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Reject Technocratic Illusions and Embrace Education Freedom

Virginia Gentles


Did students benefit from the “heavy-handed government schemes” endorsed by the technocratic leftists who masquerade as education reformers? Authors of the new book, Getting Education Right, Frederick Hess and Michael McShane answer this important question in their essay on the past and future of education reform. Given the current state of K-12 education, the answer is a resounding no. Conservatives must acknowledge the consequences of faux bipartisanship in the past and take bold action going forward.

  Our schools are in freefall. Historically low state, national, and international test scores, devastating learning loss during prolonged COVID-era school closures, and embarrassing chronic absenteeism rates abound. Even if education technocrats could briefly claim credit for narrowing achievement gaps during the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) years, the improvements were a veneer covering a fundamentally broken system.

  The ascendent education freedom movement now rises from the ashes of the failed “reforms.” The majority of states offer either state-funded scholarship or education savings accounts (ESA) programs, and ten states now offer universal education freedom. Rather than succumbing to the temptations to craft a long "fix-it" list, conservatives should recognize the promise that school choice offers parents who are desperate to escape schools that fail to educate and preach ideologies that undermine biological reality and commonly-accepted values.

  School choice should have been a priority since the 1983 report A Nation at Risk lamented our education system’s “rising tide of mediocrity.” But education reformers chose to only occasionally mention expanding education options. “The idea that families ought to have a fundamental right to choose a school that works for their child and reflects their values was deemed unduly radical and divisive” in the NCLB era, according to Hess and McShane.

That might be true in the national policy community. But state leaders, including Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Florida Governor Jeb Bush, embraced that radical view. Governor Bush’s 1999 A+ Plan for Education included the “break-the-glass” remedy for students trapped in schools that received multiple F ratings by the state. He also supported scholarships for students with special needs, the corporate tax credit scholarship income-based program, and the growth of charter schools across the state. Bush’s vocal support for choice set an example for other governors to follow.

  Hess and McShane assert, “While choice proposals could generally count on the principled support of conservative lawmakers, they weren’t seen as especially relevant by many conservative voters, suburban families, or middle-class parents.” But no effort was made to communicate the benefits of choice to those families. Rather than building a coalition that included suburban parents, the burden of advocacy rested on parents who were desperate to get their children out of dangerous school environments or, for parents of students with disabilities, into schools that would actually provide support and services. These vulnerable families needed school choice, but their problems were not widespread enough to generate a broad alliance.

Perhaps the failures of reform could have been avoided if conservatives hadn’t been so desperate for accolades from the “cool kids” of education policy. These bright young things, often with more experience of graduate school than K-12, promised a highly educated new teaching force, administrators committed to change, and new schools funded by venture capitalists.

  To be honest, as an awkward former band geek who never fit in, I found the would-be reformers shallow and slick. My fellow school choice advocates and I knew that is impossible to reform education without engaging and empowering parents. Pulling policy levers at the federal and state level would never inspire districts to serve students better. It was also inevitable that donors would get restless with unimpressive or erratic results. Bored with doing the same thing, philanthropists moved on to different trends.

  McShane and Hess note that, “The decade following NCLB saw significant national gains in both reading and math scores.” This was good news that was destined to be temporary given the K-12 education system’s habit of chasing fads. Academic improvement cannot be sustained without commitment to what works. Despite federal efforts to create a What Works Clearinghouse, the siren call of fashionable methods and subjects proved hard to resist.

  Plus, parents began to notice that their children’s schools abandoned instruction for standardized testing preparation for a significant portion of the end of each school year. When schools canceled recess and their desperate-to-move child suddenly needed Adderall or a similar stimulant to make it through the day, parents’ concerns grew louder. Taxpayers also resented it when beloved neighborhood schools that they had paid high housing prices to live near being were labeled as “failing.” Bureaucrats’ resistance to accountability undermined the promise of NCLB , but parents’ fury ensured its demise.

  Parents were also at the center of resistance to the Common Core, the next bright idea that reformers rushed through. Once again, the reformers refused to listen. As Hess and McShane point out, President “Obama’s Secretary of Education and the mainstream media worked hard to dismiss skeptics as ‘tinfoil hat’ crazies.” Secretary Arne Duncan also derided Common Core opponents as “white, suburban moms” who were discovering their kids weren’t as “brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

  But parents' resistance was too powerful to ignore forever. Many states promised to extricate themselves from the Common Core club. In 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and rolled back NCLB requirements.

  While parents were winning legislative battles, though, they were losing the bureaucratic war. As Hess and McShane put it, “Obama’s appointees were sowing the ground for a series of culture clashes in schooling,” by upending discipline policies and directing schools to disregard biological sex. Policymakers read the tea leaves and bullied their subordinates into abandoning merit and rigor in favor of "equity.” As the authors note, even the highly-regarded KIPP charter schools abandoned their “Work Hard, Be Nice” motto while apologizing for their past “white supremacy.” 

 For a time, it was possible to ignore the transformation of technocratic reform into full-speed-ahead leftism. The veneer was ripped off during the COVID era. With over 50 million students sent home in March 2020, parents were directly confronted with the rot in the system. Parents understood the initial closures, which were supposed to last for just a few weeks. But we refused to accept long-term “remote learning”. We chafed at Common Core-inspired math worksheets uploaded to password-laden Google Classrooms. We fumed at materials steeped in climate alarmism and gender ideology. We pleaded for public schools to reopen to avoid further devastating learning loss.

  When my local school district attempted to amend my daughter’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) and reneged on a plan to open two days a week in the fall of 2020, I pulled my children out of their residentially-assigned public schools. I was not alone. Public school enrollment dropped precipitously as parents flocked to education alternatives that were OPEN and eager to educate. Parents like me breathed a sigh of relief when we found options that prioritize academic excellence, rather than activism, and aligned with our families’ values.

  As a result, school choice or education freedom policies have seen an explosion in support from families and state legislators in the last few years. The authors accurately observe that “[b]y the dawn of the Biden administration, educational choice was no longer just a lifeboat for urban families. Perhaps for the first time, it was offered as a solution for families frustrated by school closures, toxic ideologies, or unresponsive bureaucracies.” That's finally some good news. But it would have come sooner if conservatives had focused on choice from the beginning, rather than trying to impress the "cool kids".

  We can't change the history of the last three decades. McShane and Hess propose getting education right in the future through a vision that strives to “Empower K–12 parents with choice” among other proposals. But we can't let education freedom get lost in the shuffle. To avoid another generation of failure, conservatives must unify behind ambitious and expansive choice policies that fund and prioritize students and empower parents.

Virginia (Ginny) Gentles is director of the Education Freedom Center at the Independent Women's Forum.


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