Blurred Lines: Conservatives On Education Policy

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Over a decade ago, I wrote an article with the late Dr. Lew Solmon, the former dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and program administrator for the Milken Family Foundation. Dr. Solmon studied under six Nobel Prize winners at the University of Chicago, School of Economics. He advised numerous governors and state superintendents. We captured the underlying complexity of federal policies and conservative thought at the time. The article espoused our concept, which we called the Theory of Devolution. 

In a nutshell, most conservative orthodoxy in education and other policy areas is that of devolution. What devolution means is that the power to make decisions is returned to those closest to the people. Taxpayer money is spent for the needs at the local level, rather than at the national level. 

Now fast forward to 2013 and the debate over Common Core State Standards in Tennessee. Beginning in 2009, Common Core State Standards were developed to ensure every student graduates high school prepared for college or the workforce.  

In Tennessee, the decision to adopt the Common Core State Standards was made by the governor and the State Board of Education in July 2010. In March of 2010 the state was awarded $501 million in federal funding in the Race to the Top competition. Included in the RTTT application Tennessee agreed to participate in a consortium of States by working toward jointly “developing and adopting a common set of K-12 standards that are supported by evidence that they are internationally benchmarked and build toward college and career readiness by the time of high school graduation.”  

Race to the Top has been the driving force in education policy in Tennessee since 2010. The First to the Top legislation was strongly supported by many stakeholders including 100 percent of the School Districts in this state. No organization to our knowledge stepped forward to oppose the Race to the Top Application or First to the Top Legislation. Every key stakeholder or stakeholder group remained silent in our state until 2013, when it became politically feasible to make Common Core a political issue for 2014. This is largely tied to two significant events: the launching of ObamaCare and significant data collection by the federal government of American citizens.  

In Tennessee, the implementation of Common Core is almost complete. To ask the appointed state board of education, which initially adopted the Common Core State Standards, to go back to the drawing board and create completely new standards, to retrain 70,000 teachers and administrators, would set Tennessee back millions of dollars and further alienate and overwhelm public school teachers.

So to the point: Conservatives generally agree that local authorities know better than the U.S. Congress or the U.S. Department of Education whether schools in their district would be better off with new roofs or with smaller class sizes or higher standards. Local school systems also know what works or what doesn’t work in their schools. Again for the sake of argument, in 2010, 131 of 136 participating districts and four state special schools submitted all three applicable signatures – superintendent and school board president in the Race to the Top Application.

The conservative position is that in the adoption of any state standard it should be minimal and that local districts should have the flexibility to increase or improve upon such standards. The state may be justified to emphasize desired outcomes. However, this should be in broad terms and not prescribe specific content or procedures in detail to maximize independence and creativity of educators. A common set of knowledge and skills should never stand in the way of any school or district from developing their own distinctive characters or pursuing shared educational goals with other schools, districts or states. 

However, it is important to acknowledge that standards will ultimately require curricular alignment, which will be further aligned with statewide testing. This probably cannot be avoided, and should be addressed by policymakers. In the end, this blurring of the lines may also conflict with state policies or the responsibilities of different levels of government in our K-12 system. 

So how can we reconcile these potential problems with beliefs in individual rights and local decision-making? First, we must recognize differences in state and local education priorities. Consequentially, we must ask ourselves whose individual rights and whose local decision making do we seek to protect?  

So, conservatives that believe the power to make decisions should be made by those closest to the people and that taxpayer money be spent for the needs at the local level may have a hard time convince the public for their motivation for opposition while reconciling with their political philosophy.  Perhaps devolution is not always the best policy for conservatives. 

As Dr. Solmon would remind us, “Let the debate continue.” 

J.C. Bowman


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