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Four States That Are Leading the Charge for Conservative Education

The Hill

February 14, 2024

It’s looking like this year’s election will feature a Trump-Biden rematch — a pairing that’s especially frustrating for education, where the nation is wrestling with a raft of real problems: dismal student achievementchronic absenteeismchaotic classroomsplunging confidence in higher education, and more. 

The Biden administration makes clear that a party beholden to the teacher unions can’t do much more than subsidize the status quo. Meanwhile, free of ties to the education blob, conservatives are free to lead — if they’re up to the challenge. While Donald Trump has shown he lacks the discipline or seriousness to engage in substantive policy, a quartet of conservative state leaders are pointing the way forward when it comes to early childhood education and K–12 schooling. 

  1. In early childhood education, where conservatives have tended to come up empty, Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin has put forward a robust vision that offers a clear alternative to supersizing traditional school districts. It features state-created digital wallets that can accommodate both public and private funds for preschool while dedicating an additional $200 million to support choice-based offerings for working families.  

    But the agenda encompasses much more, including a “navigator” to provide searchable information on early childhood options; attention to the red tape that’s stymied the supply of good options; and a program to redeploy underutilized space in public colleges to expand early education. Youngkin has sketched a principled vision of how we can tackle early childhood in a way that’s responsive, family-friendly and not reliant on packing little children into impersonal school buildings.
  2. Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s signature LEARNS Act offers a similarly robust agenda for K–12. LEARNS includes a universal Education Savings Account program that will ultimately deposit $7,500 a year in flexible-use spending accounts that allow families to access a host of private providers if they wish. The act was about much more than expanding educational choice, though; it also invested heavily in rebooting the teaching profession by boosting the minimum salary for teachers to $50,000, raising salaries for most of Arkansas teachers (disproportionately those in high-poverty school districts), granting 12 weeks of paid maternity leave to teachers, and earmarking funds for literacy coaches.
  3. In Louisiana, meanwhile, state superintendent Cade Brumley shepherded through his bipartisan state board an impressive overhaul of the state’s social studies standards. He did this by being radically transparent, fielding more than 1,800 public comments and taking extensive feedback from both supporters and critics. The final standards are unabashedly pro-American while leaning forthrightly into difficult and controversial topics. They address weighty themes while requiring more factual knowledge and specificity than previous standards, something that those on all sides of our history wars can applaud.
  4. There has been perhaps no more heartening development in public education than the surge of support for schools to embrace the “science of reading.” Rooted in a commitment to the building blocks of literacy, scientifically informed reading offers a systematic, effective way to help young children develop into fluent readers. The pioneer on this count may well be red Mississippi, where the legislature passed and Gov. Phil Bryant signed the Literacy-Based Promotion Act in 2013.

    The law focused on reading preparation in grades K–3, investing in reading coaches and high-quality materials for those coaches to utilize. It also required third grade students to demonstrate reading proficiency by holding back those who did not reach that level and ensuring they received additional support. In 2013, just 21 percent of Mississippi 4th graders were “proficient” in reading on the National Assessment for Educational Progress. By 2019, rapid progress meant that the gap between Mississippi’s students and their peers in other states had shrunk to just 2 percentage points. 

When it comes to education, it’s not enough for conservatives to simply stand athwart history, shouting “Stop!” When taxpayers are spending hundreds of billions of dollars per year on early childhood and K–12 and when public officials make the rules on everything from textbook adoption to preschool teacher licensure, a failure to lead is really a decision to concede. 

There are state leaders right now showing how the right can do just this. Their example deserves to be emulated, in Washington and across the land.