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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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Education Is So Far Left, It Can’t Really See the Right

By Rick Hess — November 17, 2016 7 min read
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The past week has been extraordinary in the most literal sense. As I’ve sat on panels, talked to reporters, and huddled with folks trying to make sense of things, I’ve been struck by how differently things appear to me than to the vast majority of folks in and around education. What’s going on?

A couple things, I suspect. But the biggest one is that, when I’m trying to explain the world of education to people who don’t work in or around education, I frequently wind up telling them, “You need to understand that the center in education is two standard deviations to the left of the American public.”

I’ll say this when talking to conservatives who are confused as to why they’ve been to education meetings or seen education stories where Democrats who support tax increases, race-based affirmative action, and gun control are termed “right-wingers.” The answer: because the Democrat in question supports charter schools or differentiated pay. You should see some of the quizzical looks I get when I say that.

I then have to explain that education skews so far to the left that expressing mainstream conservative concerns about federal overreach or the problems with race-based policy can be enough to get one classified as a clueless reactionary. I’ll explain that opposition to race-based affirmative action can be enough to get one branded a racist, that rejecting federal policies that strip due process rights from students accused of sexual harassment is sufficient to be labeled a misogynist, and that even using the phrase “illegal immigrant” is grounds for being reported to a bias response team as a xenophobe.

I’ve said all this many times, but last week made me think it’s perhaps worth saying it again. My point is not that my friends on the left are necessarily wrong. It’s that we live in a big, diverse nation and people can honestly disagree on big questions. Unfortunately, many in education spend so little time talking to or engaging with conservatives that they sometimes seem to conclude no “reasonable person” can disagree with their view of things.

Now, some members of the education community will reflexively dismiss all of this. They’ll insist that I’m trying to justify Trump (hah!), or that Trump’s unique failings render all of this inoperative, or that I’m simply imagining things. Okay. Readers who feel that way are free to move on.

For those readers willing to concede that there may be something to see here, that the education space leans heavily to the left, and that perhaps this has created some blind spots, I’ll offer a few thoughts that may be helpful in making sense of the landscape and the implications of the election.

First, just set aside the presidential election for a minute, in which Trump won the Electoral College while narrowly losing the popular vote. Along with retaining a substantial majority in the House, the Republicans also maintained control of the Senate and are looking at a hugely favorable playing field in the 2018 Senate elections. Whereas Republicans hold about two-thirds of the nation’s governorships and unified control of the executive and legislative branches in about half the nation’s states, Democrats have unified control in only five states. Those progressive funders and advocates who’ve said, “Given post-Obama Washington, we’re going to focus on the states"—well, they’re in for a rude surprise.

Second, I keep hearing that Obama didn’t really mean to engage in a power grab or supersize the powers of the presidency. It’s just that he had no choice, because those congressional Republicans were so darn obstructionist. There are many possible responses to this. For one, it was Obama who insisted in 2009 that “elections have consequences"—and the public responded to his first two years in office by electing a Republican wave. One could also point to the famously shoddy job that the Obama administration did cultivating relationships with lawmakers. But the simplest answer is that American government is supposed to be rife with checks and balances. That’s how it works. When the country is divided, as it is now, it’s probably for the best if Washington isn’t launching new, grand, ideologically-fueled programs. So, what so many Democrats called “gridlock” or “obstruction,” I just called “Republican majorities in Congress doing their job.” Indeed, I fully expect that Democratic minorities in Congress will suddenly rediscover the virtues of Madisonian government and do their best to stop legislation and appointments they oppose. Because I believe in the value of those checks and balances, I wish them well. (I just hope that they don’t get too mopey if the Trump administration uses Obama-inspired executive freelancing to circumvent them.)

Third, I honestly don’t think most people in education have any clue just how ideologically loaded their day-to-day assumptions and discussions are. For instance, the word “equity” has become the organizing principle of K-12 school improvement. There are whole media outlets (such as Chalkbeat) that proclaim that their mission is to report on educational equity. And, of course, equity is a good and important value. It’s why many on the left get out of bed each morning. But it also turns out that there are other virtues—like liberty, personal responsibility, and community—that not infrequently come into conflict with equity. (That’s the nature of the whole “liberty v. equality” tension in free societies—one that is recognized as inevitable by pretty much every political philosophy other than socialism.) If you think it sounds radical and weird to suggest that any tension exists or that some serious people might value liberty more highly than equity, just shoot me an e-mail—there are some books and documents you may want to catch up on. It’s not that conservatives are uninterested in equity; it’s just that, in the structure of conservative values and thought, notions of liberty, responsibility, and community tend to rank higher.

Fourth, one of the reasons that right-left differences get ignored is that people in and around education think they have the whole spectrum covered: there is, after all, the fierce conflict between the “reform” camp and the union-establishment. What usually gets missed, however, is that for the past decade, this clash has primarily existed between two wings of the Democratic Party. The “reformers” have mostly been passionate, Great Society liberals who believe in closing “achievement gaps” and pursuing “equity” via charter schooling, teacher evaluation, the Common Core, and test-based accountability. And their opponents have been the Democratic Party’s more traditional, New Deal wing. Other than occasional guest appearances by the likes of centrist Republicans such as Jeb Bush and Lamar Alexander, this has mostly been an intramural fight. The key to making sense of this is that when Republicans have gotten into the ring—by overhauling collective bargaining (in Wisconsin) or passing universal Education Savings Accounts (in Nevada)—they’ve generally been met with unified opposition from reform and union Dems.

Fifth, what feels to those on the left like a well-meaning campaign for inclusion and “social justice” frequently feels to those on the right like the divisive pursuit of grievance-driven politics. Those on the left are certainly free to frame every policy and debate in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender. But those on the right think this framing tears at the fabric of our republic and sows ill-feeling and tribalism. The left routinely tells us that talk of colorblindness or religious freedom is nothing more than an excuse for implicit bias and oppression. Okay. Those on the right see things differently. More to the point, they experience calls for diversity and inclusion as efforts to police speech, suppress religious freedom, and condemn dissent.

Sixth, many in education are appalled that so many Americans don’t see what they regard as the obviously disqualifying behaviors of Donald Trump. As I’ve said many times, I’m no fan of Trump. But I think that those struggling with this are missing a couple key points. For one, the labels affixed to Trump—racist, xenophobe, and the rest—have been deployed so liberally that these terms have started to lose meaning. Mitt Romney (who is now held up by many on the left as the kind of Republican they can respect) was viciously attacked as a racist and a xenophobe in 2012. As has been noted many times, this is the story of the boy who cried “wolf.” For another, if voters see that anyone who voices concerns about illegal immigration or political correctness is going to be vivisected by the New York Times and the like, they’re going to look for someone who’s not going to be intimidated or turn mealy-mouthed. In this way, the thought-policing that deters more temperate individuals invites overcorrection and opens the gates to a Trump.

Finally, most Americans didn’t think Trump had the temperament or character to be president—and yet 60 million still voted for him. For those who regard Obama and Clinton as enlightened, well-meaning, inclusive leaders, opposed only by crazies and ideologues, it’s worth reflecting on why that might be.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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