The Corner

Are Conservatives Not Breaking Through to Local Education Debates?

Every election year, most of us want to cast informed votes all the way down the ballot, but it’s always with reluctance that I start reading up on local education issues for contests like this week’s. Despite some success in influencing debates at the national and state level — with grassroots opposition to the Common Core standards, for example — it seems that conservative ideas have had a difficult time trickling down to the localities.

I live in a county that went for both Romney and McCain by decent margins, but you wouldn’t know it from our school-board elections.

Every candidate supports public preschool. Every candidate wants more “diversity” in the school workforce. The preschool issue is especially frustrating, given the healthy debate at the national level. When President Obama proposed expanding public preschool, the benefits he claimed for it were greeted with vigorous and enduring skepticism.

Just last month the Washington Post published David Armor’s op-ed titled, “We have no idea if universal preschool actually helps kids.” In Indiana, Governor Mike Pence recently rejected a federal grant that would expand preschool in his state. Pence instead favors a smaller pilot program because, in his words, “Many early learning programs across the country have not been successful over the years.” And it’s not just conservatives who are hard-headed about the research: The nation’s leading preschool skeptic is the director of education policy not at AEI or Cato but at the center-left Brookings Institution.

Nevertheless, out in my neck of the woods, candidates for school board claim that preschool is “a vital launch pad that enables a child’s ability to become a successful life learner.” It “can have long-lasting benefits for children,” and it could — of course! — eliminate the achievement gap. This is all empirically dubious, to say the least, but no candidate has offered a contrary opinion.

Now, granted, my sample size of school-board elections is only one, and I would love to be regaled with counter-examples. But my experience suggests that, in some school districts where we would expect to have made inroads, conservatives are not even part of the conversation.

Jason Richwine is a public-policy analyst and a contributor to National Review Online.

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