Conservatives can claim very few national-level policy victories over the past generation. The partial exception may be K-12 education—though even successes there really represent a retreat from spaces which no longer belongs to them. Charter schools, classical schools, education savings accounts, and home schooling are growing and, by most accounts, thriving. I have had the pleasure of interacting with many homeschoolers and classical school students, and have generally found them more interesting, curious, developed, and capable than young people in public schools and even those enrolled in conventionally highly ranked elite private schools.
Mr. Smarick’s thesis is that the current distribution of power for K-12 policy making, which we stumbled into is probably good—and certainly better than what we had in the last 40 years. Federal, state, district authorities, and parents are more or less operating in their proper spheres, roughly possessing the power that ought to belong to each. Thus, the “most important work over the next decade…is enabling these different centers of power to solve the problems in their respective ambits.” Perhaps this is correct. But wishing for the continuation of this admittedly accidental distribution of power is nostalgic, for it belongs to a country that no longer exists. Preserving limits and spheres of autonomy are precisely what the Left has (successfully) sought to overcome in nearly every element of American life.
The two major moral doctrines which animate today’s Left—anti-racism and sexual liberation—have become the objects of fanatical worship in the nation’s most powerful and wealthy institutions: the press, Fortune 500s, universities, the federal bureaucracy, and Big Tech. To be sure, there are citizens who do not assent, but they have little institutional backing, nor do they often feel themselves in possession of the moral authority to stand against them. No space is safe from the Left’s doctrinal imperialism: every effort is made to weaken, humiliate, or destroy resistant institutions. Christian schools, classical schools, and home schooling are next in the crosshairs.
Recall that it took less than a year from the Obergefell v Hodges (2015) ruling to the implementation of transgender bathrooms in some public schools. Six years later, transgenderism is advanced and protected by nearly all the nation’s major intellectual and medical institutions, and by civil rights law in employment, thanks to the Bostock (2020) decision. While as a legal matter, it is not clear how the Bostock decision applies to schools (and especially Christian schools), the constellation of activists, bureaucrats, and judges will likely find a way. And the right will probably help them succeed through moral capitulation. Some schools will surrender preemptively, while those who take a stand will be attacked, delegitimized, and deplatformed until they are ruined.
Put aside for a moment that over the past year, approximately 4,500 classrooms, in private and public schools, in all 50 states, are using the New York Times’ 1619 curriculum. This summer, the nation watched as Black Lives Matter rioters (along with Antifa) burned down many of America’s cities on the basis of the falsehood that George Floyd was murdered because of his race. During this period, approximately $10 billion dollars were donated by corporations, private foundations, and individuals to BLM or BLM-approved causes. Schools immediately implemented corresponding curriculum. BLM demanded reforms were passed by state legislatures and local city councils (here, here, and here). Almost no one stood up against these events. In fact, most vehemently pushed others out of the way in the rush to show support, even institutions which call themselves conservative.
These are the quick, astonishing victories which the Left can claim, so successful that they can no longer be dissented from in the mainstream. Yet Mr. Smarick pleas with the Biden administration: it “should…defer to families, civil-society bodies, local leader, and state governments” in K-12 education. To which the Left might respond, “No place should be safe for your white unearned privilege, your bigotry, your fascism. Your purgation is a moral imperative, the core of our identity.”
The Left, Mr. Smarick adds, should “appreciate the limits of centralizing authority.” Yet this has been among the main tools of the Left’s power and success. If it respected limits, it wouldn’t be what it is. Such pleas are exactly what the Left would prefer in an opposition party.
Mr. Smarick wants both anti-discrimination law and local and parental autonomy, though it is far from clear that these two can coexist. He knows that the Biden administration will try to use civil rights laws to enforce transgenderism, to use but one example, in all spheres hitherto untouched by it. Once the civil rights bureaucracy demands that these nascent schools (charter, religious, classical) accept full sexual liberation, and the antiracism ideology, how will these schools defend themselves in the public square? On the one side will be the Left, speaking with the authority of civil rights, among the nation’s most sacred principles; the other side will cite parental rights and religious liberty. The momentum and institutional power is clearly in favor of the former.
The first has the backing of the administrative state, the courts, the professionalized activist class, and much of public opinion. In fact, they will likely use the IRS to revoke non-profit status from classical, charter, or religious schools for what it will call discrimination. Accreditors will make similar demands. Cities and states, we should bear in mind, also have powerful civil rights bureaucracies.
To the contrary, parental rights are almost nowhere honored in America. Traditional views of sexuality and gender roles are ridiculed, mocked, and intentionally undermined in public “culture,” even sometimes in pre-schools. Activists are already successfully abridging parental rights in preventing parents from stopping their young children from seeking to change their gender. This somewhat quiet revolution’s goal is to introduce new gods against the gods of the father and mother, like Pheidippides beating his father Strepsiades in Aristophanes’ Clouds.
Civil rights law, vitriolic activists, executive orders, withholding of funds from the disobedient, and lawfare attacks will be used to destroy what conservatives have been building up for the past few decades in the K-12 spheres. What looks like the beginning of a golden age may be a blip on the radar.
I agree with Mr. Smarick that the states are the future. The states may become the barricade, the fronts of resistance, over the next four years, and into the future. Conservative money must move into red states; conservative networks and organizations must be set up, and of course throngs of conservatives must leave blue states and restart their lives. But what this must lead to is gathering enough courage and moral authority to say “no.” They must be prepared to denounce false doctrines like “antiracism”; they must say: you will not teach our children to despise us, our faith, our country. For the new K-12 developments in state, local, parental control to continue, most needed are parents full of virile self-confidence, and a political movement and state politicians that lead and protect them. Most likely and as is their habit, conservatives leaders will morally capitulate, while painting themselves as sensible moderates.