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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.

Federal Opinion

What Conservatives Should Be for When It Comes to Education

By Rick Hess — January 14, 2021 3 min read
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This is a low point for those who take conservatism seriously. We’ve just watched a Republican president provoke an assault on Congress after two months spent promoting fabricated, seditious conspiracy theories. Even as Donald Trump’s ravings were debunked time and again, scores of Republican lawmakers stood by his side as he sought to overturn a democratic election. It’s been a horrifying, craven display.

With Trump, his apologists, and his Capitol Hill henchmen claiming to be conservatives, it’s a tough time to make the case for conservative ideas. That just makes it all the more important for those of us who reject Trump’s poisonous faux-conservatism to make clear what we actually stand for—to speak to shared values, essential truths, and how we’d seek to improve the lives of Americans.

In the realm of education policy, we have our work cut out for us. One of my persistent frustrations, during the course of more than two decades in the education policy debates, is that—except when it comes to school choice and campus free speech—conservatives are much better at explaining what we’re against than what we’re for. That needs to change, particularly since education is ultimately about opportunity, community, and empowerment, and nothing should resonate more deeply with the conservative heart.

That’s why I’m pleased that AEI Education, where I’ve been director since 2002, has just published Mike McShane’s new essay, “Where Conservatives Should Lead on Federal Education Policy in 2021.” McShane, the director of research at EdChoice and an adjunct scholar at AEI, draws on our ongoing AEI Education series, “Sketching a New Conservative Education Agenda,” to offer a broad view of what conservatives should be fighting for in early-childhood, K-12, and higher education during the Biden presidency and beyond.

When it comes to early-childhood education, conservatives should recognize that improving education for our nation’s youngest learners requires supporting parents, as well. As McShane puts it, “It is tough to raise children in America today. It is tough to gain the skills and knowledge needed for a good job without accumulating debt. It can be made easier.” He suggests that policy should accomplish three things:

  1. Provide relief for working families by subsidizing and promoting lower-cost early-childhood-education options.
  2. Create nurturing and supportive child-care environments in partnership with employers and civil society.
  3. Directly support families to maximize their flexibility in finding workable child care and early education options.

To improve K-12 schooling, McShane argues for reforming Title I “by simplifying it, deregulating it, and broadening its eligibility to allow new and different models of schools to access it.” When it comes to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), he urges a vision that starts from the simple premise that “parents need more help”—and seeks to give them more tools to work with than bureaucratic Individualized Education Program processes and the threat of litigation. McShane writes, “Parents need the option to exit schools that are not serving their children and take the funding that has been appropriated to pay for their child’s education with them. Making IDEA funding flexible and not tying it to a traditional district school is one way to help.”

On higher education, McShane suggests that conservatives work from three guiding principles: rigor, continuity, and flexibility. He argues that a college degree needs to mean more than it currently does; that graduates should have a command of history, science, art, and literature; that universities should be “dedicated to preserving what we have learned, sharing that with the next generation, and expanding what we know;” and that traditional college education is not for everyone, suggesting the need for policy that supports more varied “paths for people pursuing different goals.”

In a matter of days, the Trump Show will move from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to an off-brand cable news network. It’s past time for conservatives to set aside the distractions of the Trump era and get back to things that matter. Offering a principled vision for education is a productive place to start.

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