If universal school-choice legislation passed tomorrow and parents finally had the freedom to choose schools for their children, with public funds to access them, would utopia follow? We doubt it.
Ninety percent of students in the United States currently attend public schools. If choice-based systems were expanded, the same teachers, administrators, and union officials who run our schools today would staff them, bringing along the same politicized curricula and ideologically driven practices of our present schools. Schools of education would continue to pump out teachers imbued with the same progressive pedagogy based on the dubious “research” that defends practices such as dividing students into racialized affinity groups.
It would be akin to allowing a chef to add a new item to the menu but supplying only the ingredients for lasagna. He might come up with some variation — but it’s still going to taste a whole lot like lasagna. If we added choice to the public-school system tomorrow, we’d still be functioning with the ingredients that we had yesterday, without substantive change.
Mass homeschooling likely isn’t feasible, nor the widespread use of micro-schools, in which a few families combine resources to teach each other’s children (though across the country parents did form “pandemic pods” when schools went virtual). Even with vouchers, it’s doubtful that most two-income households could afford to sacrifice the second income to pursue these options. Given that the waiting lists for charter schools are already thousands of students long, where could children transfer to when private and charter options are full and homeschooling is not feasible?
We’re both ardent supporters of school choice. We have defended it here and elsewhere, again and again. However, the unfortunate reality is that school choice is necessary but not sufficient when progressive ideology dominates the institutions around which choice would function.
With school-choice bills on the table in over 30 states, greater educational freedom may soon be at hand. But that would not be the end of the story. School choice would certainly rattle the current progressive monopoly over public education, but the state still controls the supply of teachers and administrators, and the problem remains that there simply aren’t enough private and parochial options to meet new demand.
As Burke wrote, “To give freedom . . . only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government . . . requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.” It’s not mere liberty that makes a functioning society but the presence of robust institutions within a free framework.
The Left spent decades on a long march through our institutions, and they gained considerable ground, perhaps nowhere more so than in our schools. Those on the right need to begin drawing up plans to create a new education system from the ground up if they’re to be taken seriously in education reform.
Rich Lowry proposed two strategies to begin this movement. First, despite the national focus on it, education remains a local affair, hence the need to focus on local school-board elections. Second, as a counterweight to the teachers’ unions, he proposed a Federalist Society for teachers that could accomplish much of the professional development that districts currently eschew in favor of enforcing ideological conformity. It could also promote the power of collective action. A school district would function just fine if it lost a handful of families to private schooling because parents objected to propagandistic lessons, but it would struggle to run a building if even ten teachers quit for similar reasons.
We propose further steps: We need publications that advance arguments not just about trending debates over funding, choice, and unionization, but about more challenging debates over curriculum content, instructional practices, licensure reform, and behavioral policies. There are countless left-leaning publications dedicated to training teachers in these issues. The Right’s education publications focus largely on education policy. We have yet to see an education publication that paints a conservative or libertarian picture of what education looks like post–school choice.
Bringing education back from the left-most edge would also require a substantive intellectual movement that pays attention to the specific demands of education. To the classic conservative reading list of Burke, Hayek, and Friedman should be added educational theorists such as E. D. Hirsch. There is far more to education than funding a system and defining what one is and isn’t allowed to teach. We have a responsibility to promote the small number of colleges that provide education majors with a conservative foundation.
Beyond schools, we are in desperate need of representatives and senators who understand education as a primary issue — not as a situational cudgel. Conservative politicians mention school choice once in a speech, and we’re ready to consider the matter closed. If we are serious about reforming education, then our leaders need to treat the issue with as much urgency as they display on immigration or taxes.
Finally, and most fundamentally, we need to plan for the schools, systems, and programs that will ultimately be the alternative choices to traditional public schools. Who will start them? Who will staff them? Who will fund them until they have sufficient voucher money to maintain operations? It is high time that conservatives start speaking of school choice as a foregone conclusion. What comes next? What will the lives of our parents, children, and teachers look like with conservatives shaping education?
Thankfully, there are various organizations moving in this direction — however disconnected they may be at the moment. Organizations such as the Classic Learning Test hope to rattle our current mediocre testing structures and incentivize the continued instruction in classic literature. Our country already boasts many charter-school systems that outperform schools in even the most affluent districts despite predominantly serving poor neighborhoods. School-board meetings have been making the headlines as the movement against progressive ideology in the schools gains steam and more parents are speaking out. Finally, the University of Arkansas’s department of education maintains a cadre of scholars willing to study the positive effects of conservative and libertarian educational policies.
Reclaiming the public schools will require a sustained movement akin to the modern pro-life movement or the effort to supplant living-constitutionalism with originalism. The conservative education movement must make friends with a variety of actors and coming from many arenas: classical educators, social conservatives, libertarians, school-choice advocates, charter-school leaders, social-justice advocates unhappy with the system, and center-left liberals fed up with the excesses of progressivism. This effort is not limited to conservatives per se, though conservatives should make it their top priority to woo these education castaways to a liberty-focused conservatism. Libertarians and nonpartisan centrists who simply eschew ideology in favor of effective schooling are primed to join a movement that builds a brighter future for education.
Our schools simply cannot continue as they are. We are both teachers who see what the intellectual roots of conservatism — tradition, liberty, localism — have to offer American schools. The conservative movement stood athwart history, yelling Stop; it’s time it did so in education too.
Anthony Kinnett is a curriculum developer and coordinator in Indianapolis. He is the co-founder and owner of The Chalkboard Review and has written for The Federalist, The Daily Caller, and the Washington Examiner. @TheTonus
Daniel Buck is a teacher and a senior visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute. His writing can be found at National Review Online, City Journal, and Quillette. @MrDanielBuck