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The Past and Future of Education Reform


February 7, 2024

When the French statesman Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand was asked for his thoughts on the Bourbon royal family in exile, he replied, “Ils n’ont rien appris, ni rien oublié.” They have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing. The Bourbons hadn’t learned the lessons of the French Revolution or grasped what it revealed about their nation. Worse, they carried an enduring grudge for all that the Jacobins had done. It was the worst possible combination, a recipe for disaster.

Too often, as we note in our new book Getting Education Right, Talleyrand’s Bourbons have served as the role model for the right when it comes to education reform. Since the Reagan era, the right’s education reformers have repeatedly fallen victim to the siren songs of compromise, swallowing their principles and endorsing heavy-handed government schemes in the service of not-so-bipartisan bipartisanship. Meanwhile, populists have kept the receipts, fueling frustration and justifiable distrust.

We’ll be blunt: American education is a remarkably left-leaning place. Surrounded by a world of progressive advocates, funders, education schools, and unions, right-leaning reformers feel immense pressure to “be reasonable.” In K–12, even lifelong Democrats get blasted as right-wing zealots if they suggest that parents have a right to choose their child’s school. In higher education, the left-leaning tilt is so severe that conservative professors share tips for living in the shadows. Major education foundations, associations, and advocacy groups rarely employ conservatives. Media coverage of current disputes in education, ranging from Critical Race Theory to student loan forgiveness, is deeply biased against conservatives.

This makes it all the more crucial that a conservative vision of education reform be principled, disciplined, and coherent. Unfortunately, for most of the past forty years, conservative efforts rarely met these criteria. Outside of school choice in K–12, the right’s agenda mostly consisted of ineffectual grumbling. When prominent conservatives did embrace something more concrete—whether that was Congressional Republicans and federal student loans or George W. Bush and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act—it usually involved providing bipartisan cover to the ambitious schemes of the technocratic left.

Today, however, growing concern about the direction of education has created a remarkable opportunity for the right to lead. After all, the left is the party of government, faculty lounges, and the teachers’ unions. Between school closures, Critical Race Theory, gender radicalism, student-loan forgiveness, Ivy League hypocrisy on free speech, and the rest, the left is now weighed down by a strong “you broke it, you bought it” vibe.

The right—unburdened by ties with unions, public bureaucracies, and the academy—has a historic opportunity to defend shared values, empower students and families, and rethink outdated arrangements. This presents a powerful opportunity. But seizing it requires shaking off bad habits and avoiding familiar mistakes. That’s where Talleyrand’s caution looms large. The right’s reformers tend to come at these thorny challenges with little sense of the hard lessons already learned. We can do better. Given that, we hope you’ll indulge us if we turn to the lessons of decades past.

Now, we could start with the 1640s, when Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted The Old Deluder Satan Acts so that children might learn to read the Bible. But we’ll fast forward. We’ll also skip past the Common Schools movement of the mid-19th Century, when Horace Mann and his nativist allies sought to tame unruly Catholic immigrants, and the Progressive Era, when yesterday’s left worked to impose bureaucratic uniformity on the nation’s schools. Rather, we’ll focus on the era of education reform that started in 1983 with the landmark report, A Nation at Risk.

How We Got Here

During 1980 election, Ronald Reagan called for eliminating the new U.S. Department of Education (which Congress had created a year earlier, fulfilling Jimmy Carter’s pledge to the National Education Association). After Reagan took office, though, his first Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, launched a blue-ribbon commission investigating American schools. In 1983, the commission published a searing indictment of America’s schools entitled A Nation at Risk.

The Reagan White House wound up embracing A Nation at Risk, abandoning efforts to shutter the Department. But substantively, it did little more than promote an agenda of bravura bully pulpit leadership from Secretary of Education Bill Bennett. The experience presaged the next 40 years.

Meanwhile, in the wake of A Nation at Risk, a bevy of Southern governors (including Democrat Bill Clinton in Arkansas and Republican Lamar Alexander in Tennessee) ran with its recommendations for improving teacher quality, boosting credit requirements for high school graduation, and testing students more regularly. There wasn’t much difference between the Democratic and Republican proposals.

In 1988, having promised to be the “education president,” George H.W. Bush convened the nation’s governors in Charlottesville, Virginia, to promote a set of national goals intended to make the U.S. first in the world in education. The goals were sensible enough, addressing things like test scores and graduation rates, but had nothing to say about content, character, or culture. In this, the experience foreshadowed a generation of Republicans who’d defer to progressive sensibilities on questions of education measurement and “reform.”

In 1992, Bill Clinton put education front and center as he pledged to fight for Americans who “work hard and played by the rules.” Clinton used education to distinguish himself from tax-and-spend liberals, arguing that it was an investment (not government largesse) and the true measure of one’s commitment to equal opportunity. During his reelection bid, Clinton endorsed school uniforms, midnight basketball leagues, and tax credits for college tuition. Clinton, who outpolled Republican challenger Bob Dole two-to-one on education in 1996, was perhaps the first national figure to really grasp that, in the modern era, education may be the defining kitchen-table issue for American families. And Clinton’s approach was anything but woke. Tellingly, his agenda and rhetoric seem remarkably moderate (even conservative!) by today’s standards.

And it wasn’t just on K–12. Clinton and congressional Republicans agreed to reform federal student lending by introducing “income-driven repayment.” The idea was that borrowers who earned more would pay more, those who earned less would pay less, and taxpayers would come out whole (or even ahead). It imported the logic of insurance to student lending, given that no one in school knows how much they’ll ultimately earn. Because questions of repayment rates were complicated and technical, and given that everyone agreed that taxpayers needed to be protected, Republican lawmakers gave the executive branch immense discretion to set repayment terms. (This turned out to be a mistake. No longer concerned about making taxpayers whole, the Obama and Biden administrations would go on to cheerfully abuse this discretion in order to forgive large swaths of debt—permitting colleges to jack up tuition and sticking taxpayers with the tab.)

By 2000, education had become a top-tier issue—and the right was suffering for its failure to offer an education agenda. Thus, conservatives cheered when Texas governor George W. Bush stepped up on K–12 schooling, urging schools to ensure that every child could read and do math at grade level and arguing that schools be accountable for their success. Bush’s pledge to “leave no child behind” resonated with suburban voters in particular, who were skeptical that the Texas Republican’s talk of equal opportunity was all hat and no cattle.

NCLB would become one of Bush’s signature accomplishments, for better and worse. Bush’s initial proposal, drawing heavily on Texas law, called for states to test students regularly in reading and math, use those scores to hold schools accountable, and offer school vouchers to students in “failing” schools. Ultimately, Bush linked arms with Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy to get NCLB passed, getting more school accountability but also historic increases in federal school spending, a race-conscious performance framework, and a dramatic increase in federal control over schooling.

The Bush administration had dropped its push for vouchers early on, with the final law’s “choice” provisions allowing low-income students in low-performing schools to receive tutoring or attend another district school. Separately, the Bush administration did create a demonstration voucher program in Washington, D.C., but only by setting aside two-thirds of the $40 million for charter schools and the deep-pocketed D.C. school system. In all of this, school choice was a “break-the-glass” remedy for students trapped in schools with lousy test scores. The idea that families ought to have a fundamental right to choose a school that works for their child and reflects their values was deemed unduly radical and divisive. In this way, the right wound up largely neutering choice, stripping it of much of its appeal and potential constituency. While choice proposals could generally count on the principled support of conservative lawmakers, they weren’t seen as especially relevant by many conservative voters, suburban families, or middle-class parents.

In 2015, one of us described the foundational understanding that would shape NCLB and much of the Bush-Obama reform agenda that followed in National Review:

For the [left-right] partnership to work, conservative reformers made several key concessions: They accepted a massive increase in federal authority, an expansion of race-conscious accountability systems, and a prohibition on talk of parental responsibility and the virtues of the traditional family. Liberal reformers didn’t have to bend quite so far: They mostly toned down their demands for new public programs and took care not to accuse their conservative allies of bigotry.

The decade following NCLB saw significant national gains in both reading and math scores. But these gains were accompanied by growing backlash from parents and educators who were frustrated with schools’ focus on testing. Parents decried narrowing curricula, a squeeze on time devoted to recess and the arts, and testing systems that labeled as “failing” thousands of popular schools. By the end of the Bush administration, public opinion had turned decidedly against the law. And, with teachers generally hostile to the law, the right was once again depicted as anti-educator. Oddly, the same conservatives who found it easy to stand up for public servants like troops and cops were never able to muster sympathy for teachers or to make the case that good educators deserved to be protected from red tape, bean-counting bureaucrats, and testing run amok.

If the Bush years were dominated by the push for testing and accountability, the subsequent decade was defined by growing doubts about education bureaucracies. Barack Obama’s 2008 election brought a flood of self-assured Democratic wonks into the Department of Education. Passed in early 2009, the $900 billion American Relief and Recovery Act (Obama’s response to the Great Recession) included a handful of education initiatives, the most significant of which was the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” program. Race to the Top promised dollars to states for adopting various Obama priorities. The most controversial of these would prove to be a new set of reading and math standards known as the Common Core State Standards.

With the backing of Washington policy elites, teachers’ unions, and influential education foundations, the Common Core was hurriedly embraced by over 40 states. The standards called for several “instructional shifts.” In math, they included shunning the use of standard algorithms to teach computation. In reading, students read less fiction. As parents gradually learned of the changes, populist anger grew. Social media exploded with viral examples of ludicrous math worksheets and “nonfiction” reading lists dotted with government reports.

And it wasn’t just the “what” of the Common Core that upset parents—it was also the “how.” The Obama administration repurposed waivers built into the NCLB framework in order to offer states a suspect bargain: It would allow them to fix their accountability systems if they adopted other Obama priorities, including the Common Core. The arm-twisting, hurried, under-the-radar rush spurred skepticism among parents already frustrated by the experience with NCLB. The result was a ferocious backlash against a program that quickly became known as “ObamaCore.”

The backlash included plenty of paranoid conspiracy theories that helped drown out sober-minded debates over the instructional shifts and technocratic overreach. It didn’t help that Obama’s Secretary of Education and the mainstream media worked hard to dismiss skeptics as “tinfoil hat” crazies. Once again, prominent Republicans initially embraced the “bipartisan” enthusiasm for Common Core, and it wasn’t until the Common Core fight blew up into a full-fledged populist revolt, that anyone but a handful of conservative academics, activists, and frustrated parents started to ask hard (if long overdue) questions. 

In 2015, the Obama White House and Republican leaders in Congress found common cause, passing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and unwinding much of NCLB. The new law retained requirements for annual testing but gave states much more flexibility in how to evaluate schools and decide what to do about low-performing schools. Elected officials had broadly agreed that Washington had bitten off more than it could chew. In theory, this shift offered a promising window for conservatives to offer a more promising, less bureaucratic alternative.

Even as ESSA was getting done, though, Obama’s appointees were sowing the ground for a series of culture clashes in schooling. They directed schools and colleges to disregard biological gender in determining eligibility for school sports, dormitories, and more. They adopted new race-conscious “equity” guidelines for discipline that encouraged disciplinary quotas and made schools less safe. And, despite several high-profile cases of campus sexual assault turning out to be hoaxes, Obama officials instructed colleges to adopt Title IX rules that stripped due process rights from the accused.

Under the umbrella of “equity” and “anti-racism,” the left’s culture warriors mounted an increasingly unapologetic war on merit, rigor, and traditional values. Gifted classes, advanced math classes, and the SAT were attacked as inequitable. Asking students to show their math work or to get the right answers was called racist. The very notion of “personal responsibility” was dismissed as oppressive, while the famed KIPP charter schools abandoned the slogan “Work hard, be nice” as a legacy of “white supremacy culture.”

Amidst the chaos of the Trump presidency, there wasn’t much movement on education in Washington (although Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos did some vital work in rolling back the more aggressive Obama-era guidance). In the states, choice enjoyed newfound success, with a handful of states adopting or expanding voucher programs and increasing interest in the notion of flexible “education savings accounts” (modeled on health savings accounts). Meanwhile, campus efforts to shout down, disinvite, or harass conservative speakers fueled rising skepticism about higher education. And, through it all, the mainstream media’s laughable double standard was highlighted by the venom with which it treated DeVos after eight years of fawning over even the most legally suspect adventures of her Obama administration predecessors.

In spring 2020, the nation’s schools were suddenly shuttered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools in a few red states reopened full-time in fall 2020. Meanwhile, some big school systems, especially in blue cities like New York and San Francisco, stayed closed for a year or more. Across much of the nation, intermittent closures, mediocre remote learning, and aggressive quarantine procedures yielded massive disruptions. The results were devastating. On the National Assessment for Educational Progress, the nation’s gold-standard biennial assessment, reading scores were horrific and decades of progress in math was erased.

Teachers’ unions played an outsized role in keeping schools closed. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association used closures to extract nearly $200 billion in emergency federal spending and appeared all too happy to use school reopening as a lever to pursue a progressive cornucopia ranging from DEI initiatives to single-payer healthcare. Coupled with clashes over masking, “anti-racist education,” and gender identity, school closures pulled education into the thick of the culture wars.

By the dawn of the Biden administration, educational choice was no longer just a lifeboat for urban families. Perhaps for the first time, it was offered as a solution for families frustrated by school closures, toxic ideologies, or unresponsive bureaucracies. Meanwhile, progressive activists rallied around efforts to subsidize and supersize the status quo—embracing federally-funded universal pre-K, free college, and federal student loan forgiveness.

Thus, the nation left behind the educational bipartisanship of an earlier era for something more polarized. A clear-eyed assessment of the past four decades teaches that this shift may be more cause for celebration than lamentation.

Learning from the Past

Looking back, what’s perhaps most striking through all of this was the right’s passivity. In the face of progressive schemes for new spending and programs, those on the right have mostly played defense, sat on their hands, or gone along for the ride (just notice how many “whoops” moments and mentions of “backlash” there are in this thumbnail sketch).

In the 2020 volume How to Educate an American, the American Enterprise Institute’s Yuval Levin assessed the costs of the compromises the right had made to be part of the Bush-Obama education coalition. He observes of the result:

[It] made American education policy awfully clinical and technocratic, at times blinding some of those involved in education debates to the deepest human questions at stake—social, moral, cultural, and political questions that cannot be separated from how we think about teaching and learning.

Levin notes that the right erred in focusing so narrowly on math, reading, and graduation rates in the name of bipartisan comity, as if we can ever set aside the reality that schooling is about forming human beings and democratic citizens. In doing so, conservatives found themselves blindsided when teacher trainers, education schools, and advocates championed woke curricula and content while “reformers” focused on testing systems, value-added metrics, and academic standards. 

The irony is that conservatives enjoy extraordinary advantages when it comes to education. Even the most thoughtful of progressive reformers is hemmed in by relationships with higher education, teacher unions, associations, and other denizens of the educational establishment. This is why their reforms inevitably entail new programs, spending, and hiring—because these are the things that pass muster with their allies. The right has enormous freedom to do better. That it hasn’t is a pretty fair of indictment of aimless conservatism.

And, today, the left’s gloves-off tactics have created wide swaths of common ground between the populist and traditionalist right, fusing together populists and traditionalists troubled by the left’s overreach, double standards, and bad-faith efforts to misappropriate legal authority. Over the past three years, the result has been extraordinary gains in school choice, unprecedented success challenging progressive cultural imperialism in K–12, and the first sustained pushback against the college cartel in memory.

In education, conservatives are poised for a happy replay of some of fusionism’s more famous successes, when economic liberals and social conservatives embrace both the dynamic power of the free market and the thick ties of faith, family, and community. While the tensions between the two traditions may be fraying when it comes to regulatory, trade, and tax policy today, they’re far less problematic in education, where a commitment to parental choice, expanded educational options, and a no-nonsense fidelity to history and academic rigor sits easily alongside concern for values, faith, and community.

Bringing this to fruition, however, requires learning some crucial lessons. 

The right must do a better job gauging the promise of bipartisanship. Too much of the old K–12 bipartisanship entailed those on the right agreeing to tamp down their support for private school choice, personal responsibility, religious freedom, and the importance of shared values. This was capitulation, not collaboration. Bipartisanship is overrated when the left gets its way and the right gets called names.

We must also remember that the contemporary left has yet to find a limiting principle it’s willing to embrace. The Biden administration attempted a $500 billion loan forgiveness scheme that both it and Nancy Pelosi, when she was the Democratic Speaker of the House, had previously deemed unconstitutional. The good-faith discretion granted to executive branch officials as part of the bipartisan crafting of NCLB was abused by Obama officials to promote pet programs. Agenda-driven Obama and Biden appointees have abused process so as to weaken school discipline, bankrupt for-profit colleges, turn income-driven repayment into a massive giveaway, and strip due process rights from students accused of sexual assault. Even those conservatives inclined to reach across the aisle have been burned so often that they’ve grown reticent.   

The right must also unapologetically sketch an agenda that speaks to the needs of all families. Too often, conservatives allowed education reformers to focus narrowly on low-income communities, failing schools, or race-based constituencies, while seemingly turning a blind eye to other families or concerns about character, culture, civics, career education, and school safety.

And we must be clear about what education is for, if it’s not just about test scores and graduation rates. We like British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton’s notion that schools should seek to instill a sense of “oikophilia.” While the Greek root “oiko” refers to the household, Scruton expanded it to mean family, community, and culture—to the notion that we should teach children to love who they are and where they’re from. Schools should teach, with fondness, great works of literature, history, and art.

Across broad swaths of the education debate today, conservatives are consistently on the right side of 70-30 splits in public opinion. That’s true when it comes to race-based policies, gender, student loans, parental choice, or the value of hard work. However, in the public square, the right is confronted by a phalanx of educators, media, unions, activists, and “nonpartisan” outfits that tirelessly seek to depict the conservative agenda as “extreme.” Even a popular measure to limit lessons about gender in K–3 classrooms becomes a cause célèbre among the New York Times set—under the bizarrely deceptive moniker “Don’t say gay.” It’s not enough to complain about media bias. Ideas, intentions, and policies must be communicated clearly. That means emphasizing shared values, focusing on principles rather than performative rhetoric, and making clear exactly what’s being proposed and why it’ll help.

While Americans like the tradition of nonpartisan school boards and bipartisan education reform because it feels right to put our children’s future above the dictates of partisanship and politics, the reality is that education is an innately political endeavor. Across the land, government spends close to two trillion dollars a year in public funds on schools, colleges, and early childhood education. These institutions play an extraordinary role in conveying our values and shaping our youth.

Uniting populists and traditionalists begins with acknowledging this reality. There are sensible proposals (like expanding career and technical education or overhauling college accreditation) that don’t have obvious cultural implications. There are measures that explicitly address values (as with ending policies that allow schools to hide a child’s gender identity from their parents). And then there are policies (like expanding parental choice in K–12 or dismantling DEI bureaucracies) that straddle this divide.

Where should we go from here?

During the Bush-Obama era, conservative reformers who were caught up in the niceties of bipartisanship shied away from talk of culture. This alienated the grassroots right even as it failed to win many concessions on the left. Post-pandemic, that impulse is much less in evidence. Rather than anemic choice plans watered down to placate critics, we’re seeing Republican governors embrace programs that are more ambitious, expansive, and (thus) broadly appealing. The ideological excesses in K–12 and double standards in higher education are so blatant today that, at least in broad strokes, it’s remarkably easy to sketch a path forward that appeals across the right (and to a huge chunk of the center and center-left).

An approach to education that rejects technocratic dictates and woke dogma in favor of pluralism, virtue, and family empowerment can unite the right and resonate broadly.

What’s that look like? Here’s a place to start: Help parents find affordable early education that reflects their needs and their values. Empower K–12 parents with choice. Promote curricula rich in content and rigor. Demand that the teaching of American history be textured, inclusive, and devoid of political agendas. Insist that schools honor hard work, kindness, and mutual respect, while leaving complicated discussions of sexuality to age-appropriate grades. Expect college graduates to repay their loans. Expand career and technical education and cultivate new higher education options. Challenge the double-standards at colleges when it comes to free expression and DEI.

The advocates and researchers who’d reduce education to a cold and technocratic enterprise will be aghast at such talk. Go-along to get-along Republicans will regard it as needlessly confrontational. Union officials and the college cartel will denounce it as an “attack” on education. And, even on the right, it won’t be doctrinaire enough for those who want schools to focus single-mindedly on workforce preparation, or who think that the be-all and end-all of conservative policymaking should be combatting wokeness or shuttering the federal Department of Education. But that is okay. A conservative agenda must be larger than that. Conceived properly, the right’s education agenda should be capacious enough to resonate with populists and Reaganites alike.

There’s much more to add, but that is a beginning. From that foundation, a stronger, more unified conservative movement can build a stronger, more unified America.