Every so often the paranoid rhetoric of the "parental rights" movement surfaces in the Congressional Republican caucus. That's what happened yesterday when 38 senators blocked the United States from adopting the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a treaty largely based on the Americans with Disabilities Act. That celebrated piece of legislation was signed into law by George H.W. Bush in 1990. Both former Bush presidents, Bob Dole, and John McCain all back the treaty, which seeks to prevent discrimination on the basis of disability, and which would do nothing to change any exisiting U.S. law or to prevent homeschooling. Yet anti-internationalist conservative interest groups have organized strong opposition to this treaty and others among homeschooling parents and Tea Party activists, telling them it could prevent parents from educating disabled children at home or using corporal punishment. From the Senate floor, Utah's Mike Lee articulated this position:
I and many of my constituents, including those who homeschool their children or send their children to private or religious schools, have justifiable doubts that a foreign UN body, a committee operating out of Geneva, Switzerland, should decide what is in the best interests of a child at home with his or her parents in Utah or in any other state in our Great union.
Back during the GOP primary I wrote an essay for The Nation about divisions in the Republican Party over school reform. The GOP education agenda is no longer set by No Child Left Behind moderates, who see school accountability and choice--backed by shared academic standards and enforced through standardized testing--as essentially conservative ideas. Instead, as President Obama and most Democrats have come to embrace that reform agenda, and have implemented it through programs like Race to the Top, the GOP has shifted far to the right, becoming increasingly responsive to activists who see any federal foray into education or children's issues more broadly as an invasion of the sacred parent-child relationship.
This helps explain what happened in the Senate yesterday, and it explains what the Republican Party will have to resolve, internally, if it really intends to make education a core part of its emerging post-2012 agenda, as Buzzfeed's John Stanton and Zeke Miller are reporting. Sure: Private school vouchers and anti-teachers' union rhetoric can coexist quite comfortably with strong support for unregulated homeschooling. Both sets of ideas are predicated on a certain hostility toward traditional public schools; Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum would agree, for example, that more kids should be able to use their state and federal education funding to enroll in online, for-profit charter schools, which students "attend" from their home computers, and which are much cheaper to operate than brick-and-mortar schools.
But ultimately, authentic school improvement must take into consideration the curriculum and how it is tested or assessed, not just at charter or online schools, but at traditional public schools, as well, in which close to 90 percent of American children are enrolled. The religious right has a long history of opposing state and national efforts to raise academic standards and even to provide high school students with on-the-job vocational training (Michele Bachmann began her career grandstanding on such issues); moderate Republicans like Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels, however, remain comitted to the Common Core and to the basic idea that Washington has a role to play in supporting local schools and holding them accountable for results.
The intra-Democratic Party debate between traditional teachers' union positions and standards-and-accountability reform was resolved over the course of the past 20 years mostly in favor of reform. The Republican Party may now go through a similar transition. Will the GOP choose centrist standardization and school improvement (which costs money), or conservative hostility toward any investment in public education?