Conservatives and the Common Core

What do conservatives think about the emerging Common Core State Standards?

As with any question, ask a hundred conservatives and you’ll likely get a hundred different answers.
However, some distinct themes have emerged in recent months.

First, many conservative politicians and activists object to the Common Core’s implications for the creeping expansion of government.  Some insist that the standards add another layer of inaccessible, distant, controlling, expensive central control.

Second, conservatives object that the new national standards chip away at parental control of children’s education.  With greater central control, parents and responsive local governments will lose that much more ability to control directly what goes in their local public schools.

Both of these are storied conservative protests against the trends in public education.

Before we examine these themes and their histories, let’s look at the CCSS themselves.  So far, forty-five states, plus the District of Columbia and Department of Defense schools have adopted these standards.  Supporters of the CCSS insist these are not imposed by the federal government, but rather created jointly by state education officials.  The reasons for such standards are many, according to supporters.  In the words of the CCSS Initiative,

“High standards that are consistent across states provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations that are aligned to the expectations in college and careers. The standards promote equity by ensuring all students, no matter where they live, are well prepared with the skills and knowledge necessary to collaborate and compete with their peers in the United States and abroad. Unlike previous state standards, which were unique to every state in the country, the Common Core State Standards enable collaboration between states on a range of tools and policies.”    

Conservatives are not the only ones to dispute these claims.  Progressive critics (see one example here) often lament the new standards’ failure to consider adequately individual student situations.  Some progressives call the standards a greedy corporate power grab.  Others lament the goal of squeezing all young minds into a procrustean bed of regurgitative multiple-choice testing instead of pursuing the more difficult goal of authentic learning for real students.  Alfie Kohn, for instance, insisted that national standards would “squeeze the life out of classrooms” by mandating one-size-fits-all education, dictated by self-seeking corporate interests.

When conservative activists and pundits critique the CCSS, it is usually on different grounds.  Writing for the Heritage Foundation, for example, Lindsey Burke warned, “The push for centralized control over what every child should learn has never had more momentum.”  CCSS, which Burke called “national standards,” represented a “challenge to educational freedom in America.”  Implementation of the standards would be expensive, Burke pointed out.  Even worse, these standards reversed the proper structure of education.  Instead of more and more central control, Burke argued, “Education reform should give control over education to those closest to students.”

The Heritage Foundation’s Rachel Sheffield praised state lawmakers who pushed to exit the CCSS.  In Indiana, for instance, conservative state lawmakers have proposed a bill to put the CCSS on hold.  One of the requirements of Indiana’s Senate Bill 193, for instance, will be to include parent members on the standards committee.  Another will be to allow any parent to challenge their children’s standard-based high-stakes test results.

These themes—federal overreach and parental control—have long been central to conservative educational activism.

As we’ve noted, agitation against federal intrusion into the local politics of education has been an important element of conservative educational activism since at least the 1940s.  Though it might come as a surprise to some, before the 1940s many conservatives endorsed increased centralization of education policy, as Douglas Slawson has noted in his excellent book The Department of Education Battle, 1918-1932.

The second conservative worry about CCSS also has a long history.  Conservative pundits have argued for decades that parents need more control over their children’s education.  Back in the 1960s, conservative educational leader Max Rafferty insisted, “Children do not belong to the state. They do not belong to us educators, either. They belong to their parents and to nobody else.  And don’t you forget it.”  (Source: Rafferty, On Education, pg. 9)

Note one protester's button: "Parent Power"

Note one protester’s button: “Parent Power”

These conservative concerns spanned the country and the decades.  As historian Ron Formisano noted in his landmark 1991 history of Boston disputes over forced busing, parents insisted on their fundamental rights to determine their own children’s educational careers.  As anti-busing leader Louise Hicks fumed, “If under a court order a child can be forcibly taken from his parents into unfamiliar, often hostile neighborhoods, then we shall have opened a pandora’s box of new, unlimited government powers” (pg. 192).

Similarly, President Reagan insisted in 1983, “I believe that parents, not Government, have the primary responsibility for the education of their children.  Parental authority is not a right conveyed by the state; rather, parents delegate to their elected school board representatives and State legislators the responsibility for their children’s schooling.”  (Source: Catherine Lugg, For God and Country, pg. 136).

Across the spectrum of conservative belief and activism, we hear similar echoes.  In 1989, for instance, creationist leader Ken Ham warned that “Most parents have left the training of their children to the church, school or college.”  No wonder, Ham argued, that children embraced anti-God theologies.

So when conservatives in 2013 warn that CCSS will undermine parental control, they draw on a rich tradition of conservative thought and activism.  Schools must remain on a tight leash, many conservatives have insisted over the years.  If allowed too much power, centralizing educational authorities will take over.

 

 

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: Fundamentalists and Federal Aid to Schools

If only Rick Perry could have remembered what he planned to abolish, he might have won the 2012 Republican Presidential primary.  If he had won, he might really have carried out his threat to get rid of the federal Department of Education, along with Energy and Commerce.  Or maybe not.  After all, Ronald Reagan had also promised to eliminate the Department of Education.  In the end, Reagan merely treated the department shabbily.  These days, it seems every self-respecting conservative insists that the Federal Department of Education is an outrage.  Devvy Kidd of WorldNetDaily, for example, insists the department “must be abolished” due to its “chilling” trend toward “communism.”

This hostility toward federal money for local schools has not always been a bedrock belief of American conservatives.  In the 1920s, as Douglas Slawson’s terrific 2005 book The Department of Education Battle describes, the fiercest opponent of a cabinet-level federal department of education was the Catholic Church.  It follows, then, that one of the fiercest PROponents of such a department was the 1920s Ku Klux Klan.  The 1920s Klan, after all, focused much more intensely than did later Klans on fighting the power of the Catholic Church.  It also focused much of its public activism on defending its vision of the “Little Red Schoolhouse.”  For God and Country, the 1920s Klan argued, the USA needed a cabinet-level Department of Education.

By the late 1940s, however, opposing federal aid to local schools had become an article of faith among American conservatives.                        

Perhaps because the National Education Association fought so fervently for more federal funding for local schools, as we can see with this 1948 NEA brochure, conservatives insisted that such aid would be merely the camel’s nose under the tent.  Such aid would inevitably include more federal control over local schools.

As one earnest Daughter of the American Revolution warned her conservative sisters in 1943,

“The citizens of the United States do not want the Federal Government to supervise education from the cradle to the grave, from nursery school to adult education. . . .  It is not difficult to see another huge arm of the Federal Government in the making, and more chains being forged to shackle the unthinking. . . . socialist-minded educators would use the funds to build ‘a new social order’ and . . . training in fundamentals [will be] neglected.”

Other conservatives in the 1940s and 1950s agreed.  Allen Zoll, a professional right-wing activist and founder of the National Council for American Education, published a couple of hugely influential pamphlets in the 1940s. 

In one of them, “Progressive Education Increases Delinquency,” Zoll warned readers that contemporary education no longer taught students the traditional, fundamental values of American society.  He insisted,

The tragic and terrifying thing about all this is that it represents not merely rebellion against a moral code, but denial that there can be any binding moral code.  It is a fundamental revolution in human thinking of the first order: it is mental and ethical nihilism.  If it goes on unchecked, it will mean not merely tragedy for millions of individuals, it will mean the disintegration and final extinction of the American society.”

In another pamphlet from the late 1940s, “They Want YOUR Child,” Zoll warned that the NEA’s drive to secure federal funding for local schools was a conspiracy of the darkest order, a “conspiracy against the American way of life, against everything that we hold dear, . . . probably the most completely organized, ruthless design against other people ever set in motion in all human history.”

Inevitably, Zoll insisted, federal aid to local schools would lead to federal control over local schools.  Once schools fell for that trap, they would be controlled by an aggressive mind-controlling educationist bureaucracy.  The scheming of “progressive” educators such as Theodore Brameld, William Heard Kilpatrick, and George Counts would soon lead to a softening of the youth of America, a start of the slide to socialism, secularism, and destruction.

Some conservatives in the 1950s took this fight against federal funding one step further.  Although they never represented a majority conservative viewpoint, some insisted that all public monies for schools represented government tyranny.  One eccentric proponent of this maximalist position in the 1950s was R.C. Hoiles.  Hoiles had earned a pile of money—one journalist in 1952 estimated $20,000,000—with his Western media empire.  In his editorials for his newspapers, Hoiles argued that all public schools implied government tyranny.  In one from The Marysville-Yuba City (CA) Appeal Democrat, February 28, 1951, for example, Hoiles argued,

“Very few people realize to what degree the government has grabbed the authority to indoctrinate the youth of the land.  We cannot reverse our trend toward socialism as long as the youth of the land comes in contact and is trained by teachers who believe that they have a right to do collectively what they know would be immoral if done by an individual.  In short, the youth of the land is coming in contact with men who are communistic in their thinking, if we properly define communism.  Here is a good definition of communism written by David Baxter.  ‘Communism is the conclusion that more than one person, or a majority of persons, have a right to do things collectively that it would be wrong and immoral for one person to do.’  Can anyone improve upon this definition of communism?

            “According to this definition, is not every believer in tax-supported schools a believer in communism, whether he knows it or not?”

Hoiles also issued a standing challenge to debate this issue.  On February 2, 1952, a radio personality took him up on his offer.  Thousands of people crammed into the football stadium to hear the debate between Hoiles and Roy Hofheinz.  Among the rhetorical gems Hoiles unloaded at that debate included the following:

“Every board of education is government; therefore, it is force.  It is not reason or eloquence—IT IS FORCE!  It is a fearful master—it certainly does not seem rational that understanding and education can be promoted by the force of a policeman . . . “

“There are many ideas as to what is a good government.  But only one idea can be taught in government schools.  And that idea cannot be anything unfavorable to existing government institutions.  It would be impossible to find any teaching in government schools unfavorable to government schools.  It would be impossible to find anything taught in government schools unfavorable to existing state administration.  We cannot now find anything taught in government schools really unfavorable to New Dealism.

            “We believe it would be next to impossible to find anything taught that preaches old-fashioned American individualism as against our modern New Deal fraternalism in government.  Thus we believe that government schools’ teaching in regard to government must favor administration policies, whatever they may be.  Hitler and Hirohito used government schools to promote their regimes. 

            “Stalin is using Russian government schools to promote his regime.  Karl Marx made free public schools one of the points in his famous ‘Communist Manifesto.’  Any government delights in having schools to propagandize its doctrine.” ….

“It has often occurred to me that if an overwhelming majority of Americans really favor the present system of education, it should not be necessary to compel anyone to support it.  A system as sound and popular as tax-supported public schools are supposed to be should be well supported on a voluntary basis.” 

Funding of schools will likely always be a contentious issue.  Taxpayers, especially those who have no children or send their children to private schools, have a dollars-and-cents reason to oppose public schooling.  Perhaps the powerful tradition in Fundamentalist America of opposition to federal funding—or even to any public funding—of local schools can be reduced mainly to a desire to keep more money from the hands of the tax man.  But there also seems to be a deeper ideological connection.  Since the 1940s, at least, fighting against federal funding for local schools has become an article of conservative faith among some citizens of Fundamentalist America.

FURTHER READING: Douglas J. Slawson,  The Department of Education Battle, 1918-1932; Public Schools, Catholic Schools, and the Social Order (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005; Madeleine P. Scharf, “The Education Finance Act of 1943,” Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine 77 (October 1943): 635-637.