Wrong.

As we’ve discussed in these pages, conservatives are anything but united about the new common standards.  Some old-schoolers such as Phyllis Schlafly blast the new standards as “control by Obama administration left-wing bureaucrats.”  And Catholic conservatives have worried that the new standards will rob students of the “the virtues necessary to know, love, and serve the Lord.”  Libertarians have bashed the core as the death knell of educational independence.  More colorfully, one conservative politician described the standards as the ultimate progressive “beer bong for American education.”  We could go on and on.  Conservative pundits and politicians have offered a vast treasure-trove of reasons to oppose the newish standards.

On the other side, thinkers have also offered plenty of conservative arguments in support of the core.  Karen Swallow Prior of Liberty University, for example, has suggested that “no one more than evangelicals” should understand the reason for effective literacy instruction.  Kevin T. Brady and Stephen M. Klugewicz argue that the new standards will serve to weaken the power of the political Left.  The new standards, these conservatives assert, will force left-leaning teachers and educational bureaucracies to embrace the rich cultural tradition of Jesus, St. Paul, Martin Luther, and GK Chesterton.  Nuts-and-bolts free-market conservatives also like the standards.  Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli, for example, think that these standards are the least-bad way to insure that America “knows how all its kids and schools are doing . . . [with] a rigorous set of shared expectations for the three R’s.”

It’s complicated.  I get it.  But that complexity only makes me lament all the more the simplistic description offered by Arana’s recent Common-Core article in Salon.  A few days ago, Arana offered this glib and breezy drive-by of conservative attitudes:

Education policy wonks on the right oppose the standards because they view it as a step toward nationalizing education — as a general rule, they prefer to keep control local. Tea Party types, on the other hand, fear they will eventually be used to teach kids about dangerous stuff like evolution. But since George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law — the largest federal education initiative to date — Republicans have in principle been less opposed to federal involvement in education. A lot of the pushback from Republicans . . .  is about the Obama administration, which has enthusiastically supported Common Core.

Let’s take a look at the claims here:

First, “Education policy wonks” don’t like the standards?  It’s hard to think of any more wonk-y conservatives than Michael Petrilli.  And Petrilli, the author of Wonk-tastic articles such as “How School Districts Can Stretch the School Dollar” and “America’s Private Public Schools” is the Right’s most vocal advocate of the new standards.

Next, it is true that some conservatives worry that the Next Generation Science Standards will push more evolution into schools.  It’s also true that some conservatives have bundled their opposition to the Common Core with their opposition to evolution.  But what leads Arana to call this “Tea Party” opposition?  Some polls suggest that conservatives who identify as Tea Party members tend to deny evolution at higher rates than other members of the Republican Party.  But as Dan Kahan has pointed out, any statements about a shift in Republican attitudes about creationism overall must be tempered.  And behind it all, how often do “Tea Party” types talk about creationism, compared to their central interests in smaller government?

Last but not least, Arana is smart to point out that things might be changing.  But is he aware of the difficulties conservative politicians face when it comes to supporting the Common Core?  Jeb Bush, for example, supports the new standards but is always very careful to differentiate the standards from federal control.  In contrast to Arana’s claim, Republicans are not less opposed to “federal involvement in education.”  They MAY be less opposed to shared standards, but “federal control” still remains the third rail of conservative education policy.

So, again, I don’t bash Arana—or anyone—for not following every curve and wrinkle of conservative debates over the Common Core standards.  But if you open your mouth to deliver pearls of wisdom, it always makes sense to at least get the general outline right.

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  1. Government Pretends Conservative Schools Don’t Exist | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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