I want to thank the Law & Liberty team for inviting me to start this conversation. And I would like to thank the three interviewees Henry Edmondson, Arthur Milikh, and Jessica Hooten Wilson for taking the time to read my offer and share their thoughts. I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this discussion.
I wanted to achieve three things with my opening essay. The first was to justify contemporary debates about K-12 education in the context of the last few decades of reform. I find it helpful to start discussions about the future by telling what caused the present. Second, I wanted to provide a framework for reflecting on authority and responsibility in the public school. I believe we can develop better ideas for reform and improve the chances that our ideas for reform will be implemented and be successful if we start with the legal force and legal obligation in mind. Finally, I wanted to explain which particular initiatives I would prioritize in this context. I believe we should understand and appreciate the control of systems and processes and then vigorously pursue our goals within these agreements.
I repeat these goals to formulate my answer to the respondents. On the areas of consensus, I agree that improving civic education is essential, especially after the events of last year. I, like Professor Hooten Wilson, celebrate the growth of classical education. I agree that some advocates of the left want to unwind the redistribution and decentralization of power I have described, and in that case pluralism and a number of institutions could suffer. I appreciated Professor Edmondson’s use of Lincoln to emphasize that a large part of the purpose of American education is to pass on our heritage to future generations and to nurture intellect and patriotism. Edmondson is right that this is the way to stop the “mobocratic spirit” from within that threatens the republic. I also appreciated Mr Milikh’s argument that conservatives must have the courage of their convictions in engaging in the toughest cultural and political debates.
In my view, there is no substitute for political and civil society activity if we are to achieve our common goals and stop the progress of movements with which we do not agree. Fortunately, our longstanding institutional arrangements, and especially the reforms of recent years, give us the opportunity to make a difference. That starts with working close to home.
Professor Hooten Wilson deserves great credit for helping to found an alternative K-6 school. I would like more principled Conservatives to help start new schools, volunteer for school network boards, and apply for places on local school boards. For example, in almost every state, citizens have the option of setting up nonprofit organizations that operate public schools through the charter mechanism. If we want more schools for classic education, patriotic civics, vocational and technical education, or anything else, we can create them. Similarly, election programs allow public money to support private schools – conservatives could do more of that too. In short, such programs and democratic elections give us all the opportunity to create or reform educational institutions in our own communities. In other words, we should think about school globally, but we must also act locally.
With that in mind, Professor Hooten Wilson makes an important point – that there are very different definitions of education. Experts don’t agree on what success looks like. For this reason, I think the American system of state authority as well as local democratically controlled school boards and an expanded selection of parents make sense. Government agencies decide which elements should be required and / or standardized. District boards reflect the consensus of the small communities; and choice gives families the power to exit.
We also need to get more involved in activities at the state level. State legislators have tremendous authority and review and make decisions on the most pressing political issues every year. Equally important, but less valued, are state superintendents and state education agencies that have power standards, tests, discipline, teacher certification, and more. Conservative education activists who care about history, civics, discipline, or character should run for or be appointed to state office, serve on standards-writing committees, and testify regularly before legislative bodies. Mr. Milikh is right that conservatives should turn their political forces on state capitals and support like-minded, strong-willed leaders.
And, of course, conservatives should work to limit Washington’s reach. This includes both rejecting obnoxious initiatives pushed by Congress (whether in programs or funds) and the Department of Education (through a series of administrative decisions), and not using Uncle Sam’s muscles to advance our own preferences. But while the law should keep an eye on Washington, we should never convince ourselves that this is where most of the action is taking place. Yes, a lot of attention is paid, and yes, we could get a lot of attention if we focus there, but the most important decisions are made in state capitals, by local authorities, and on practitioners’ committees.
I believe my primary thematic disagreement concerns prospects. It seems that I am more optimistic about the school level and / or the potential for positive change. For example, Professor Hooten Wilson writes that her personal network was troubled by what they saw in their children’s schools after the pandemic, such as insufficient time for study activities and the use of poor quality worksheets, quizzes, textbooks and videos . I agree that we should push for more rigor, but we should recognize that most states have introduced more difficult learning standards and more stringent tests in the past decade. This rise in the bar has resulted in many states’ student enablement rates almost halving, which means our schools have been asked to redouble their efforts. In addition, the pandemic forced a sudden change in schooling; Millions of educators trained to teach in person – and used to it – have suddenly been forced to switch to distance learning. I’m similarly concerned about inadequate study materials in the classroom, but I wouldn’t judge America’s schools by their quick response to one event in a century.
… In general, I believe that in education and other areas of public life, if we overestimate a problem, we run the risk of inviting radical, incompetent heads of state to promote radical, inappropriate political interventions.
Finally, public opinion offers a somewhat optimistic view of America’s schools. Before the pandemic, parent satisfaction with their students’ schools was at a 20-year high, with more than 80 percent expressing satisfaction. With the shock of the pandemic, these fell by around 10 percentage points. But more than seven in ten parents rate the work their schools do in dealing with various aspects of Covid-related distance learning positively. While two-thirds of parents whose students were studying online in some form were concerned that their students were falling behind due to the disruption of the pandemic, three-quarters of those parents were happy with the way their schools handled the lessons.
None of this means that I think America’s schools are all right or that problems are easily resolved. But I believe that a lot has been achieved in the last generation, which tells me that a lot can be achieved in the generation to come; that conditions in most schools and systems are quite good; and that distributing the authority of our system prevents dramatic, widespread, undesirable changes and enables families and communities to shape schooling in a positive way.
Additionally, I’ve found that there is a significant difference between prominent, alarming anecdotes about specific schools and the actual state of American schools as a whole. For example, we should take seriously a message about activity in some district or classroom, but we should not automatically attribute its motives or behaviors to all or most of the nation. So I would not use Edmondson’s term “revolutionary moment” to describe the state of public education, nor do I, like Milikh, think that the power distribution I am describing “belongs to a country that no longer exists.”
All over America – much of it politically very red – there are many very good people who run government systems, work in school networks and teach students. I have found that they are far less ideological and far less political than popular narratives would lead us to believe. They take care of children and their communities. I’ve only entered a fraction of the country’s 100,000+ elementary and secondary schools, but the more of them I’ve visited, the more optimistic I’ve become. And in general, I believe that in education and other areas of public life, if we overestimate a problem, we run the risk of inviting radical, incompetent heads of state to promote radical, inappropriate policy interventions.
Finally, I have to address a small but important misunderstanding. I do not condemn families of funds to choose private schools, as Professor Edmonson concludes. Throughout my essay, and throughout my career, I am committed to diversifying the school and empowering parents. My point is that as an equal opportunity advocate, I believe that it is unfair to deny low income families the opportunity to exercise the same level of choice in education. I would not take over an agency from wealthier families; I would give less affluent families additional freedom of choice. I am sorry that my language has a different meaning.
Thanks again to Law & Liberty and to Henry Edmondson, Arthur Milikh and Jessica Hooten Wilson for enabling me to take part in this conversation.