Repairing the Conservative School Reform Coalition

For nearly 30 years—at least since Bill Bennett’s tenure as secretary of education and Lamar Alexander’s as governor of Tennessee—education-minded conservatives at both national and state levels have embraced a two-part school reform strategy, focused equally on rigorous standards and parental choice. Recent events have frayed that coalition, but it’s not too late to stitch it back together.

First, a bit of history. In the 1970s, U.S. education policy was all about “equity,” inclusion, and funding and its reformist zeal came from the left, save for noble but isolated exceptions such as Milton Friedman.

Few deny that the equity agenda did some good, especially for disabled and minority youngsters, but the concomitant neglect of academic achievement proved costly. Though the College Board didn’t acknowledge it until 1975, SAT scores had peaked a decade earlier and were in free fall. Every newspaper seemed to bring word of another teacher strike. Adult authority was in decline, goofy curricular schemes were ascendant—and Jimmy Carter decided that his top education priority would be creation of a new federal agency to reward the NEA for its support in the ‘76 election.

In the blunt words of chronicler Tom Toch (then with U.S. News, now with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching), “the 1970’s left public education in a shambles.”

Fast forward just three years to A Nation At Risk (1983) which powerfully stated that American K-12 education was tanking. Ronald Reagan concurred. And by then, a series of governors, many of them Republican, many in the South, had reached the same conclusion on their own. They understood that the future vitality of their states depended on a major overhaul of their education systems. Alexander, for example, proposed his “Better Schools Program” to the Tennessee legislature months ahead of the national commission report—and, as chairman of the National Governors Association in the mid-eighties, had that organization embark on a comprehensive, multi-year commitment to school reform.

In Washington, meanwhile, occupying the top post in the new Education Department, Bennett encouraged the reformers and took serious steps to equip them with the research findings and data they needed to bring rigor, comparability, and choice into their work. (He proposed, for example, changes in the National Assessment of Educational Progress that made possible the first valid state-to-state comparisons of academic performance.)

The initial impulse of many of these conservative ed-reformers was to raise standards for the system as a whole, which began with tougher graduation requirements, “minimum competency” exams and fewer electives of the basket-weaving variety. They also pushed to create additional school choices for families. Minnesota enacted statewide “open enrollment” in 1988 and two years later Wisconsin began the country’s first modern voucher program.

Toughening standards, however, was easier said than done, because it was easy for districts and state education departments to game such requirements: “You want three years of math instead of two? Fine, we’ll just spread out the same content.” What the system needed were true external standards—statements of what students should know and be able to do, a clear definition of the desired endpoint, and tests by which to determine how many kids and schools were getting there.

In 1989, the governors—all of them—met with President George H.W. Bush in Charlottesville and emerged with a set of ambitious (and ultimately unworkable) “national education goals” for the year 2000. This was followed, during the Bush père and Clinton years, by an abortive attempt at setting federally inspired, subject-specific, education standards for the country. After this flopped badly, the standards action moved back to the states, where it’s been ever since, albeit with various forms of encouragement (and harassment) from Washington. Early adopters of rigorous statewide standards, including Texas and North Carolina, showed that this approach—combined with suitable tests and public results—could lead to significant achievement gains. Other states, including Jeb Bush’s Florida and Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts, followed suit, with even better results. (Massachusetts is now the sole state whose educational performance rivals the highest-achieving countries of Asia and Europe.)

At the same time, the push for parental choice gained oomph as Minnesota passed the first charter school law (1991), followed swiftly by California and Colorado, then dozens more. Other forms of public-school choice have burgeoned, and vouchers and tax credit scholarships have spread, too, to some 16 states today.

Some conservatives saw standards and choice as conflicting, but in fact they’re complementary, even (in today’s argot) co-dependent. Standards do a good job of clarifying the public’s expectations for schools, and signaling to parents and taxpayers whether the campus down the street is educating its students poorly or well. But standards-based reform has never had a suitable answer for failing schools. It can identify them but has had little success turning them around.

Choice, on the other hand, is great at creating new school options, places that can replace the failures and give needy kids decent alternatives. Yet market-based reform needs reliable consumer information for it to lead to strong outcomes—information that standards and tests are excellent at providing.

Sticky wickets remain, to be sure, such as the vexed question of accountability for schools of choice where tax dollars are involved. Market-minded reformers tend to argue that satisfying the “customers,” in this case parents and kids, is all that’s needed. We’ve argued, on the other hand, that since education is a public as well as a private good, choice schools—when the public is covering their costs—should also be accountable to the public for student learning. (Wholly private schools are a different matter.) Besides, we’ve seen too many examples of parents who consider everything except academic performance when selecting schools for their kids.

There’s also been much debate among conservative ed-reformers about Washington’s role. While any Republican governor worth his salt pushes for both standards and choice at the state level, it’s tough to know what Uncle Sam should or should not do. George W. Bush moved federal policy to a more aggressive stance with his No Child Left Behind act. A dozen years later, and with ample cause and provocation, Republicans in both the House and Senate are moving to roll back almost all of that. Meanwhile, for better and worse, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have embraced key items on what had been mostly a GOP reform agenda, including charter schools, rigorous teacher evaluations, even performance-based pay. During the last election, just about the only singular education policy (at the K-12 level) that Mitt Romney could claim as his alone was vouchers.

Enter the Common Core

Though few ordinary folks have ever heard of the “Common Core,” it has emerged in recent weeks as the biggest education flashpoint among state-level GOP policymakers and in the conservative coalition generally. Prompted by Tea Party activists, a couple of influential talk-radio hosts and bloggers, some disgruntled academics, several conservative think-tanks, and a couple of shadowy but deep-pocketed funders, in April the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution blasting the Common Core as “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.” Several states that previously adopted it for their schools are on the verge of backing out. It’s been a major hot button in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Alabama.

Why all the fuss?

Heretofore, states set their own academic standards. A few did this well but most, according to reviews undertaken by our Institute and others, faltered badly, putting forth vague expectations that lack content and rigor, are unhelpful to teachers and curriculum directors, and often promote left-wing dogma. Even the good ones differ so much from state to state that school and student performance cannot be compared around the country, much less with other lands.

Public education is indisputably the responsibility of states—embedded deeply in their constitutions—but preparing young Americans to succeed in a mobile society on a shrinking and more competitive planet calls for some uniformity of basic education expectations across the land, expectations that, if met, truly prepare young people for college and good jobs and prepare the U.S. workforce for the 21st century.

Many state leaders understand this and, beginning five years ago, the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers (to which most “state superintendents” belong) launched a foundation-funded project called the “Common Core State Standards initiative,” which gave birth (in 2010) to a set of commendably strong standards for English and math from kindergarten through high school. Our Institute’s reviewers found them superior to the academic expectations set by three-quarters of the states—and essentially on par with the rest.

But would states actually embrace them—and give up their own? This was—and remains—totally voluntary, but decisions grew more complicated when the Obama administration started pushing states toward such adoptions by jawboning, hectoring, and luring them with dollars and regulatory waivers.

Whether it was the standards’ intrinsic merit, administration pressure, or the potential advantages of commonality, 45 states plus D.C. and the Pentagon’s school network signed on. (Texas and Virginia remain the big exceptions.) The top-priority education initiative in most of those places today is preparing teachers, parents, and others for these demanding standards—and for the likelihood that scores will plummet on the tougher tests that are due to be launched in 2015.

Then came the backlash. Some arose on the left from longtime foes of testing and from teacher groups wary of being evaluated against sterner criteria. Some arose from parents and educators fretful that heavier emphasis on English and math will eclipse music, art, civics, health, and the remaining components of a balanced curriculum.

The heavy artillery, however, came from the right. Much of it focused on what was presented, Tea Party style, as a federal plot—worse, an Obama plot, in cahoots with the Gates Foundation, maybe even the United Nations—to take over American schools, end local control, undermine state sovereignty, and vanquish school choice.

Some decried the Common Core as a lowering of standards because, for example, it doesn’t mandate algebra in the eighth grade. (Never mind that few eighth graders study real algebra today.) Others prophesied that Jane Austen and Mark Twain would be replaced by close study of auto-repair manuals. (The list of recommended readings that accompanies the Common Core is excellent—but bad choices by teachers or curriculum directors can subvert any standards.)

Critics of the Common Core would, of course, like all states—especially their own—to repudiate these “national” academic standards. Writing on this website, directors at the Boston-based Pioneer Institute lamented what they said was Common Core’s obliviousness to the sources of the Bay State’s (genuine) academic progress. Several California think-tankers insist that the Golden State’s school standards are superior to the new ones. And it’s true that those states are among those that our analysts deemed “too close to call” when they reviewed the Common Core alongside state-developed standards. (Little good can be said, however, about actual achievement in California—further evidence that even solid standards gain traction only when well implemented.)

The critics’ best-founded beef, however, is with the Obama administration, not with the Common Core, which was state developed and remains state owned—and voluntary. The White House and Education Department erred when they created federal incentives for states to take the plunge—and erred again when, in this year’s State of the Union address, the president claimed credit for “convinc(ing) almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards.” By tying a blue ribbon around the Common Core, he made it more problematic in red states.

Still, the fact that Obama thinks well of it doesn’t means there’s anything (else) wrong with it. This is understood by the many respected conservatives who back the Common Core, including such scarred veterans of the education-reform wars as Jeb Bush, Bill Bennett, John Engler, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Sonny Perdue, Bobby Jindal, Rod Paige, and Mitch Daniels. They realize that academic standards are only the beginning, setting out a destination but not how to get there. They understand, however, that a destination worth reaching beats aimless wandering—and a big modern country is better off if it knows how all its kids and schools are doing against a rigorous set of shared expectations for the three R’s.

Nor are the standards’ rigor the sole consideration—or the only reason that conservatives should favor them. The Common Core can save dollars while enhancing accountability, hastening the development of powerful instructional technologies, strengthening American competitiveness, reducing remediation in college, boosting the country’s shared civic culture, and (by supplying parents with better information about school performance) advancing school choice.

Some states will surely withdraw from the Common Core, and others will only go through the motions of implementing it. Even in jurisdictions that take it seriously, implementation is apt to be uneven from district to district, and more political rapids lie ahead, when results from new tests begin to arrive, almost certainly showing far fewer young Americans to be “college and career ready” than elected officials will be comfortable with..

Yet none of this means that conservatives should come unglued over the Common Core. Rather, they should maximize the good it can do and minimize its potential harm. Here are three useful steps:

1. Draw a bright line between the standards and the federal government. (Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is onto one approach with his proposal to ban any further federal spending related to the Common Core.)
2. Overhaul No Child Left Behind as proposed by Senator Lamar Alexander and House education committee chairman John Kline, in effect rolling back the regulatory regime that has turned results-based school accountability into Uncle Sam’s business. (The tighten-the-screws alternative advanced by Senate Democrats would entangle Washington even further with states’ standards and accountability systems—as well as much more mischief.)
3. Continue to push aggressively in dozens of states for more school choice, both public and private—and allow voucher schools (and maybe charters, too) to opt out of their states’ standards and tests (Common Core or otherwise) if they can present alternatives that are just as rigorous. (Disclosure: the co-authors of this piece are still tussling over this one!)

Actions such as these might not restore harmony to American conservatism—and education most definitely is not the only hot issue—but they’d be a worthy start. Meanwhile, it’s worth examining the Common Core standards with one’s own eyes. (You can find them online at We predict that you will be impressed by their rigor, thoroughness, solidity, and ambition—even their “conservative” nature. You may just agree that the United States would be better off if more of its high school graduates possessed these skills and knowledge.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael J. Petrilli are, respectively, president and executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Finn served in the Reagan Administration, Petrilli in the George W. Bush Administration. Both are also affiliated with the Hoover Institution.

This article first appeared on the blog of The Weekly Standard.

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