“The time has come for a serious consideration of national academic standards,” says the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten.[i]
“A coalition of education leaders, advocacy groups, and teachers’ unions is pushing for the development of nationalized common academic standards,” reports U. S. News & World Report.[ii]
The plan, warns the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), is “to potentially eliminate virtually all state control over the education system and centralize education in Washington, D. C., through nationalized standards, which would lead to nationalized curriculum, tests, and textbooks.”[iii]
What’s it all about? Does Congress intend for federal bureaucrats to impose a “one-size-fits-all” public education regime on all fifty states, covering thousands of local school districts? Will the feds be content to micromanage public education, or will they try to corral Christian schools and family homeschools, too?
In charge of the project is the House Committee on Education and Labor, which during the summer held several hearings. The context for the discussion is the pending re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as “No Child Left Behind.”
Chalcedon prepared three questions for the committee:
- How would national academic standards affect Christian schools and homeschooling, if at all?
- What would be the Constitutional warrant for empowering the federal government to set uniform academic standards for all fifty states?
- How would the government decide which standards to use for the whole nation? California, for instance, by state law, has a “gay-friendly” school curriculum. Would taxpayers in Oklahoma be required to adopt that?
We might have also asked how much it would cost to implement such a far-reaching program; but we wanted to make the questions as easy as possible.
On four consecutive days we contacted the committee’s press office, without anyone returning our phone calls or responding to our emails. Finally a staffer told us, “If you haven’t gotten answers to your questions by now, you aren’t going to get any.” Another remarked, “We’re kind of busy with health care just now.”
We are not the only ones who haven’t been able to get answers. During one of the committee’s hearings this summer, U. S. Congressman Mark Souder of Indiana asked, “How do homeschools fit into this? How do Christian schools fit into this?” Like us, Congressman Souder wasn’t favored with an answer.[iv] We leave it to the reader to judge the good intentions of any government body that declines to answer basic questions.
Souder called “any plans for centralized top-down education ‘a straitjacket which will be politically manipulated,’ exploited by special interests, and which would ‘advance whatever the political agenda is of those who are in power,’” HSLDA reported.[v]
In the same report, HSLDA strongly warned that “the hearing could foreshadow a serious threat to the freedom of homeschoolers nationwide and America’s constitutional tradition of limited government.”
“HSLDA,” the report said, “is closely monitoring Congress’s actions … we believe that any attempts by Congress to create nationalized standards, curriculum, or testing would be unconstitutional, and harmful to students and families.”
HSLDA President J. Michael Smith told us that there have been no significant developments in the story since the hearings this summer. The committee, he said, has been proceeding very cautiously.
“I’m not even sure the NEA [National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union] is for this,” he said. “In fact, there’s a lot of opposition to it.”
Nevertheless, he said, the plan to establish national academic standards is “something we’ll have to watch very closely.
“It comes down to money. Normally, the federal government funds only about 7% of public education. But the recent stimulus packages have been pumping a lot of money into early childhood education. Those programs are not mandatory—but if any state wants a share of that money, it has to sign up for them.”
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has given the U. S. Department of Education an extra $100 billion “to distribute around the nation,” The Christian Science Monitor reported in June.[vi]
“Since the federal government has been involved in education,” Michael Smith said, “look at the test scores—down, down, down! But by pumping money into the schools, the government makes it easier for parents to take less responsibility for their children’s education.
“There is no Constitutional warrant for what they’re doing, but they don’t really need one—because they’re offering money, not mandating anything. No state is forced to sign on to No Child Left Behind. But if a state doesn’t sign on, it won’t get any federal education money.”
So far, he said, No Child Left Behind has been a policy failure. Teachers have complained of being forced “to teach to the test,” tests have been “dumbed down” to ensure that students pass them—too many failures in a school district can be penalized by loss of funds—and in some schools, teachers have been caught helping students to cheat on the tests.
All of those problems, Smith said, would simply be carried over into a re-authorized No Child Left Behind, with or without national academic standards.
As for the threat to homeschools and Christian schools, “There’s nothing at all to worry about,” Smith said, “if we do our job. But watch out. They might try to rope us in on this standardized curriculum. Then we’d have to sue them, and we’d win.”
Supported by Teachers?
Although U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has claimed that “Teachers have been really positive on this idea of common standards,”[vii] a visit to the NEA’s website (http://www.nea.org) shows the union as much more noncommittal.
In setting forth “8 Principles for ESEA Reauthorization,” the NEA avoids making any mention of national academic standards.[viii] Instead, the union seems most concerned that it should have a prominent role in whatever form the reauthorized legislation finally takes—and, of course, that federal money should continue to flow into public education in ever-increasing increments.
Meanwhile, the Department of Education has opened up a $350 million grant competition—paid for by the stimulus package—to develop common tests for all school districts to use.[ix]
“They don’t have to adopt any of the tests or curricula already in use in any of the states,” Michael Smith said. “All the feds have to do is come up with a curriculum endorsed by them, but not mandated. No one will have to use it. But any state that doesn’t, won’t get federal funds.”
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that America’s public schools are falling farther and farther behind those in other countries.
“The countries that consistently outperform the United States on international assessments all have national standards,” Randi Weingarten said.[x] “I am not talking about federal standards for every subject taught in American public schools, nor am I proposing that state and local education authorities lose all say on curriculum … I propose that a broad-based group—made up of educators, elected officials, community leaders, and experts in pedagogy and particular content—come together to make the best academic standards and make them available as a national model.”
Even here, in the opinion of a teachers’ union president, one can see potential resistance to the idea of a Congressional committee drawing up standards and applying them from the top down. The unions want to be sure they have a say in setting the standards.
No one is mentioning the obvious—that in spite of untotalled hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year on public education, despite increasing government involvement, despite a multitude of experts and “educators” all stirring the broth at once, American public schools continue to fall behind those of other countries. Perhaps it has something to do with poorly educated teachers, endless hours of classroom time devoted to sexual and political indoctrination, the wasting of incalculable amounts of money on such frills as kindergarten guidance counselors and special credit cards for school administrators, and a culture in which some 40% of all children are born out of wedlock and grow up in fatherless homes. None of that has anything to do with academic standards, but very much to do with substandard education.
In the meantime, we are yet some unknown distance away from the federal government actually coming out with centralized academic standards. The support for this plan among the teachers’ unions, where it might have been expected to be strong, appears to be guarded, at best. Meanwhile, the continuing Congressional tumult over a looming government takeover of health care seems to be absorbing most of the committee’s energies.
It should be some time before any concrete standards emerge from the committee’s drawing board.
Why It Can’t Work
Chalcedon, of course, supports Christian education, either at home or in a Christian school. We are skeptical of any schemes to “reform” a public education system that is intrinsically inimical to Christian beliefs and of questionable constitutionality.
We say that public education cannot be “fixed”—no matter how much money is poured into it, no matter how many years of teacher training are required, regardless of whose academic standards are employed. This is because public education’s basic premises, its founding principles—utopian secularism, or even outright statism, adequately sums them up—are wrong, have been wrong from the beginning, and will always be wrong.
In The Messianic Character of American Education (1963), R. J. Rushdoony examined the writings of the men and women who created and developed public education in America, going back to the early nineteenth century. In their own words, these influential thinkers and policy-makers reveal the grandiose and anti-Christian nature of the enterprise. Rushdoony’s book is indispensable to anyone who wants to understand what makes public education tick, and what the educators’ real goals are. We have not the space available here to go into detail, but one example may suffice.
John Dewey (1859–1952), probably the most influential of all those thinkers, wrote extensively on education and democracy. It is important to note that what Dewey usually meant by “democracy” was a mass of docile, conformist commoners benevolently ruled by an all-wise scientific and political elite (he admitted to having been strongly influenced by Plato’s Republic). Although brought up as a Christian, Dewey eventually abandoned Christianity for humanism: indeed, he was one of the co-authors and signers of the original Humanist Manifesto.
Rushdoony wrote, “Thus Dewey called Christianity an alien faith because committed to a fundamental discrimination and separation, to a ‘spiritual aristocracy’: ‘I cannot understand [Dewey wrote] how any realization of the democratic ideal as a vital moral and spiritual ideal in human affairs is possible without surrender of the conception of the basic division to which Christianity is committed.’”[xi] Or in plain English, Christianity and democracy won’t mix because Christ claims exclusive lordship over all the nations, exclusive truth, and His judgment will separate the saved from the unsaved.
Another Dewey quote is equally revealing:
“[A] government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated. Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority [God, for example], it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education.”[xii]
Public education has from its inception sought to install the state as a substitute for God. The “Public Statements” found on the NEA website demonstrate, beyond a doubt, how thoroughly this secular, statist worldview has come to permeate public education’s priesthood, the teachers’ unions. (It was Dewey who first liked teaching to a priesthood.)
“The results of such education,” Rushdoony wrote, “have not been, however, new achievements culturally and advances ethically, but the rise of holy barbarians, men who have invested their ancient lusts and violence with a modern sanctity.”[xiii]
Barbarians? But we don’t believe Rushdoony overstated it.
The reader can see and hear some of this barbarism for himself at http://bighollywood.breitbart.com/jjmnolte/2009/11/04/elementary-epidemic-11-uncoveredvideos-show-school-children-performing-praises-to-obama/ . Here is a collection of eleven videos taken at public schools in the Midwest, New England, the Middle Atlantic states, and the South, showing public school children in grades K–12 performing what can only be called “hymns” to the current president.
Dewey would approve this worship of a president, who would serve as an embodiment of the state. But Rushdoony warned: “Dewey’s influence in contemporary life and thought has been extensive in religion, philosophy and other areas, but chiefly in education and jurisprudence … with a devastating cynicism of all categories of faith and life other than the omnipotent state, which has been exalted and furthered with unrelenting force. It is questionable whether liberty can long survive under a continued onslaught of Deweyism.”[xiv]
This is what public education is, and no amount of tinkering with academic standards can amend it.
If you are a Christian parent whose children are still in public school, reflect on Dewey’s comments and watch the Breitbart video: then pull them out, and make sure they receive a Christian education.
[i] Randi Weingarten, “The Case for National Standards,” guest editorial in The Washington Post, Feb. 16, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2009/02/15/ST2009021502025.html
[vii] The Christian Science Monitor, op. cit.
[x] Weingarten, op. cit.
[xi] R. J. Rushdoony, Thy Kingdom Come (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books,  2001), 54.
[xiii] R. J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books,  1995), 95.
[xiv] Ibid., 161.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.