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Education Reform is A Bipartisan Endeavor

Chester E. Finn, Jr.

In their essay "The Past and Future of Education Reform", Hess and McShane are reasonably clear-eyed about the past, but the lessons they draw from it are a bit blurrier and their vision of the future is long on aspiration but slightly dimmed by ideology.

Looking back, the authors intentionally skip from the progressive era to A Nation at Risk, which has the unfortunate effect of eliding much of relevant changes that occurred between World War II and Ronald Reagan’s arrival in the Oval Office, including much that implicates conservatives along with progressives.

Some wise folks have noted that everything in education at the federal level that’s had any real impact or staying power has been bipartisan, and at least until the current era I’m pretty sure that’s correct. The GI Bill, for example, was drafted by former American Legion commander Harry Colmery and passed both houses of Congress with solid support from R’s as well as D’s. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 originated in the Eisenhower White House. Though both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act (both 1965) were pushed mainly by LBJ and his fellow Democrats, both were expanded by the Nixon and Ford Administrations. And—as Rick and Mike note—much that followed A Nation at Risk owed its initiation and momentum to the two Bushes and such other GOP stalwarts as Lamar Alexander.

Hess and McShane are well aware of this bipartisan legacy, which they correctly note began to unravel during the Obama administration, but they’re not quite right in saying that “those on the right have mostly played defense, sat on their hands, or gone along for the ride.” It would be more accurate to say “those on the right were major instigators of much that happened—and certainly the twin pushes for school choice and results-based school accountability owe a great deal to conservative thinkers and Republican leaders.”

They’re certainly correct that “the contemporary left has yet to find a limiting principle it’s willing to embrace “ and that this reality will bedevil future efforts at bipartisan education policy (much less education reform) but they’re not quite right when they charge conservatives with having “capitulated” to progressives in the education realm during previous decades. There were certainly instances when conservatives were defeated by progressive—at least Republicans were outvoted by Democrats—such as when Bush 41 and Education Secretary Lamar Alexander sought (through their “America 2000” initiative) to foster progress toward the new—and assuredly bipartisan—“national education goals” that the governors and President had set, only to be shunned by a Democratic Congress, a defeat that opened the door for Clinton’s bigger-government version called “Goals 2000” which in turn opened the door for Bush 43’s No Child Left Behind Act.

Going forward, Hess and McShane mostly make sense. I second their assertion that “the right must…unapologetically sketch an agenda that speaks to the needs of all families,” but they don’t quite acknowledge an obvious and worrying reality: most of today’s policy leaders on the right seem to forget that the overwhelming majority of American families still send their children to district-operated public schools, much as they have for a century and a half, and that this is pretty sure to continue. Today’s obsession on the right with private-school choice and seeming obliviousness to whether kids are actually learning anything in school is scarcely calculated to win the approbation or support of “all families.” Most families’ “needs” are for better curricula, better teachers, better discipline, and more learning in the schools they’ve got, not for different schools or access to education savings accounts. I wish our distinguished co-authors had hit that one hard.

But they do set forth a modest agenda of reform initiatives that they say have the potential to unite “populists and traditionalists” and they seem to appreciate the importance of trying once again to do so. Mostly, it’s familiar, small-bore stuff, like “promote curricula rich in content and rigor,” “help parents find affordable early education that reflects their needs and their values,” and “insist that schools honor hard work, kindness, and mutual respect.” I’m all for trying, though I’m mindful that lurking within these seemingly vanilla ideas is the potential for political and cultural conflict. For example, the left today wants “early education” to be attached to public schools and unionized, while the right wants it voucherized and privatized—and the latter may be necessary if what’s on offer is indeed structured to align with differing parental values. The seemingly vanilla suggestion that American history teaching be both “inclusive and devoid of political agendas” is an invitation to big fights over what exactly should be included and whether it’s even possible to insulate history from politics.

In other words, while it’s a fact that (as I noted above) pretty much everything of lasting value in the ed-reform space has been bipartisan, and while it’s surely worth striving for that kind of unity going forward, it’s not going to be simple. Yet if America heads down the path of separate education policies for red and blue states (and districts), each side may score some short-term wins but the country will continue to come apart, even as we know that education of the young should be part of the glue that holds us together.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a Volker Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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