In just four months, the Biden administration has remade the face of federal education policy. It has showered nearly $200 billion in new federal funds on schools and colleges, reversed a raft of Trump-era actions, launched new initiatives, and filled the Education Department with veteran loyalists and union staff. Watching this, the two of us — one just off three years in Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education and the other a longtime denizen of the swamp — can’t help but feel an odd mix of envy and frustration.
In education, Democrats tend to hit the ground running. After all, the teachers’ unions, major K–12 and higher-ed groups, and the civil-rights lobby tend to operate as an extension of the Democratic coalition. Plus, Washington is filled with left-leaning consulting outfits, law firms, and advocacy groups that warehouse progressives eager to enter (or return to) the Education Department.
Meanwhile, a Republican secretary of education not only is greeted with a hostile press and education establishment but must struggle to staff the department because, after each Republican administration, there’s a staff diaspora. GOP education officials only rarely find landing places in Washington; most wind up in new fields, outside the Beltway, or in the private sector. The network supporting conservatives is thinner, frailer, and more state-centered. Thus, when it comes time to staff an education transition, or to appoint the 100 or so key officials it takes to direct the department, Republican administrations struggle to find seasoned candidates — much less ones who can hit the ground running.
Even if it were easier to assemble a team, it’s often not clear what the playbook should be. Sure, there would be a push on school choice, but Washington’s tools for mucking about in school choice are (thankfully) rather limited. And when it comes to other policy areas — for example, student aid, higher-ed credentials, federal grant programs, civil-rights enforcement — Republican administrations have had a steep learning curve when it comes to what reform entails, or the ins and outs of making it happen.
So the time to tackle these problems is not November 2024 or 2028, when conservatives and education reformers may next get a chance to seize the wheel. The time to start is now.
That process begins by persuading conservatives to take federal education policy more seriously. Too often, because education is properly regarded as a question for communities and states, the federal role is regarded as a nuisance. It may be, but it’s a nuisance that isn’t going anywhere. When the Right is out of power, it too often abandons federal policy-making, creating a vacuum that the constellation of left-leaning education groups is eager to fill.
The Biden team came in with a plan and knowledge of how to execute it. The Right needs a similar sustained federal presence, one with professionals who develop a deep understanding of how to better constrain progressive efforts and more effectively wield the machinery when in power. After all, presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan showed how Washington’s force could be employed to bust trusts and upend self-serving public cartels.
An essential part of all this is developing a deeper, more vibrant talent pipeline. In part, that means being at least a little more ecumenical when vetting talent. For instance, while the Biden administration has cheerfully assembled a mixed team of Warren/Sanders ideologues, union vets, advocacy hands, and Democratic “reformers,” the Trump and Bush administrations stepped on their own feet with clumsy litmus tests. For Trump, just having articulated a nuanced public position on, say, the Common Core could disqualify sound candidates who were committed to empowering families, limiting federal authority, and busting bureaucracies. Under George W. Bush, anything but blind fealty on No Child Left Behind — anathema to many conservatives — could be disqualifying. Such litmus tests always carry costs, but those can be prohibitive in education, where Republicans are working from a thin bench.
More important, tackling the pipeline challenge also requires building a deeper talent pool. That means recruiting 20-somethings to work in depth on a range of state and federal education issues. It means creating fellowships and mentoring opportunities for conservative education thinkers. It means pressuring allegedly nonpartisan, nonideological leadership and advocacy programs to include conservatives. It means building networks, right-leaning education organizations devoting more energy to bench-building, and more support for all of this from donors.
We need to spend more time building new centrist and right-leaning organizations — of parents, teachers, professors, educational leaders, and more. Established organizations such as Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd, as well as new ventures such as Parents Defending Education, 1776 Unites, the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, and AEI’s Conservative Education Reform Network all have a role to play here — and they need much more company. We need to seek out right-leaning community-college presidents, early-childcare coordinators, and school leaders; connect them; and support them. In short, we need to prepare for the next opportunity now.
It was Sun-Tzu who cautioned, many centuries ago in The Art of War, that “every battle is won or lost before it’s fought.” Our progressive friends may not have much use for the classics nowadays, but they’ve taken Sun-Tzu’s teachings to heart. It’s time that those of us on the right did the same.
Jim Blew was the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos and is the author of the American Enterprise Institute report “What Conservatives Could Learn from Betsy DeVos.” Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at AEI.