Thank you, Andy Smarick, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, for your commentary on the role of conservatism in education reform (Change and preservation in education reform, August 6, 2014). Apparently, Smarick and Michael Petrilli (the newly appointed president of Fordham) are wrestling with the education policies their organization helped engineer in partnership with corporate interests and presidential administrations (both Democrat and Republican) in recent decades. Once again, the conservative lens is being employed to sort out the debacle that has culminated in the current state of education policy with all its accoutrements — the Common Core, an explosion in student testing, massive data storage systems, value added measurements for teacher accountability, and, last but certainly not least, a free market driven system that ensures the free flow of dollars to the private sector through charter schools and products associated with RTTT education reform policies.
Smarick wonders if education reform is “inherently anti-conservative” and if things might “be better if we sought counsel from conservatism?” He refers to an article by Phillip Wallach and Justus Myers in National Affairs entitled “The Conservative Governing Disposition.”
Smarick discusses the “conservative governing disposition,” citing several of the conservative’s favored political and economic thinkers and philosophers and concludes that a conservative governing disposition embodies a belief that “change ought to advance gradually… .”
While Smarick may be thinking about current education reform initiatives when suggesting that our country should have proceeded more cautiously and circumspectly in adopting the widespread sweeping reforms associated with the current administration, it is simply wrong-headed to look longingly back to conservative thinkers and wonder how much better education would be if we’d heeded their advice. Smarick would be wise to consider the seminal works of conservatives like Albert J. Nock, Russell Kirk, and Murray Rothbard (to name a few).
In chapter 2 of my upcoming book The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Markets Became Public Education Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, January, 2015), I examine the ideas of several conservative thinkers on education policy. For example, Albert Nock, writing in the 1930s, believed that “the progressive theory of ‘educational equality’ that undergirded America’s education system was particularly troubling because he felt it was based on a socialist model that created a ‘perverse’ popular doctrine leading people to believe that ‘everybody is educable.’” Russell Kirk (considered a giant of conservatism and revered by President Reagan), likewise considered America’s public school system to be a reflection of “a socialistic federal government in collusion with progressive educators …”. Murray Rothbard continued the conservative assault on public education in the 1970s, claiming that one of the major problems associated with public schools arises from compulsory education policies. According to Rothbard, children who are “dull” and “have little aptitude” should not be forced to even attend school because it is a “criminal offense to their natures.”
Are these the conservative people we should be heeding? Or are these the voices behind A Nation at Risk during the conservative Reagan era that lead the all-out assault on public education and teachers? I think the latter.
In a previous posting, Smarick attempts to distinguish between free market advocates and the true conservative mindset, claiming that free market ideology is only “one strand of conservatism.” I disagree. I find the ideas that undergird free market economics — the supremacy of property ownership and the restriction of government intervention through taxes or regulation — to be an enduring theme throughout conservative thought. Nonetheless, President Ronald Reagan, the icon of conservatism in America, embraced the free market ideas of Milton Friedman wholeheartedly and ushered in the era of laissez faire, free market policies that have governed our public policies across many sectors since the 1980s. Friedman’s tenacity in promoting school vouchers, choice, and their latest iteration — school charters garnered him the title “the father of modern school reform” and his Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice continues to advocate for a free market, conservative approach in education reform.
And what of the conservative notion that change is best when it takes place gradually? Conservative advocates of maintaining the Plessy v. Fergusen “separate but equal” policies certainly embraced that notion when they attacked the Brown v. Board decision in 1954. Southern segregationists found a home among conservatives during their widespread resistance to desegregation of their public schools. As a matter of fact the conservative National Review (William F. Buckley’s publication) published an article in 1958 by Anthony Harrigan lauding the “essential conservatism” of the south. According to Harrigan, “The South … has an essential conservatism …. The original shapers of the Southern tradition believed that progress resulted not from equality of condition, but from fruitful inequalities.”
Let us not forget the terrible price American citizens had to pay while segregationists embraced essential conservatism. A number of Americans were denied their right to vote, beaten, and even murdered.
In the 1950s Milton Friedman arose as a hero to segregationists when he advocated for the use of tax vouchers to send students to segregated private schools. For Friedman, the fact that his idea was being embraced as a way to maintain segregated schools was not really a problem. He believed that “the appropriate activity for those who oppose segregation and racial prejudice is to try to persuade others to their view, if and as they succeed, the mixed schools will grow at the expense of the nonmixed, and a gradual transition will take place.” That sounds very conservative. I suppose Ruby Bridges’ parents should have taken more time to “persuade” angry white segregationists to allow their daughter to attend the all-white William Franz Elementary School before sending her to school. Same with the Little Rock Nine. Friedman persistently referred to public schools as socialist institutions and government monopolies. As a matter of fact he generally didn’t use the term public schools, referring to them instead as “government schools.”
I would, therefore, urge Andy Smarick to think more deeply about the conservative notion of gradual change. We may agree about the current RTTT debacle. However, it is wrong to begin with an assumption that these reform initiatives are those of progressives or liberals. There are no clean hands. When it comes to education reform the apt metaphor may well be “hands across America” as one presidential administration handed off its policies with very little change to the next administration. And the momentum kept growing with each new administration since Reagan, adding layer upon layer of policies. The glue that has held the opposing parties together has been the conservative ideal of the free markets and competition as the arbiter of education policy. And the biggest winners have been those who have financially gained the most from this era of free market education reform — big business and venture capitalists.
I wonder if we removed the profit incentive from education policy how much better our schools could become? Even those involved in the “non-profit” charter school movement seem to be getting quite fat off the backs of America’s school children.
I’ve spent several years examining the impact of free market ideology on education policy — policies that have been embraced by both Democrats and Republicans since the era of “Reaganomics” and “Friedmanomics.” The result is “The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy.” I completed research for this book with one certainty. Until education policy makers disavow themselves of market based reforms and cast the money lenders from the temple of public education, we will not have true reform. Our challenge is, therefore, attempting to disentangle ourselves from the mess that has been created in recent decades and get back to the real work of schools — teaching our children to be informed, compassionate, well educated citizens.
Deborah Duncan Owens, The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, January, 2015).
Milton Friedman, “The Role of Government in Education” in Robert A. Solo (ed.), Economics and the Public Interest (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1955).
Anthony Harrigan, “The South is Different,” National Review, (March 8, 1958).
Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 7th revised edition (Washington D.C.: Regency, 1985).
Albert Jay Nock, The Theory of Education in the United States. (reprinted by the Ludwig von Mises Institute in 2007).
Murray N. Rothbard, Education: Free and Compulsory (reprinted by the Ludwig von Mises Institute in 1999).