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A Conservative Vision for Education Reform

Washington Examiner Magazine

March 5, 2024

For two guys who just published a book about the need for a conservative vision for education policySan Francisco has been a gift that keeps on giving. When we were writing the book, the school board, which adamantly refused to reopen schools for nearly a year, instead (unsuccessfully) devoted its energies to renaming dozens of schools — including those named for such terrible figures as Abraham LincolnGeorge Washington, and the late California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

In a pitch-perfect display of woke lunacy, the board’s slapdash crusade to whitewash history was undone by historical confusion, sloppy research, and sheer incompetence. The left-wing Guardian newspaper deemed the whole thing a “debacle,” and even San Francisco’s Democratic mayor found it “offensive and completely unacceptable.”

San Francisco’s educational leaders couldn’t have provided a better rhetorical foil if they’d been trying. In the face of one of the greatest challenges to our education system in a generation, they were focused on woke trivialities.

Just last week, as if to help launch our book, it was reported that a San Francisco school had paid a quarter of a million dollars to a professional development outfit known as “Woke Kindergarten.” What is Woke Kindergarten, you ask? It’s an “anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-Israel” professional development outfit that, we kid you not, offered “Lil’ Commie Conversation[s]” urging kindergartners to imagine “a world without police, money or landlords.” Even some progressive teachers were troubled by trainers who mocked the “so-called United States” and offered discussion prompts for 5-year-olds including, “If the United States defunded the Israeli military, how could this money be used to rebuild Palestine?”

The founder of Woke Kindergarten is Akiea “Ki” Gross. Gross’s professional biography offers up pronouns (“they/them”) and touts Gross as “an abolitionist early educator, cultural organizer and creator currently innovating ways to resist, heal, liberate and create with their pedagogy.” Frankly, in 2024, it would have been pretty easy to write an entire book about the excesses of the Left and stuff it with examples of Woke Kindergarten-like goofiness. We might even hit the bestseller lists, fueled by social media and angry cable hosts.

But we’re more interested in improving American education than garnering clicks, which means that we need to do more than just call out progressive foolishness. Doing better demands maturity, civility, and mutual respect. But it also requires that we articulate the changes we would like to see and, equally important, the things we believe to be true. That’s how we can start to cut through today’s shoutfests and sloganeering and steer our way toward a more serious, substantive path for American education.

In our polarized, very online world, it’s all too easy to imagine that those who disagree with us are not just wrong but evil. Education has proven especially susceptible to this dynamic, given the intimacy of our relationship with schools and colleges. And because today’s education debates tend to map onto our partisan differences, the result has divided communities, obscured practical solutions, and corroded public discourse.

We don’t imagine that the two of us, a couple of education scholars, can do more than make a small contribution on this count. There is, though, at least one thing we can do. We’ve long found conservatives to be much clearer about what we are against than what we’re for when it comes to education. That’s a problem. In our new book, Getting Education Right: A Conservative Vision for Improving Early Childhood, K–12, and College, we sought to offer a principled, coherent, conservative answer to the question: “What are we for?” 

Reasonable people can understand conservatism in many different ways. To our minds, conservatism is best understood as a form of custodianship. A custodian is charged with caring for something important, which requires safeguarding it, maintaining it, and improving it until it’s time to hand it off to the next generation of custodians. There are many important things in our world that need protection. America is important and needs protecting. The same is true of great works of art, literature, and music. Culture, language, and faith also need protection. We are not born with the habits and self-discipline that sustain freedom. They require cultivation and care.

At the same time, being a custodian is not about stubbornly defending the status quo. A custodian needs to recognize when things have stopped working or gotten out of whack. Part of the job is to put things right. But a custodian does so with due appreciation and respect. And yet, translating this to American education today is complicated. That’s because it’s tricky to be a custodian in a field where so many institutions have been captured by self-interested unions and bureaucrats or radicals who gleefully reject time-tested virtues.

Custodianship is innately conservative, whereas education today is anything but. Indeed, we’ve long found the world of American education to be a remarkably left-leaning place. We see this in the ideological makeup of the higher education professoriate, the giving of big foundations, the public stances of nominally nonpartisan organizations such as the National Academy of Education and the American Educational Research Association, the politics of the teacher unions, and even the legacy media coverage of our education debates. In saying this, we’re not talking so much about the ranks of child care operators or K-12 educators but mostly about the influential world of advocacy groups, funders, universities, unions, and education journalism.

Think about it this way: In education, even lifelong Democrats can get blasted as right-wing zealots for arguing that parents have a right to know what their child is learning or to choose their child’s school. At the nation’s colleges, liberal faculty outnumber their right-leaning counterparts 12 to 1, and conservative professors quietly share tips for living safely in the shadows. You can scroll down the employee rosters of many major education foundations, associations, or advocacy groups and only rarely stumble across a conservative.

Conservatives are passionate about education simply because there is little in the realm of public policy that can advance opportunity, family, and the American creed as well as it does. When they look around today, conservatives too often see educational institutions that have made their peace with bureaucracy, endorsed politicized cultural agendas, and grown uncomfortable with notions of patriotism, personal responsibility, and rigor. 

We seek to channel justifiable conservative frustration into a vision for principled change. Empowering students and families and expanding educational choice is a big part of that vision, but it’s only a start. Much more is needed. For those who find our approach persuasive, we seek to sketch a robust agenda that translates principles into practice. For those who aren’t sure where they stand, it’s a chance to try some new ideas on for size. For those who disagree on principle, we’ve offered an opportunity to engage with more than a straw-man version of conservative thought.

A failure to understand conservatism has hobbled more than a few educational leaders, advocates, funders, academics, and would-be reformers. Without realizing it, educational elites can reflexively adopt language or champion causes that alienate many on the Right — forfeiting opportunities for good-faith discussion or collaboration. A lack of exposure to competing views means that too many leaders can wind up unprepared for the realities of leadership in diverse communities.

Quite intentionally, we penned a book about ideas, not politics. If past experience is any guide, this means that some readers who regard themselves as progressive may come across insights or proposals they find appealing. Good! At times, such readers may even think, “That’s not really a conservative idea — it’s just a sensible one.” Great! We welcome such reactions. Indeed, we’ve been delighted to see substantial support among nonconservatives for some of the ideas that appear here.

We’re interested in promoting shared values and solving problems, not in partisan point-scoring. We don’t care whether one party leads or whether solutions are bipartisan. What matters is that the principles are right, not who is advancing them. And if our book leaves some readers musing that there’s more common ground than they’d thought when it comes to education, that’s a commentary on how clickbait culture has obscured some of the deeper agreements that continue to shape the American creed.

In the book, we have much more to say. For now, we’ll just offer the best one-line distillation of conservatism that we know. It comes from the droll pen of British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, who wrote, “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”

Education is always, first and foremost, about the kind of people we want our children to be and the kinds of communities we want to live in. That’s why our agenda must ultimately be about core values as much as it is a policy platform. But a moral program should not stand in for a policy agenda: That’s a recipe for performative outrage. Rather, the values must anchor and justify the policies. That offers a path forward that is serious, constructive, and where, we strongly suspect, the antics of the Woke Kindergarten crowd will receive the rude dismissal that they so richly deserve.