The education split divides
Conservatives at odds with each other over school reform only hurt themselves.
Conservatives engaged in K-12 policy are pulled in opposite directions by two competing schools of thought that are difficult to reconcile, much less synthesize. As a result, a conservative can emerge as a sharp, passionate advocate for one approach, while neglecting the virtues of the other. This, unfortunately, produces internecine battles and the inability to develop a coherent conservative K-12 agenda. Worse, since a conservative leader can seem firmly one-sided in her or his understanding of our schools challenges, she or he can swiftly alienate broad swaths of the voting public.
The “bold reform” conservative camp sees our public education system as controlled by government monopolies – school districts owning and operating all public schools in a geographic area, overseeing purposely similar schools and assigning kids to schools based on their home addresses. These districts, the thinking goes, are also typically controlled tightly by a democratically elected school board and are highly unionized. Consequently, the system is often cast as insensitive to pluralism and individual choice, hostile to innovation, slow-moving, inefficient and more.
So criticism from this camp can be harsh – public education must be overhauled, we have a factory-model of schooling, it’s a failed system – and its proposed remedies can be dramatic – advance universal school choice, end school boards, accelerate disruptive technologies. In short, this branch of conservatism sees the organization, governance and delivery of K-12 public education as flawed, so audacious reform is necessary.
To many members of this camp, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is an exceptional leader and spokesperson. The secretary confidently calls out the system’s weaknesses and agitates for big change. In 2013, she cited “the public’s awareness that traditional public schools are not succeeding. In fact, let’s be clear, in many cases, they are failing.” In a May speech, she referred to the current system as “antiquated” and said, “the time for simply tinkering around the edges is over.” The secretary explained the thinking behind her recent “Rethink School” tour as “embracing dramatic change, even if it is hard, even if it is scary.” At one stop on the tour, the secretary lamented that the first day of school looks and feels the same year after year. She spoke of “the mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons and denies futures.” All of this recalls Thomas Paine’s famous reform call-to-arms, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
But there is another branch of conservatism that can find all of this unsettling. Indeed, the heart of “conservatism” is “conserve.” Leaders in this camp have a tendency to believe that longstanding institutions and practices are evolutionarily robust and possess great wisdom – and that speedy, brash reforms are often unsound. They generally trust that small democratic units (like local school boards) protect pluralism, bring communities together, generate astute decisions and shrewdly adapt to changing conditions. To this kind of conservative, broadsides against our generations-old system of schooling miss the deep knowledge found in tradition and the acumen possessed by practitioners. Sweeping attacks, they believe, fail to appreciate local priorities and conditions and can lead to officious, clumsy “fixes” by faraway technocrats.
It’s easy to see how the two worldviews are in tension. But it’s also clear how a doctrinaire application of either is politically perilous. The first can be received as antagonistic by those believing in, working for and/or sending their kids to the traditional system. The second can be seen as obtuse given the suboptimal results the traditional system often produces. As a result, camp-one conservatives can be seen as one-note attackers of America’s beloved public schools and camp-two conservatives as apologists for its shortcomings.
For conservatives to seriously advance K-12 education, they must recognize that the two schools of thought are compatible – and they must talk about these issues accordingly. Our traditional system has contributed mightily to our nation; terrific things done by terrific people take place in traditional public schools every day. These schools, through experienced practitioners and democratic boards, often serve and reflect their communities expertly and evolve to meet ever-changing needs. But at the same time, our schools can and should improve. There should be more parental choice, innovation and civil-society activity. Indeed, recent speeches suggest DeVos may be seeking to bridge this divide; though she remains a resolute advocate of choice, she takes care to emphasize her agnosticism regarding school models, and in her September speech at Harvard, DeVos included traditional public schools on her list of encouraging school visits.
Those on the political right should appreciate that the conservative approach to reform – gratitude for what was handed down to us; reliance on continuous, incremental change; distrust of central “experts”; empowerment of individuals and voluntary associations – is perfectly suited for the synthesis of these two mindsets. Done right, conservatives could advance reforms that gradually and stably expand options and innovation while respecting custom.
But if conservatives can’t get this right while controlling the federal government and so many state governments, they will have lost a golden opportunity. And that could invite another technocratic era – like the previous eight years – that’s cool to both the choice-disruption and the localism-traditionalism mindsets that conservatives hold dear.
What’s new in education
Sign up for the Ed Express newsletter
The latest from AEI Education Policy scholars