My view: Don't let arrogance overshadow real Common Core issues

By Paul T. Mero

Published: Thursday, May 3 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Common Core is a controversial subject for one primary reason: Education is traditionally a local issue, and Common Core — whether driven by a consortium of states, by the federal government or both — doesn't feel local. Much of the concern expressed over the program centers on the perception that supporters are more interested in receiving federal dollars than concerned about the prospect of relinquishing local control of education.

Conservatives believe that not only should education be governed locally, it ought to be directed primarily by parents. Conservatives believe that public schools exist to assist parents, as stated by the U.S. Supreme Court, in their "fundamental liberty interest to direct the upbringing and education" of their children. In other words, conservatives believe that lasting freedom and American democracy begin at home and that the benefits of education, while universally valued, are appropriately defined by parents in meeting the needs of every individual child. "Standards" are largely for parents to decide, not the state.

In general, liberals believe that public schools exist foremost to democratize and equalize people and their communities. They often see it as a last refuge from damage caused by the insularity of family and tradition. Liberals believe that while parental involvement is important, education is a science best left to trained professionals. They generally view public education as a fundamental right and not simply a right for every child if offered to any child, as the Supreme Court has ruled. In other words, liberals believe that the public school system is the guardian of the best interests of children, the sole educational authority and the unquestioned arbiter of American democracy.

Access to public education is cemented in the Utah Constitution, as is its ultimate control by the Utah Legislature and subordinately its supervision by the State School Board. Appropriate to Utah's conservative culture and temperament, Utah law states that "the primary responsibility for the education of children within the state resides with their parents or guardians and that the role of state and local governments is to support and assist parents in fulfilling that responsibility."

The Common Core controversy shines a bright light on these disparate views. By and large, Utah's public school establishment presumes its superiority, becomes indignant when its claimed expertise is challenged, and quite naturally (as a functioning government bureaucracy) tends to prioritize increased funding, even from the federal government, over local autonomy.

Indeed, the general attitude of Utah's public school establishment at any level, from State School Board to teachers union, is that it alone is the embodiment of local control. If it wants to enter into a state consortium or adopt federal guidelines to accept federal funding or do anything it wants to do, anything it chooses is appropriate because it sees itself as the sole authority over education. Words such as "local control" are meaningless in a culture of monolithic authority.

Hence, we can read incredulous condescension such as that seen in David Wiley's recent commentary on Common Core saying we can't allow this issue "to be controlled by people … thoroughly unqualified to judge the quality of standards," meaning people not like him ("Utah should adopt the Common Core," April 25).

Another example is the current turmoil in Canyons School District over allegations of administrative tyranny and bullying by Superintendent David Doty. In both cases, the arrogance (or alleged arrogance) is stunning, but in some people's minds, these attitudes are earned because they're the "experts." Evidently, the rest of us should just say thank you.

More objective supporters of Common Core ought to be sensitive to this culture of arrogance within the public school establishment. And while many detractors of Common Core have their own challenges of attitude and temperament to overcome, this predominant culture of arrogance alone could ruin every reasonable attempt to constructively settle this highly politicized issue.

Paul T. Mero is president of Sutherland Institute

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