Thinking Globally and Locally About Education

I’d like to thank the Law & Liberty team for inviting me to kick off this conversation. And I would like to thank the three respondents, Henry Edmondson, Arthur Milikh, and Jessica Hooten Wilson, for taking the time to read my offering and share their thoughts. I appreciate the opportunity to take part in this discussion.

I aimed to accomplish three things with my opening essay. The first was to ground contemporary debates about K-12 education in the context of the past several decades of reform. I find it helpful to begin discussions about the future by recounting what caused the present. Second, I hoped to offer a framework for thinking about authority and responsibility in public schooling. I believe we can develop better reform ideas and improve the chances of seeing our reform ideas enacted and succeed if we start with legal power and legal obligation in mind. Lastly, I wanted to explain which particular initiatives I would prioritize within that framework. I believe that we should understand and appreciate governing systems and processes and then vigorously pursue our goals within those arrangements.

I restate these goals as a way of framing my reply to the respondents. As for areas of agreement, I concur that improving civic education is essential, especially after events of the last year. I, like Professor Hooten Wilson, celebrate the growth of classical education. I agree that some advocates on the left want to unwind the redistribution and decentralization of power I described, and, if that occurs, pluralism and an array of institutions could suffer. I appreciated Professor Edmondson’s use of Lincoln to emphasize that a large part of American education’s purpose is transmitting our inheritance to future generations and cultivating intellect and patriotism. Edmondson is right that this is the path to halting the “mobocratic spirit” from within that threatens the republic. I also appreciated Mr. Milikh’s point that conservatives need to have the courage of their convictions when engaging in the toughest cultural and political debates.

My view is that if we are to realize our shared goals and stop the advance of movements with which we disagree, there is no substitute for political and civil-society activity. Fortunately, our longstanding institutional arrangements and, importantly, reforms of recent years give us the opportunity to make a difference. That begins by working close to home.

Professor Hooten Wilson deserves great credit for co-founding an alternative K-6 school. I would like to see more principled conservatives help start new schools, volunteer for the boards of school networks, and run for seats on local boards of education. For example, in nearly all states, citizens have the ability to form nonprofits that run public schools via the chartering mechanism. If we want more schools dedicated to classical education, patriotic civics, career and technical education, or something else, we can create them. Similarly, choice programs enable public dollars to support private schools—conservatives could create more of those, too. In short, such programs and democratic elections give all of us the opportunity to form or reform educational bodies in our own communities. In other words, we ought to think globally about schooling, but we need to act locally, as well.

Along these lines, Professor Hooten Wilson raises an important point—that there are very different definitions of education. Experts don’t agree about what success looks like. This is why I think America’s system of state-level authority plus local democratically controlled school boards plus expanded parental choice is sensible. State entities decide what elements should be required and/or should be uniform; district boards reflect small-scale community consensus; and choice gives families the power of exit.

We also need to get more engaged in state-level activities. State legislatures have enormous authority, and they consider and make decisions on the most pressing policy matters every year. As important, but less appreciated, are state superintendents and state boards of education, which have significant power over content standards, tests, discipline, teacher certification, and more. Conservative education activists who care deeply about history, civics, discipline, or character should run for or seek appointment to state office, serve on standards-writing committees, and regularly testify before legislative bodies. Mr. Milikh is right that conservatives should direct their political energies toward state capitals and support like-minded, strong-willed state-level leaders.

And of course, conservatives should work to limit Washington’s reach. This includes both opposing objectionable initiatives pushed by Congress (whether in programs or appropriations) and the US Department of Education (via an array of administrative decisions) and not using Uncle Sam’s muscle to push our own preferences. But while the right should keep an eye on Washington, we should never convince ourselves that that is where most of the action occurs. Yes, it gets a great deal of attention, and yes, we could get a great deal of attention by focusing there, but the most important decisions are made in state capitals, by local boards, and in committees of practitioners.

My primary thematic disagreement, I believe, is about outlook. It appears that I am more sanguine about the state of schooling and/or the potential for positive change. For instance, Professor Hooten Wilson writes that her personal network was distressed by what they saw from their children’s schools once the pandemic hit, such as too little time spent on learning activities and the use of low-quality worksheets, quizzes, textbooks, and videos. While I agree that we should be pressing for more rigor, we should recognize that over the last decade most states adopted more difficult learning standards and tougher tests. This raising of the bar has meant that many states saw student proficiency rates cut nearly in half, meaning our schools have been asked to redouble their efforts. Moreover, the pandemic forced a sudden sea change in the delivery of schooling; millions of educators trained to teach—and accustomed to teaching—in-person were forced to suddenly pivot to remote instruction. I’m similarly concerned about inadequate learning materials in the classroom, but I wouldn’t judge America’s schools based on their swift response to a once-in-a-century event.

…as a general rule, I believe that in education and in other domains of public life if we overstate a problem, we risk inviting radical, unfit public leaders who push radical, unfitting policy interventions.

Lastly, public opinion offers a somewhat optimistic take on America’s schools. Prior to the pandemic, parental satisfaction with their students’ schools was at a 20-year high, with more than 80 percent expressing satisfaction. That dropped about 10 percentage points with the shock of the pandemic. But more than seven in 10 parents rate positively the job their schools have done handling various aspects of Covid-related distance learning. As of this fall, while two-thirds of parents whose students were in some form of online learning were concerned about their students falling behind because of the pandemic’s disruptions, three-quarters of these parents were satisfied by how their schools were handling instruction.

None of this is to say that I think everything is fine with America’s schools or that problems are easily solved. But I believe a great deal has been accomplished over the last generation, which tells me a great deal can be accomplished in the coming generation; that conditions in most schools and systems are quite good; and that our system’s distribution of authority inhibits dramatic, widespread, unwelcome change and enables families and communities to shape schooling in positive ways. 

Moreover, I have 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 news item about the activities taking place in some districts or classrooms, but we should not automatically impute their 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 think, as Milikh does, that the distribution of power I described “belongs to a country that no longer exists.”

Across America—much of it very red politically—there are lots of very good people leading state systems, working in school networks, and teaching students. I have found them far less ideological and far less political than popular narratives would lead us to believe. They care about kids and their communities. I’ve only stepped foot in a fraction of the nation’s more than 100,000 primary and secondary schools, but the more of them I’ve visited, the more optimistic I’ve become. And, as a general rule, I believe that in education and in other domains of public life if we overstate a problem, we risk inviting radical, unfit public leaders who push radical, unfitting policy interventions.

Lastly, I need to address one small but important misunderstanding. I do not condemn families of means for choosing private schools as Professor Edmonson infers. Throughout my essay, I advocate—and throughout my career I have advocated—for school diversification and parental empowerment. My point is that, as a believer in equal opportunity, I hold that it is unfair to deny low-income families the opportunity to exercise the same degree of choice in education. I wouldn’t take agency from more affluent families; I would give additional agency to less affluent families. I regret if my language conveyed some other meaning.

Again, my sincere thanks to Law & Liberty and to Henry Edmondson, Arthur Milikh, and Jessica Hooten Wilson for enabling me to take part in this conversation.