Politics & Policy

School Reform: Goodbye to Bush

The Midwestern Republican governors’ efforts mark a resurgence of principled conservatism in education reform.

For those engaged in school-reform debates, the most significant development to come out of Wisconsin is the return of principled conservatism to the education arena. For the past decade, Republican edu-thought was dominated by the Bush administration’s “big-government conservatism,” with its affinity for federally mandated testing, new spending, and intrusive interventions in “failing” schools.

This made it remarkably easy for the Bush administration to make common cause with school-reform Democrats and progressive groups like The Education Trust, even as that breed of “conservatives” had little of substance to say when it came to challenging teachers’ unions, out-of-control school spending, or federal overreach. The result: The education arena was celebrated by Washington tastemakers as a rare case of “healthy” bipartisanship. In the edu-world, what has been most intriguing about the Tea Party movement and the resurgence of principled small-government conservatism, perhaps for the first time since the mid-1990s, is that it has swept away the Bush-era conventions like so much driftwood.

The new, combative conservatism is bemoaned as mean-spirited by pundits and CNN anchors who wonder why everyone can’t just sit down and hug it out. Meanwhile, it’s proving a late Christmas gift for Democratic governors, who suddenly enjoy more compliant unions without having had to play the heavy. Martin O’Malley in Maryland and John Hickenlooper in Colorado, for example, are happy, at least for the moment, because Republican efforts in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana make their proposed cuts seem a whole lot less painful. And California governor Jerry Brown is downright gleeful, as he has now been able to pin on the public-employee unions the job of getting voters to approve a referendum that will generate another $12.5 billion in taxes to help forestall unpleasant cuts.

Over at Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), they’re crying crocodile tears about the “overreaching” by uncouth Republican governors even as the leadership sees a priceless opportunity to steal a page from the old Clinton playbook and triangulate like crazy. That’s why, just last week, DFER president Joe Williams penned a public letter that touched all the bases: decrying wild-eyed Republicans, defending unions, and positioning DFER as the voice of wisdom and pragmatism.

Williams argued, “How do we [at DFER] keep the political focus on providing a quality education for all students at a time when some Republican leaders appear to be primarily salivating at the chance to whack a significant political opponent?” He took pains to point out that, unlike the evil Republicans, “we believe that teacher unions have a crucial voice that should be heard in education debates.” In fact, “We’re kind of creeped-out by some of what we are seeing and hearing these days in the Heartland.” He gave the teachers’ union credit for empty rhetoric, noting, “In recent weeks, we watched the Wisconsin Education Association Council come out strongly in support of overhauling teacher evaluation systems. . . . We were as skeptical as everyone else about WEAC’s sincerity, but the game was at least on.” In short, “We are profoundly worried that this kind of overreach will set education reform back years.”

So much for the vaunted bipartisanship of education reform. Turns out that DFER types are all for bipartisanship on things like teacher evaluation and pay, so long as Republicans support new spending, don’t mess with the unions, and take care to respect progressive priorities. Indeed, Williams bemoans the Wisconsin dispute as a distraction from talk about teacher evaluation and school improvement. I couldn’t disagree more. To quote Jerry Maguire’s immortal Rod Tidwell, “That’s the difference between us. You think we’re fighting, and I think we’re finally talking.”

It’s not that the DFER stance is unreasonable. It’s a sensible stance for progressives interested both in school reform and in boosting Democratic electoral prospects. But what is peculiar is the hand-wringing befuddlement at the notion that small-government conservatives might have legitimate policy disagreements. The public debate in the past decade has been impoverished by the dearth of tough-minded conservatives willing to talk bluntly about reforming the public sector more broadly. It’s healthy to have those folks back in the mix, and unfortunate that DFER is so eager to disparage them for political convenience rather than seek common ground on school reform.

After all, if DFER is sincere about the need to overhaul teacher evaluation, pay, and work rules — especially given how halting has been progress on this count — you might think they would see value in shrinking the scope of collective bargaining and welcome some hard-charging new allies.

The big short-term winner in all this may be the DFER-types, who get to highlight their pragmatism and progressive cuddliness. The bigger long-term winner, though, is the American people — who get to trade the stale, banal orthodoxies of the Bush years for a bracing debate about how to organize the public sector in the 21st century. And it’s hard to think of a debate more relevant to reforming our nation’s publicly governed, funded, and operated schools.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas.

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