- America’s pre-K, K–12, and higher education systems are in need of reform, but the Obama administration’s reform implementation efforts have been marked by an unprecedented expansion of federal authority and a remarkable faith in the ability of federal bureaucrats.
- Although conservative presidential candidates might be tempted to double down on rhetoric about abolishing the federal role in education, conservatives should instead offer a reform agenda that clarifies how to tap into the strengths of the federal system to foster educational opportunity for all.
- Specifically, these candidates should strive to expand educational options and access, increase transparency regarding school quality and student outcomes, make long-term investments in research and development, and eliminate burdensome regulations.
Opportunity is the watchword of American conservativism. Our nation’s creed presumes that every American has the right to strive to make the most of his or her gifts. That is why education is so foundational to the conservative project. Talk of opportunity, responsible citizenship, and earned success can ring hollow for Americans when they—or their children—are denied the opportunity to fulfill their potential.
Lousy schools rob their students of a full shot at the American dream, bolstering the case for redistribution and for the machinery of the welfare state. Overpriced, mediocre colleges bar the doors of advancement against working adults or middle-class students. Ill-designed pre-K programs do more to promote bureaucracy than to prepare young children for school success.
Given all this, it’s astounding that conservatives have struggled to articulate a compelling, principled vision for K–12 reform. In the pages that follow, a number of leading conservative education thinkers try to offer up just that kind of vision. After all, conservatives rightly believe that education reform is most properly a responsibility of the states. The thing is, beyond a few sensible intuitions (like school choice and local control), conservatives haven’t necessarily offered much in the way of a coherent vision for how they can solve real problems for real families in a principled way.
The real work of US education improvement must be tackled in states and communities. At the same time, the federal government is deeply engaged in higher education, plays a significant role in K–12, and spends billions on early childhood education. Many of these programs deserve to be cut back or eliminated, and even the existence of a federal education department is itself something that draws deserved skepticism.
The reality, though, is that conservatives have demonstrated no ability (and little appetite) to eliminate—or even substantially pare—the federal role. And polling suggests that 80 percent of Americans look favorably upon the Department of Education. Given that the federal government is going to be involved in education, conservatives would be well-served to embrace a legitimate, limited, deregulatory, and decentralizing federal role in schooling.
After all, from the Land Ordinance of 1785 (under the Articles of Confederation), to Dwight Eisenhower’s 1958 post-Sputnik push on math and science, to Ronald Reagan’s 1983 call to arms in A Nation at Risk, the federal government has established a compelling national interest in schooling. But Washington should limit its involvement to those things that it is uniquely equipped to do well, that are appropriate to its limited role in the federal system, and that don’t amount to giving marching orders to states and schools. Boiled down, that amounts to an approach that can be summarized in four key points: educational options, transparency, research, and deregulation.
If you don’t take the field, you cede it. We’ve seen the price of that in the past decade, during which reform-minded liberals have driven much of the education reform agenda. They have taken a host of conservative ideas, such as charter schooling and the value of academic standards, and spearheaded a nominally “bipartisan” national education agenda. It turns out, though, that an agenda shaped and executed by liberals will ultimately not be bipartisan. Thus, while some of the reforms the Obama administration has championed are admirable enough, the implementation of these ideas has been marked by an unprecedented expansion of federal authority and a remarkable faith in the ability of federal bureaucrats.
Now more than ever, perhaps, there might be the temptation for conservatives to throw their hands up in frustration. We counsel another course: conservatives offering a principled, conservative vision of school reform. It will mostly not be about Washington, but conservatives need to offer a vision of what role Washington should play (especially in higher education, where it already has an immense presence). Conservatives need to offer an education agenda—for pre-K, K–12, and higher education—that explains what their principles mean when it comes to fostering opportunity and solving problems.
This volume tries to sketch such an agenda for a conservative presidential candidate and administration. It offers a simple proposition: that when it comes to education, there are many things the federal government ought not do and a few things that it’s uniquely equipped to do well. By reining in the excesses of recent years and refocusing federal activity, conservatives can promote education reform that helps ensure everyone gets their fair shot at a slice of the American dream.