Do Conservatives Want the Government to Tell Americans What to Do?

Preschool or Parents?

That’s the question education pundits from the Heritage Foundation have been asking lately.  To a non-conservative outsider like me, this question raises key questions about the goals of conservative education policy.  It seems as if Heritage Foundation writers want both a less intrusive government and a more intrusive government.

Don’t get me wrong.  I understand that there are different sorts of conservatives, all of whom may have very different visions of the good society, good education, and the proper role of government.  I’ve read the work of historians such as George Nash who have chronicled the post-World War II tensions between libertarians and social conservatives.  But in this case, it seems as if one conservative organization—a small-government conservative organization—is calling for a big-government solution to education dilemmas.

Here is the recent confounding case: In light of President Obama’s recent call for universal, government-funded preschool, Heritage writers have renewed their push for a different vision.

Lindsey Burke and Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation insist that government-funded schooling is not the effective or ethical way to improve school achievement.  The obvious answer, Burke and Sheffield write, is to improve families.

They cite research to prove that programs such as Head Start have not been effective.[1]

They also note studies that tie school achievement to stable family structures.  As Burke and Sheffield argue,

 “A stable family, with married parents, provides the best foundation for a child’s academic success. Children raised in intact families are more likely to graduate from high school and more likely to attend and complete college than their peers raised in single-parent or blended families[30] They also score higher on reading and math, and exhibit fewer behavioral problems in school[31] A stable family also prevents a variety of other risk factors that would derail a child’s future success[32]

“However, over 40 percent of children are born outside marriage in America today. These figures are much higher among minorities: 72 percent among African Americans and 53 percent among Hispanics, while 29 percent among whites. Unwed childbearing is the greatest driver of child poverty today. Children in single-parent families are nearly six times as likely to be poor compared to their peers born in married-parent homes[33] Additionally, children in non-intact families have poorer academic performance and are at greater risk for dropping out of school, becoming antisocial and delinquent, and parenting a child outside marriage. These outcomes persist even after controlling for income.34” [N.b., there was no link in original for note 34. It referred readers to the same source as note 33.]

In this excerpt, Burke and Sheffield refer to three earlier Heritage-Foundation research articles: see here, here, and here.  I followed up on those sources, and found that the research came largely from peer-reviewed academic journals such as Journal of Marriage & Family and Social Forces.  (Without a library membership, it can be difficult to access these sources.  However, most public libraries have an EBSCO-or-similar database subscription that will allow readers access to these small-circulation academic journals.)

One conclusion that could be drawn from this is that the government needs to encourage families to stay together.  The public-policy goal would be obvious: if intact families improve school performance, then the government has a compelling interest in promoting stable families.

Burke and Sheffield avoid that conclusion.  Instead, they suggest that government should eliminate or reform Head Start, stop mandating government preschool, and reform existing preschool programs before expanding into new ones.

But other Heritage voices have taken a different approach.  Robert Rector, in 2012 a Senior Research Fellow in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation, argued—in a study cited by Burke and Sheffield—that government should indeed engage in what Rector called a

broad campaign of public education in low-income areas. This campaign should be similar in scope to current efforts to convince youth of the importance of staying in school or to inform the public about the health risks of smoking. While the costs of such an effort would be small, its impact could be considerable.”

Rector also suggests concrete policy suggestions to strengthen families, such as increasing the tax benefits to married couples with children.

I honestly don’t mean to be snarky when I ask this next question; I am truly confused.  Do small-government conservatives such as Heritage’s Robert Rector really want the government to tell people how to regulate their intimate lives?

Heritage’s Derrick Morgan offered what seems to me an awkward patch of these conflicting sentiments a few months ago.  Small government was the answer, Morgan wrote.  But smaller government must also promote “traditional values” as part of its goal to shrink its own purview.

When it comes to education policy, this just doesn’t add up.  Small-government goals of privatized education, smaller government-funded programs, and fewer government education standards seem consistent.  Even if I don’t agree with them, I can see their logic.  But I don’t understand how Heritage’s conservative thinkers connect these goals with a simultaneous government intrusion into the most private, intimate decisions Americans make.

Hostile critics, I think, would assume that Heritage wants to impose government mandates on poor and powerless Americans, while allowing richer and more powerful citizens to enjoy freedom from government interference.  That seems a little simplistic, especially for the sophisticated thinkers preferred by the Heritage Foundation.

But is it true?  Does the Heritage Foundation suffer from—at best—confused ideology about education?  Or, at worst, is Heritage cynically promoting intrusive government for the poor, and small government for the rich?



[1] Here I think Burke and Sheffield need to be more careful.  The reference they cite was actually to a 2010 study, one that reports significant positive effects of 3- and 4-year-old Head Start problems.  But from the text of their article, I gather the authors meant to reference a more recent 2012 follow-up, in which few long-term differences were found between children who attended Head Start and those who did not.

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