In the eighties, Republicans talked of abolishing the federal Department of Education. In the nineties, they blocked President Clinton's quest for national education standards. Former Reagan education secretary William Bennett even dubbed America's bloated school monopolies "the Blob."
But with the election of George W. Bush and the passage of his No Child Left Behind law in 2002, the "party of limited government" apparently decided to stop worrying and love the Blob. And its appetite for federal control over the classroom continues to grow. A chorus of Republicans -- including Bennett himself, in a recent Washington Post op/ed -- is now calling for a national system of education standards and testing.
Republican standard-bearers are clearly well intentioned, but the notion that we can best pursue educational excellence by federal edict is shortsighted, unconstitutional, inconsistent with conservative principles, and, most importantly, mistaken.
Some of the opposition to federal standards under President Clinton may have stemmed from partisan politics, but much was due to the content of the standards themselves. People often favor federal curricula and testing in the abstract, but when the National History Standards Project released its recommendations in 1995, the perceived bias and omissions of its proposed standards caused an uproar. So negative was the public reaction that the Senate voted 99 to 1 to condemn the proposal. And those were voluntary standards.
Now in control of the House, Senate, and White House, many Republicans are acting as though their hold on power will last forever. But once the current federal government usurps the right to institute national standards, every future government will have the opportunity to massage or mangle them.
And the word "usurp" is appropriate here. Bennett and former Bush education secretary Roderick Paige recently conceded that the Constitution does not mention education, and so, by the 10th Amendment, reserves power over schooling to the states or the people. But they went on to deride adherence to that Amendment as "a naive commitment to states' rights." Would this rather controversial bit of constitutional interpretation be part of Republicans' national standard for U.S. history and government classes?
The very idea that government standards are the key to educational improvement runs counter to the conservative principles of individual liberty and the superiority of voluntary market action over coercive central planning. Conservatives often tout the merits of free markets, but their uniform standards and tests would further homogenize American education, precluding the specialization and division of labor upon which markets depend. Federal standards would also exacerbate the existing cultural conflict over what is taught in our schools, as different political and religious factions fought to influence their content. Just imagine the debate over science standards for the teaching of human origins.
Of course, if there were evidence that imposing government standards were the best way to improve education, Americans might want to amend the Constitution, forsake market principles, suffer more school wars, and cross their fingers that subsequent administrations wouldn't botch the standards. But that's a gedankenexperiment we needn't gedenk about.
By Bennett and Paige's own admission, "most states have deployed mediocre standards." This, counter-intuitively, is their chief reason for seeking federal ones. We've generally gotten it wrong so far, so let's try again at the federal level and hope we do better? But while there is at least some check on bad state policies (states with the worst schools may drive away residents and businesses), there is no such check on bad federal policies -- get it wrong nationally and you get it wrong for everyone, everywhere.
Most importantly, standards advocates have yet to present a decisive empirical case that national curricula or testing would raise achievement, let alone that they would raise it more than free market policies. Nor have they proven that any gains in the subjects tested would be worth the costs in added cultural conflict and diminished educational diversity, or the almost inevitable marginalization of subjects left off the tests.
There is, by contrast, much evidence that competition and parental choice improve achievement, reduce costs, minimize social conflict, and make schools more responsive to families.
So instead of asking schools to slip out of NCLB's handcuffs and into a new and more restrictive federal straitjacket, conservatives -- and indeed liberals and moderates -- should take the opposite tack: ask their state representatives to free educators from red tape, and empower all parents to choose the best schools for their children, public or private. That was the wisdom of the earlier conservative position on education, and surely it beats embracing the Blob.