It appears as though, Common Core, the latest wave to hit education, is beginning to flatten. Iowa’s embrace of the standards seems tenuous at best, leading one to wonder whether Iowa will follow the lead of Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina who all rejected the standards after initially accepting them. Along with states, teachers and parents express growing concern over the Common Core.
The debate surrounding Common Core is muddled by the kind of polarizing, inflated rhetoric that tends to shape public discourse all too often. The battle lines are familiar. In one corner stands those who would like to see a sweeping, national program that is, in the case of Common Core, incentivized by the government. In another corner stands those who balk at government overreach, preferring instead a more laissez-faire posture. Each side hurls insults at the other. The rhetoric for many opposed to the Common Core would lead one to believe the standards are a diabolical attempt to systematically destroy the country by targeting America’s most vulnerable, its children. For Common Core supporters, resistance to the standards represents anti-intellectual stubbornness that is crippling the country while nations like South Korea and Finland soar to the pinnacle of academic success. When these two sides trade blows the result is usually cloudiness, not clarity. Meanwhile the actual players, teachers and students, grow weary from a revolving door of educational change.
Common Core is a well-intended attempt to address a real problem, namely, America’s decades-long academic decline. But even if Common Core had universal support, one wonders what success these standards would actually have. Sweeping educational initiatives, after all, are nothing new, reaching all the way back to Jimmy Carter (recall America 2000, Goals 2000, and No Child Left Behind). Yet over the course of these initiatives, academic performance and test scores continue to slip, which begs the question: is there a better way forward?
The Purpose of Education
In order to answer this question, we need to consider the purpose of education. C.S. Lewis’ mid-century treatise on education, The Abolition of Man, recognizes that education until recently has always been about teaching students to live with the grain of the universe. Lewis believes that education, when it loses sight of “conforming soul[s] to reality” (what Lewis calls “the Tao”), devolves into technique. No longer are students treated as people, rather they are considered in purely utilitarian and economic ways. This view is perhaps captured best in the refrain echoed by teachers in schools everywhere, “you better get to work so that you’re not flipping burgers at a fast food restaurant.” Like Lewis, long-time NYU professor, Neil Postman, in his book The End of Education, observes that endless curricular engineering will never be enough to solve America’s educational failures. Instead, educators must consider the telos or ultimate end of education, which inevitably gets us into the metaphysical realm.
And there lays the rub. America is deeply divided when it comes to questions of meaning. Which metaphysic should inform schools? For much of American history, Protestantism shaped the school system, but that no longer seems possible or even fair, given America’s increasingly diverse context.
Toward an Inclusive Pluralism
Historian George Marsden’s The Twilight of the American Enlightenment offers a suggestion for handling religious and philosophical difference in public life that applies to the question of education. Drawing upon Abraham Kuyper, Marsden calls for a public square marked by inclusive pluralism, a concept that has had trouble gaining traction on both the Right and Left. Marsden writes, “The mainstream secular culture of the past half-century, despite its concerns for justice regarding other sorts of diversity (such as racial, ethnic, or sexual diversity), has not yet effectively addressed the question of religious diversity.” On the other side of the political spectrum, the religious right of the 1970s and 80s exercised a rhetoric of exclusion, not inclusion, seeking to re-establish Protestant influence throughout the public square. The parochial efforts of the religious right only affirmed for many on the Left that religion is best kept out of public life, argues Marsden. Marsden’s call for inclusive pluralism seems particularly apt when it comes to education.
Iowa’s Education Savings Accounts
Iowa is currently considering legislation that would address academic decline and honor the state’s religious and philosophical diversity. It is legislation that provides the framework for the kind of inclusive pluralism Marsden calls for and offers the freedom that Postman and Lewis’s educational prescription requires. The legislation is part of the broader school choice movement that has gained momentum in a number of states over the last decade. While many school choice programs (e.g. school tuition organizations, vouchers, and charter schools) have improved education options for a number of families, they are not as universally accessible as some would hope. School choice advocates in the state of Iowa are currently pursuing a more ambitious program, Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).
ESAs would provide families the funds to, according to the Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education, “make sure parents of K-12th grade students have a maximum number of options during this critical time in their child’s development.” As it is currently written, the legislation would provide yearly $5,600 per pupil to any family (regardless of income) that chooses not to send their students to the public school. The Iowa Catholic Conference estimates this program would cost Iowa only four percent more than current government spending on K-12 education. According to the Iowa Association of Christian Schools, ESAs would not divert money from the public schools who would continue to receive funds from all revenue streams. ESAs would remove limits like zip code and finances that many parents face when considering their child’s education.
This legislation would also create the framework for substantive educational reform, but would leave the actual reforming to the individual schools. As parents have more choice in selecting where their students attend school, schools must “up” their game in order attract families (evidence suggests that public education benefits from school choice programs). In particular, this legislation would bolster the efforts of faith-based and other private schools. One of the reasons the Common Core has been so contentious is because education, even purportedly neutral public education, is inextricably connected to deeper questions about meaning and purpose. The proposed ESA legislation recognizes this reality and accommodates parents with varying religious and philosophical perspectives to select the education that aligns most closely with their own views. Such legislation would demonstrate to the nation a better way forward for education, especially education in an increasingly pluralistic context.