Federal Opinion

A Conservative K-12 Agenda: Ideas for the Next President

By Rick Hess — September 19, 2016 6 min read

After 16 years of relentless Bush-Obama education expansionism, Washington sorely needs principled conservative leadership. Unfortunately, no conservative is running this year. Hillary Clinton is promising to bring the Affordable Care Act to higher education and to extend K-12 down to 4-year-olds, while Donald Trump’s clown-car campaign careens between bombastic promises and insult theater.

During his big “education week,” Trump forgot about education and wound up in Mexico talking immigration. When he has issued proposals, there’s little evidence that they’re serious or that he’s serious about them. Trump promises to “end” the common core, but it’s entirely unclear what that even means. He calls for spending $20 billion a year for school choice, but without saying a word about where the money would come from or how the idea would actually work.


Trump will occasionally utter conservative-sounding phrases, but he’s no conservative—he shows no taste for limited government, no respect for federalism, and no faith in local institutions. For instance, Trump promised earlier this year, “I will get rid of gun-free zones on schools, you have to. ... My first day, it gets signed, OK? My first day. There’s no more gun-free zones.” While conservatives do typically support gun rights, this isn’t even remotely a conservative proposal. Actually, it’s a lesson in the value of conservative governance.

Given that 4 in 10 Americans think arming teachers would make schools safer, Trump can insist that school safety is too important to leave to the whims of local officials who may put their own interests over what’s best for the kids. After all, Trump’s stance would be entirely consistent with the Obama administration’s “pen and phone” approach to teacher evaluation, Elementary and Secondary Education Act waivers, school discipline, campus sexual assault, supplement-not-supplant, and much else. The logic is always: The federal government has a duty to ensure that local officials and educators are doing what’s right for kids.

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One problem? Reasonable people can disagree about whether a given policy (like arming teachers) is “right for the kids.” Even if the policy has merit, good schools are the product of countless daily decisions made and culture shaped by educators. It’s hard to create great schools when teachers are paralyzed by policy.

Moreover, this is a big, diverse nation, and it’s almost inevitable that the same idea will help in some places and hurt in others. This is why federal mandates are such a flawed tool of school improvement, and why Clinton’s laundry list of new pre-K and higher education mandates is so disconcerting.

Policy is a blunt tool. Federal policy can make states and districts do things, but it can’t make them do them well. When doing things is enough, like with mailing Social Security checks or setting noise ordinances, policy can work well. But policy is far less effective when it comes to complex endeavors where how things are done matters more than whether they’re done. And, in education, where human relationships are key, how things are done is usually what matters.

What’s worse, federal policy unspools like a game of telephone. In Washington, the U.S. Department of Education issues guidance. When officials in 50 states read that guidance, they won’t all understand it the same way. Those officials then explain it to thousands of district coordinators, who provide direction to school leaders and teachers. By that point, there’s a lot of confusion, fear, and half-hearted compliance. Now, multiply that a hundredfold for the deluge of directives that rain down. This kind of bureaucratic malaise isn’t anyone’s recipe for good schools.

Trump or Clinton might not grasp any of this, but 16 years of Bush-Obama education policy have offered Americans an intensive course of study. The Every Student Succeeds Act sought to correct for some of the Rube Goldberg-esque overreach of No Child Left Behind, the previous version of the law, while retaining the law’s healthy commitment to transparency. In 2017 and beyond, the conservative mission, in part, will be to protect families, educators, communities, and states from being whipsawed by the whims of excitable federal bureaucrats and their attorneys.

Unfortunately, no conservative is running this year."

It’s not enough to settle for consolidating the modest improvements of ESSA, however. Much more can and should be done to reform how Washington approaches K-12 schooling:

• Work to scrape away decades’ worth of rules and guidance that trip up schools. The next president should establish a blue-ribbon commission of education leaders and classroom teachers to identify where well-intended but outdated regulatory requirements are wasting time and energy, distracting school leaders, and shortchanging students. Heck, you can call it “Erase to the Top.”

• Help district leaders break free of outdated constraints. Congress should create a mechanism that enables districts creaking under the weight of inherited vendor agreements, work rules, and contracts to chart a new course, if they so wish.

• Give states the flexibility to use federal funds to expand choice options, if states so wish. Washington can encourage states to use ESSA’s flexibility to establish course-choice programs and districts to take advantage of the law’s opportunity to pilot weighted student-funding formulas. They should amend ESSA to allow states to make Title I money portable.

• Champion expanded investment in educational research. Basic research is a public good that states and the private sector will tend to skimp on. Washington could triple its investment in basic education research for about $600 million a year, offsetting the cost by modest reductions in any number of existing programs.

• Push to update the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. First intended to govern the proper handling of paper files, it is now impinging on educational decisionmaking and valuable research. Conservatives are well-positioned to balance crucial privacy and parental rights with our ability to inform parents and improve schools.

• Put an end to Obama-era freelancing by Education Department bureaucrats and the agency’s office for civil rights. When it comes to school discipline, budgeting, locker rooms, and more, cease the use of legal adventurism to bully state and local officials operating within the letter and plain meaning of the law.

• Move past the “achievement gap” mindset of the No Child Left Behind era and toward a broader excellence agenda for all students. NCLB-style accountability narrowed the scope of schooling to little more than reading and math scores. It’s time to pursue a vision of accountability that reflects the concerns of parents more than the convenience of policymakers. This means encouraging schools to unapologetically embrace vocational, gifted, and civic education; science and technology; world languages; and the arts. And it means supporting states as they devise how to help parents and communities gauge school and system performance.

Americans need higher-quality, lower-cost higher education options. We need flexible, family-friendly, cost-efficient early education. We need more terrific public schools that empower educators and families. Washington can and should help in all of this. But doing so requires a more modest and disciplined vision than that offered by Ms. Clinton or Mr. Trump. Ah well, there’s always 2020.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2016 edition of Education Week as Missing: A Conservative Education Agenda


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