For decades, conservatives have all but ignored education policy. At the national level, we say that it’s a state issue. At the state level, we say it’s a local issue. At the local level, we cede the terrain entirely to teachers unions. This was always a missed opportunity, but only recently has our operational ignorance become a threat to America’s future.
When the field of education policy was largely an intramural struggle between liberal teachers unions and liberal-minded education reformers, conservatives could afford to side with the latter on issues such as accountability while promoting school choice. But in recent years, both the unions and liberal reformers have allowed policy differences to take a backseat to a new mission: the ideological transformation of the next generation.
As we enter the Biden-Harris era, conservatives face a choice. We can remain on autopilot and allow public education to be overtaken by a faction that wants to teach students that America was founded as a “slavocracy” and that “social justice” requires treating people differently based on their race. Or we can shrug off the threats of “cancellation,” defend the American creed, and forge our own path to upholding educational excellence.
Many recognize the reeducation in their children’s classrooms for what it is: racism. But it takes great courage to fight back because woke ideologues such as Ibram X. Kendi have redefined “racism” to mean essentially “any idea I don’t agree with.” Teachers are too intimidated to disagree — as one told journalist Bari Weiss, “To speak out against this is to put all of your moral capital at risk.” Students are terrified; one told Weiss that “if you publish my name, it would ruin my life. People would attack me for even questioning this ideology.” I have spoken to many parents who are profoundly concerned but unwilling to go on the record because they don’t want to be labeled as “racist.”
Conservative state and local leaders must make it their mission to be tribunes for these parents. They must not be cowed by spurious accusations of “racism.” They must not be wed to viewing education policy as a fundamentally bipartisan project. Rather, successful governance in this new era will require three things.
First, it will require clarity about the purpose of public education. Conservatives must reject the politicized presumption that education should be about promoting “social justice.” They must be on guard against all curriculum and pedagogy that seek to place a wedge between children and their parents. Whether through state laws banning critical race theory trainings, mandated curricular transparency, or promoting greater local democratic input, conservatives should no longer be shy about defending their constituents’ values.
Second, it will require conservatives to clearly articulate what they are for and show up with concrete policies to advance their cause. What the Left wants is clear: a one-size-fits-all, “free” (i.e., fully taxpayer-funded) system serving students ages 3-22, run in accordance with the whims of liberal ideology. The Right should stand for a flexible, diverse, and pluralistic system of education where public funding can follow students; teachers are able to break free from traditional school buildings; public schools teach intentionally crafted, high-quality curriculum; and college degrees are no longer seen as a prerequisite for a middle-class life.
Third, it will require coalition building and coordination. For all the talk on the Left about a vast right-wing “corporate reform” conspiracy, the truth is that there’s a massive institutional asymmetry when it comes to education. The Left controls the teachers unions, schools of education, and dozens of interlocking nonprofit advocacy organizations — many of which masquerade as nonpartisan. The Right has nothing remotely to match.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Conservative Education Reform Network, of which I’ve recently been named director, intends to help fill this gap. CERN aims to identify, connect, equip, and empower principled state and local education leaders. It will serve as a central node for national collaboration and as a vehicle for its members to kick the tires on new ideas and amplify promising initiatives. And it will provide a public forum to highlight those brave enough to stand up for principles that, up until recently, everyone in America shared — and that most still do.
Although we are barely two months into the Biden-Harris administration, it has already become evident that it will be animated by culture war aggression, especially when it comes to education. The Obama-era Common Core initiative engendered a massive populist backlash, but that wave of energy was never channeled to productive use. If conservatives come well equipped and organized, the next few years could herald the greatest expansion of educational freedom in a generation and help enable America’s students to graduate well prepared for the blessings and responsibilities of citizenship and family life.
Max Eden is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of its Conservative Education Reform Network.