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Common Core: Giving Happy Lie to the “Reform Consensus”

By Rick Hess — May 16, 2011 4 min read
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For several years now, would-be reformers have gotten away with claiming that there’s a goopy, groupthink “reform consensus.” They depict the edu-debates as a simple-minded morality play between a “reform” phalanx and “adult interests.” This line has been sold most assiduously by Democrat for Ed Reform-types and NCLB enthusiasts who think conservatives are supposed to quietly, cheerfully sign on to the grand schemes crafted by their betters.

These reformers imagine broad sentiment that anyone who’s not a union toadie agrees to a whole host of “reformy” things, including the Common Core, sanctity of value-added measures, race-based accountability metrics, niftiness of turnarounds, magic of Race to the Top, and so on. To question any of these has been enough to raise questions about one’s seriousness and judgment. The result has been bad for schooling, bad for reform, and bad for public debate.

The Common Core debate last week, like that over teacher collective bargaining, is giving lie to the notion that all would-be reformers sing from a shared hymnal. There are serious divides even among would-be reformers; it’s just that they’ve been submerged during the NCLB era. There are deep disagreements about the role of government, the value of unions, the merits of for-profit provision, and much else. Conservative reformers are finally starting to speak up. One veteran Hill staffer, cheering the anti-Common Core manifesto last week, perfectly captured this sentiment in self-identifying as a “Republican Aide Who Is Tired of Duncan’s and Petrilli’s and Haycock’s and Spellings’ Bull#!&*.”

In the past few months we’ve seen Democratic ed reformers making common cause with the AFT’s Al Shanker Institute over Common Core, with the unions over state-level efforts to restrict collective bargaining, and with conventional liberals over the need to protect federal edu-spending. Meanwhile, we’ve seen union voices cheering conservative calls to dismantle NCLB and teachers embracing conservative resistance to the Common Core. This reflects not so much the “splintering” of a reform consensus as the reality that these debates are more complicated than The New York Times or Education Week have often suggested.

Last week’s heated Common Core debate made it clear that conservative reformers are increasingly skeptical of federal efforts to improve schooling--whether that’s NCLB reauthorization or federal “involvement” in the Common Core. This is true, as I noted last fall, “Even if education scholars promise that the measures are sound. Indeed, it’s less likely that 2010 Republicans will be swayed by such commentary than that they will see it as evidence that even putatively ‘conservative’ education wonks are part of the D.C. establishment” or that they’ve sold out their principles.

Small-government conservatives are doing their best imitation of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, busting through the door while brandishing that axe, and announcing, “Hi honey, I’m home!” After years of being marginalized, drowned-out, or discouraged by the Bush administration’s expansive federal agenda, small-government conservatives are back. For the latest such blast, consider that House K-12 subcommittee Chair Rep. Duncan Hunter on Friday kicked off NCLB reauthorization not with some new scheme for spending or accountability but by declaring, “It’s time to trim the fat. Today I will introduce legislation that will eliminate--not consolidate, not defund, but eliminate--43 wasteful K-12 education programs” (italics in original).

Conservative pushback is giving lie to the vacuous notion that left-leaning and right-leaning reformers are interchangeable when it comes to education. Whether the issue is collective bargaining, school vouchers, Common Core, or federal leadership, Left and Right are offering very different views of education reform and what’s either desirable or constitutionally permissible. As I noted in National Review a couple months back, after DFER President Joe Williams penned his open letter blasting Republicans for their “creepy” efforts to restrict teacher collective bargaining: “So much for the vaunted bipartisanship of education reform. Turns out that DFER types are all for bipartisanship on things like teacher evaluation and pay, so long as Republicans support new spending, don’t mess with the unions, and take care to respect progressive priorities.”

The funny thing is that reform-minded progressives often honestly just don’t get small-government conservatism. After all, DFER-types and U.S. Department of Ed officials know in their bones that any sensible person sees the world like they do and would support government doing stuff that’ll work. Ergo, they think conservative critics are wacky ideologues, ignorant, or must just be out to make trouble. The most telling window into progressive thinking on this score may have been Kevin Carey’s New Republic article a few weeks back, the one in which Carey tried to explain Republican thinking on schooling to fellow progressives.

Carey casually suggested that Hill Republicans like House Higher Ed subcommittee chair Rep. Virginia Foxx are “crazy” for charging “that federal funding for education is unconstitutional,” that “the larger Republican caucus appears to have little interest in or knowledge of education,” and that House education chair Rep. John Kline’s stance on NCLB appears to amount to “letting states do whatever they want.” And this last, it’s clear, Carey regards as a very bad thing.

Things are starting to get interesting. And, if I were a Common Core booster, I’d be starting to get a little nervous.

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