We’ve All Got It All Wrong

Whether you call yourself a conservative, a progressive, or something else, if you’re like me you’ve probably got it all wrong. As I was reminded in a discussion last night, those of us who try to shape schools usually make a huge mistake—one we could recognize if we just thought about it for half a second.univ of hawaii

Here’s the background: I was happy last night to talk with some graduate students at the University of Hawaii. (No, I didn’t get to go there in real life. I wish. We used cutting-edge interwebs technology to talk.) They had read my book about the history of educational conservatism and they had some great questions, ideas, and experiences to share.

As I argue in the book, it’s difficult to generalize about conservative activists. Just like progressives, conservative thinkers and doers come from a dizzying array of backgrounds and they are motivated by a huge spectrum of ideas and beliefs. But one thing they do share—at least the ones I studied—is an unexamined faith that school shapes society. I hate to quote myself, but this is how I put it in the book:

Educational conservatives have insisted, in short, on two central ideas. First, schools matter. Conservatives, like their progressive foes, have rarely questioned the notion that the schools of today generate the society of tomorrow. Second, because schools matter, their content and structure must be guarded ferociously. Ideas that challenge inherited wisdom must not be crammed down the throats of young, trusting students. And teachers must not abdicate their roles as intellectual and moral authorities. Educational conservatism, in other words, has been the long and vibrant tradition of defending tradition itself in America’s schools. Without understanding this tradition, we will never truly understand either American conservatism or American education.

One idea on which everyone can agree, in other words, is that schools shape society. The reason so many of us spend so much energy on school reform is precisely because we think it matters. For some conservatives in the twentieth century, teaching kids evolution was dangerous because it threatened to take away their moral and religious compass. For others, teaching kids about sex was a bad idea because it tended to unhinge their self-control. And for yet others, teaching kids socialist ideas was obviously terrible because it would lead to the corruption of their morals and of the entire society.

OTR COVER

You can fix schools all you want, but you can’t fix the outcomes…

Last night, the Hawaii students shared stories that helped puncture those school-reform assumptions. One student, for example, reported that he came to the realization that he was conservative in high school. He was guided to that realization by his favorite teacher. At first, I assumed that the teacher was a conservative, too, and inspired the student by reading Hayek and Burke and smoking a pipe. In fact, the student told us, his favorite teacher was a heart-on-her-sleeve liberal. She taught social studies in a progressive way, one that hoped to help students examine their own ideas and decide questions for themselves. In the student’s case, that meant he came to the realization that his ideas were apparently “conservative.” The left-y teacher, in other words, didn’t indoctrinate this student into leftism, but precisely the opposite.

Another Hawaii student told a very different story. She only realized that she was a liberal when she was teaching Sunday school at her church. The goal was to help young people deepen their religious faith, but it had the opposite effect on her. Instead of becoming more religious, teaching Sunday school convinced this student that her church was full of hooey.

What’s the takeaway? Once we hear the stories, it seems pretty obvious. School doesn’t really work the way we sometimes think it will. No matter what our politics, we can’t control the future of our students by teaching them X or Y or by keeping them away from Z or A. Students are not predictable, programmable outputs. They have their own ideas and backgrounds and sometimes our best-laid plans at shaping America’s future will come out in ways we didn’t predict.

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When Did Conservatives Demand Local Control?

I’m no conservative, but I respect several conservative thinkers and writers. We may disagree—sometimes fiercely—but folks such as Rod Dreher, Patrick Deneen, and Mark Bauerlein are always worth reading, IMHO. In education, I put Rick Hess in this category. In a recent piece about localism, though, Hess makes some mistaken claims about the history of educational conservatism. I can’t figure out why.

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The first worry wasn’t desegregation, but communist subversion.

He’s not alone. Back when my book about the history of educational conservatism came out, I did a brief interview with conservative journalist John Miller. He wanted to know about the long history of conservative desire for charter schools. As I told him, there wasn’t one. The charter movement only became a darling of most conservative thinkers at the very tail end of the twentieth century. Before that, only a few lonely free-marketeers embraced Milton Friedman’s charter plan. (I have described this history in a different academic article, if you’re interested.)

Conservatives aren’t the only ones who don’t like to look their history square in the face, of course. Progressives don’t like to be reminded that WE were the racist ones back in the 1920s, as I also describe in The Other School Reformers.

Hess is too smart and too ethical to distort conservative school history in the usual ways. He frankly acknowledges that conservatives turned to localism in order to protect their right to racial segregation. As he and his co-author put it,

After Brown v. Board in 1954, demands for more “rational” and “less political” oversight were joined by a compelling moral claim—that many communities (and even states) could not be trusted to do right by all their students. Thus, the post-Brown era was marked by school reform agendas—in the states and in Washington—that frequently sought to reduce or even eliminate local control. These strategies came from both the right and left, from both legislatures and the courts, and included new directives regarding desegregation, standards, testing, discipline, funding, teacher quality, school interventions, magnet schools, school choice, and more.

In this telling, federal influence after 1954 pushed states and towns to desegregate. Conservatives pushed back, demanding local control in order to preserve segregated schools. In one sense, he’s not wrong. Brown v. Board marked a milestone in conservative thinking about schools and education. But 1954 was not the watershed year. For American conservatives, the big switch came earlier, in the New Deal era.

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A later effort (1963), but wow.

Through the 1920s, leading conservative public figures tended to call for increased federal involvement in local schools. By the 1940s, conservatives recoiled in horror at the notion of federal control.

What happened?

It wasn’t Brown v. Board. Brown v. Board strengthened conservative animosity toward the idea of federal educational leadership a thousandfold. But it did not create that animosity. Starting in the 1920s, conservative thinkers and activists became convinced that the academic leaders of educational thinking had gone to the socialist dogs.

In the 1930s, conservatives mobilized against the “experts” at places such as Teachers College, Columbia University. As one business leader warned an ally in the American Legion in 1939, professors such as Harold Rugg and George Counts

have been weaning [sic] over to their side a large and increasing population of educational authorities. This ties in with the whole progressive-education movement, which is another thing which some of old-fashioned believers in mental discipline believe is helping to weaken the moral strength and self-reliance of our youth.  That may not come under the heading of Americanism or un-Americanism, but it is a closely related consideration because the progressive educators and the spreaders of radical un-American doctrines are to a large degree the same people and they mix their two products together and wrap them up in one package.

For this patriotic conservative, the leading educational experts could no longer be trusted.

By the 1940s, it had become standard thinking among conservatives—all sorts of conservatives—that federal control meant leftist control. They warned one another that “they” were after your children. For decades, they investigated textbooks for subversive squirrels and other communist rats.

The trend was so powerful that organizations such as the National Association for Education tried to fight back. Federal aid to education, they told anyone who would listen, was nothing but a better way to fund local schools.

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NAE: Don’t hate me cuz I’m federal… (c. 1950)

Conservatives didn’t buy it.

By the time SCOTUS ruled in favor of school desegregation, conservative thinkers and activists had long distrusted the influence of the federal government. They had long since turned to the idea of local control as the only way to protect decent education.

To this reporter, it seems today’s conservatives would want to trumpet this version of conservative educational history, not ignore it. I can’t help but wonder: Why don’t they?

Winning the Culture Wars—Arizona Style

Forget a long march through the institutions. Conservatives in Arizona are trying a new tactic to win the campus culture wars. Will this new style of legislative campus coup achieve what generations of conservative intellectuals haven’t been able to pull off?

According to the New York Times, conservative lawmakers in Arizona—fueled by bags of cash—have foisted two “Freedom School” programs onto the party campus of Arizona State. Students study the traditional Western canon–Aristotle, Madison, Adam Smith—unfiltered by recent trends in academic thinking.

ArizonaState

Home to Freedom Schools and beer bongs…

The goal, as one lawmaker told the NYT, was to fix the warped intellectual culture of college life. Students are supposed to hear the powerful arguments for free markets and the superiority of Western culture. As Representative Jay Lawrence put it,

There is too much revisionism being taught in universities today. . . . It’s a big deal to those of us who feel very strongly about a more conservative education.

The NYT article doesn’t go into it, but this style of legislative curriculum-making has been popular lately among conservative politicians. In Colorado, SAGLRROILYBYGTH will recall, pressure from the Capitol forced a new chair of conservative thought onto Boulder’s campus. In Wisconsin, lawmakers foisted a campus rule giving conservative students the right to appeal any slight to their conservative ideals.

To this reporter, these attempts to legislate conservative ideas onto left-leaning campuses represent a new strategy.

For about a century now, of course, conservative intellectuals and academics have fretted about the state of higher education. One particular group of religious conservatives—as I recount in my new book about evangelical higher education—threw in the towel and opened their own wildly successful conservative colleges.

More secular conservatives have tried a variety of tactics. Beginning in the 1940s, conservative intellectuals have founded alternative student groups, journals, and newspapers, as George Nash described so powerfully in his history of conservative intellectual life.

Yet in spite of generations of dedicated conservative academic activism, mainstream college campuses still skew left. As Neil Gross has argued, this is more due to self-selecting than to any vast left-wing conspiracy.

Yet it still rankles conservatives. Will the new strategy make mainstream secular campuses more conservative?

William Jennings Bryan dreamed it in 1922.

Frank Chodorov salivated about it in 1953.

Until now, though, conservative intellectuals haven’t had the big-budget clout that they’ve needed to set up campus programs. Will Arizona State’s new “Freedom Schools” herald a new era in secular conservative higher education?

I doubt it. The programs need to offer the kinds of things that colleges have always had to offer—professional certifications, career opportunities, and so on. My guess is that the funding will peter out and students will return to traditional majors and academic programs.

HT: HD

Required Reading: Public vs. Private

[Editor’s Note: We are happy to include an interview with Robert Gross about his new book Public vs. Private. In his book, Dr. Gross explores questions near and dear to the hearts of SAGLRROILYBYGTH: Private schools, public schools, religion, government, and the politics of education. His new book examines the early history of these questions and we’re delighted Dr. Gross has agreed to share some of his thoughts with us.]

1.) In the introduction to Public vs Private, you write,

American conceptions of public and private . . . are impossible to fully understand without placing education at the center of the regulatory state.

Could you please expand on that idea a little? Why is it so important to understand educational history in this area if we want to understand American concepts of “public” and “private?”

There are three main reasons that I think education needs to be placed at the center of our understanding of the history of the regulatory state. The first is simply that, by the early twentieth century, there was perhaps no other sphere of American life that was more heavily regulated. When focusing exclusively on private schools you see the scope of American market regulation in a way that is more hidden in other areas. States regulated almost the entirety of the private school sector: what classes they could teach, what credentials their teachers needed, what language they could speak in the classroom, and so forth. Private schools had to open their doors to inspectors and turn over their attendance rosters. And of course the state reached into the homes of private school parents—paying visits to them if their child was truant or not assigned to a schools.

public v private

Get your copy today.

The second way that education matters to understanding American government power is that court cases about public regulation of private schools have served as major precedents to define the broader scope of market regulation over business. I discuss a range of major supreme court cases in the book—from Dartmouth College v. Woodward to Berea College v. Kentucky to Pierce v. Society of Sisters—that centered on state regulation of private schools, but that also had a tremendous impact on how state governments could regulate to private enterprise more generally. Private schools have thus frequently been the sites over our most important legal contestations over the role of state power.

Finally, I was struck when researching and writing the book how much state officials relied on private schools to accomplish a crucial public goal: of providing mass education at no cost to taxpayers. I don’t think we can understand American government without seeing how it often uses private corporations to achieve public ends—we see that in health care, of course, but it was very much there in the 19th century with schooling.

2.) In the era you focus on in Public vs. Private, religion and religious arguments played a huge role in debates about funding for schools. How were those earlier debates different from today’s fights about religion in public schools? How were they similar?

Religious arguments were indeed used to prevent the vast majority of (religious) private schools from receiving direct state funding. But we have to remember that Catholic school systems, in particular, benefited immensely from a range of financial subsidies, especially property tax exemptions. While this is not something I explicitly write about in the book, my sense is that religious arguments historically have been less successful in obtaining funds than broader, more secular claims from religious schools about the “quasi-public” nature of their work. For example, in the 19th century legislatures and courts allowed Catholic parochial schools to have property-tax exemptions not solely (or even chiefly) because they were religious institutions, but rather because they served an important “public” purpose of educating masses of children. You see a somewhat similar dynamic in the middle of the 20th century over whether private schools that engage in various forms of discrimination can maintain their tax-exempt status. Courts ruled that private schools excluding African Americans, for example, were violating an important area of public policy, and so had no constitutional protections, nor claims to a tax deduction, in doing so. In the Hobby Lobby era we may see a shift in this general trend, of course.

3.) At the heart of the story you tell is an idea that seems foreign to a lot of people today. Can you explain the ways some leading 19th-century school reformers considered all private education to be a threat? Why did they think private schools were dangerous to American liberty?

Horace Mann and other public school reformers wrote extensively in the middle of the nineteenth century about how public school systems not only would eliminate private schooling but should do so. Public schools, they argued, were created precisely to destroy the balkanized provision of education that had existed beforehand—where Americans attended schools on the basis of their religious denomination, their class, or their ethnic heritage. Private schools thus represented an inherent challenge to the public school’s ability to be the assimilationist institution their founders envisioned. And because the vast majority of private schools by the late nineteenth century were run by Catholic organizations and, often, immigrant Catholics, they became enmeshed in deeper American traditions of anti-Catholicism and nativism.

There were a variety of other arguments for why private schools were seen as threatening that I think are worth mentioning as well. Many state public school leaders used economic arguments to suggest that private schools were inefficient, that schooling itself was a “natural monopoly” best operated by the government, without private competition—similar to how the government was increasingly providing other public utilities like water, gas, rail transportation, and so forth.

4.) What do you wish Betsy Devos knew about the history of the line between public and private schools?

I cannot speak to what Secretary Devos knows or does not know, but there is an important lesson in this book that I would want any public official to understand. The first is that we spend too much time in our debates about educational policy over whether one “supports” charter schools, voucher programs, school choice, or doesn’t support these initiatives. I think we would be better off if we talked about school choice in less Manichean terms, and instead posed the question that the communities in Public vs. Private had to contend with: “If we have school choice, how do we want to regulate it?” To what standards should we hold schools that receive public subsidies but are privately governed? How should we hold them accountable? Public regulation, as I argue in the book, is what allowed us to have robust school choice in the first place a century ago, and yet too often we ignore it in our contemporary debates.

Author bio: Robert N. Gross is a history teacher and assistant academic dean at Sidwell Friends School. He holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and writes about the social and educational history of the United States.

Betsy Devos: Progressive Champion?

We could be forgiven for being confused. Ed Secretary Betsy Devos just delivered a rousing endorsement of progressive ideas about schooling and education. What gives?

SAGLRROILYBYGTH might be sick of all this—maybe it’s just too obvious even to mention. But since my years wrestling with the history of educational conservatism (you can read all about it here), I can’t help but obsess over the never-clear meanings of “progressivism” and “conservatism” when it comes to schools.

Betsy-Devoe

I hart progressive ed…or do I?

And now arch-conservative Queen Betsy just threw a Grand-Rapids-size rhetorical wrench into the culture-war works. If she’s talking this way, is there any meaningful way to differentiate the two sides? I think there is.

Here’s what we know: Secretary Devos delivered a prepared talk at the free-markety American Enterprise Institute. In her speech, she harped on progressive themes. Consider the following examples:

  • Progressives say: High-stakes testing is bad.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

As states and districts scrambled to avoid the law’s sanctions and maintain their federal funding, some resorted to focusing specifically on math and reading at the expense of other subjects. Others simply inflated scores or lowered standards.

  • Progressives say: Teachers have been disempowered.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

we must rethink school.

  • Progressives say: Factory schooling is needlessly rigid and dehumanizing, yet it persists.

QQB:

Think of your own experience: sit down; don’t talk; eyes front. Wait for the bell. Walk to the next class. Repeat. Students were trained for the assembly line then, and they still are today.

  • Progressives say: Schooling should focus on the needs and experiences of every individual child.

QQB:

That means learning can, should, and will look different for each unique child. And we should celebrate that, not fear it! . . .

Our children deserve better than the 19th century assembly-line approach. They deserve learning environments that are agile, relevant, exciting. Every student deserves a customized, self-paced, and challenging life-long learning journey. Schools should be open to all students – no matter where they’re growing up or how much their parents make.

  • Progressives say: School must help make society more equitable. More resources must be dedicated to schooling for low-income Americans and students from minority groups.

QQB:

That means no more discrimination based upon zip code or socio-economic status. All means all….

We should hope – no, we should commit – that we as a country will not rest until every single child has equal access to the quality education they deserve.

What are we to make of all this intensely progressive-sounding rhetoric?

Some pundits pooh-pooh it. ILYBYGTH’s favorite progressive ed writer offers a perfect, pointed put-down: “poison mushrooms look edible.

It is not difficult, after all, to see how Secretary Devos’s endgame is different from that of most progressives. Unlike progressives, Queen Betsy’s final goal is an old conservative favorite, namely, the reduction of federal influence in public schooling. If Devos mouths progressive phrases, she also always returns to the same ultimate desire.

Consider these lines:

QQB:

  • federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped….

  • The lesson is in the false premise: that Washington knows what’s best for educators, parents and students….

  • The lessons of history should force us to admit that federal action has its limits.

In the end, then, what we’re seeing here is the same old, same old. All sides in our hundred-years culture war have shifted tactics from time to time, while generally keeping the same long-term strategies.  As I argue in my book (and if you’re really lazy you can read a brief version of this in my short essay at Time), for example, in the 1920s, it was conservatives who pushed hard for an increased federal presence in local schools. Why? Because they thought it would force greater Americanization of immigrants and pinkos.

Devos’s canny adoption of progressive rhetoric is another example of this culture-war scheme. All sides tend to use whatever language best helps them achieve their long-term goals. They We tend to fight for any short-term goal that promises to bring them us closer to their our ultimate aims.

For Devos and her allies, the big picture is more religion, more privatization, and more tradition in public schools. Right now, they apparently think local school districts are the most likely governments to help achieve those aims. If bashing “factory models” and “inequality” will help achieve the ultimate goals, so be it.

Let My Children Go

Even the smartest conservatives don’t get it. There’s a big win for conservatives buried in the Senate’s tax plan. If it goes through, though, it will not prove the strength of conservative ideas, but rather the desperate strait they are in.

Before we dig into that, let me back up a little bit and tell a story. When my book about the history of educational conservatism came out, I did an interview with National Review’s John Miller. He wanted to know how twentieth-century conservatives had pushed for charters and vouchers.

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Things are not always what they seem…

The problem was…they hadn’t. As I have argued elsewhere, when Milton Friedman first proposed charter schools in the 1950s, no one listened. The conservative push for charters and vouchers only gained real steam at the very tail end of the century.

By and large, conservatives didn’t want to escape from public schools in the twentieth century. Why not? It’s obvious: They still hoped to control them.

There were exceptions. After Brown v. Board in 1954, whites in the South massively resisted by privatizing public schools. And yes, the evangelical exodus from public schools took off in the 1970s. Then the second-stage flight from fundamentalist schools to fundamentalist homeschools began in the 1990s.

In the big picture, though, conservatives generally considered public schools their schools throughout the twentieth century. In the Reagan era, conservative intellectuals who cared about schools—most notably William J. Bennett—didn’t want to help conservative parents escape from public schools. Rather, Bennett thought the public schools themselves could be nudged in conservative directions. As we’ve seen lately, though, there’s a huge divide between today’s conservative thinking about public schools and Bennett’s. Most obviously, Bennett’s conservative dream for common state standards met with virulent conservative opposition.

What does any of this have to do with the Senate tax bill? The Senate version contains a clever sweetener for conservatives who want to remove their children from public schools. As reported in Quartz, their proposed tax bill will extend the use of 529 plans to K12 education. In the past, those programs allowed parents to squirrel money away for their children’s college expenses. Any earnings weren’t taxed, as long as the money was spent on tuition.

The new tax bill allows parents to do the same thing with private and charter schools. In effect, the new bill is a modest tax break for conservatives who want to keep their children out of the hands of the public schools.

I should add the usual clarification: SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I’ll say it again. I am no conservative myself. I am deeply concerned about the two terrible tax bills currently under debate. The push to reduce and reroute funding for public education is a cruel and shortsighted effort. IMHO.

As a historian, though, I can’t help but notice that this is yet another example of the ways conservative dreams have deflated in the past century. In the 1920s, as I argued in my book about educational conservatism, religious conservatives hoped for nothing less than to legislate the theocratic control of public education.

These days, as this tax plan demonstrates, conservatives no longer hope to push public schools in conservative directions. Rather, conservative strategy consists of sneaking in tax breaks and incentives for parents who are trying to flee.

Why Do We Want our Schools to Fail?

The numbers are in, and they are good. So why aren’t we celebrating?

Here’s the story: For the past two years, graduation rates have continued to climb for Washington DC schools. And here’s the dilemma: Why don’t we hear more about our continuing love for and satisfaction with our public schools?

Most of us like our local public schools. As Gallup polls have showed over and over again, public perception of public schools is hugely skewed. Large majorities of respondents with kids in public schools are very happy with those schools. But majorities also say that public schools in general are in terrible shape.

gallup people like their local schools

We love our schools…except we don’t.

In our nation’s capital, the news has been good for the last couple of years. In 2016, new programs and policies led to increased graduation rates. That trend has continued this year.

So why don’t we see more headlines about the improving state of public education? Why don’t we hear more about the fact that most parents like their local public schools?

I have a hunch that won’t surprise SAGLRROILYBYGTH. When it comes to our bitter educational culture wars, both sides have an interest in promoting bad news.

Progressive types like me worry that schools for low-income and minority students have always suffered from a lack of funding and attention. When we look at the headlines from DC, it’s easy to a huge lurking BUT. Yes, graduation rates are improving and hitting all-time highs, but they still reflect the cruel inequities of our schools and society. As WaPo notes,

In D.C. Public Schools, black and Latino students also saw a boost in graduation rates — to 72 percent and 71 percent, respectively — but they still lag behind their white classmates by more than 10 points.

Plus, the improvements in graduation rates still vary tremendously by school. At selective high schools—schools that non-coincidentally educate a richer, whiter population—more students graduate on time. The numbers are much worse for neighborhood schools.

DC schools are good

Good news travels slow.

The takeaway? For progressive pundits, saying the news is good feels like a betrayal of all the students and families who still aren’t getting a fair shake.

Conservative education pundits don’t agree with that progressive argument, but they also tend to pooh-pooh any sorts of optimism. For many conservatives, the news from DC is still bleak. Public school systems, some conservatives think, are still throttled by sclerotic union-dominated bureaucracies. They don’t really teach kids. For proof, they can point to other parts of WaPo’s reporting:

At H.D. Woodson High School, for example, 76 percent of its students graduated on time, yet just 1 percent met math standards on national standardized tests linked to the Common Core academic standards. Just 4 percent met reading standards.

Shuttling a bunch of under-educated students across the graduation stage, conservatives might argue, doesn’t mean the schools are really doing a decent job of training students for jobs and passing along the big ideas of our culture. All it means is that union-ruled pencil-pushers are inflating their numbers. What public schools really need, conservatives might say, is an authentic shake up, a thorough-going privatization with charters and vouchers.

In every case, pundits tend to prefer bad news. It’s hard to fundraise when you tell people things are fine and getting better.

When Should We Punch Nazis?

If you only read the headlines, you could be forgiven for thinking that large majorities of Americans oppose free speech. With Trump tweeting against NFL protests and college students blocking offensively conservative speakers, we might think most Americans agreed that free speech was a dangerous thing. According to new survey data, though, that’s not the case. In The Atlantic recently, Conor Friedersdorf reviewed the survey findings and found some surprising results. For one thing, most Americans want to let even the most offensive speakers have their say.

nazi-flag-charlottesville-protest-rd-mem-170814_12x5_992

Punch him? Or protect him?

Should an executive be fired for harboring racist ideas? A majority (53%) said no. Even a slim majority (51%) of African Americans said no.

Should Nazis be violently blocked from expressing their hateful views? Large majorities of minorities said no. Eighty percent of Latinos and almost three-quarters of African Americans wanted to let Nazis speak their piece.

What about on campus? It seems that large majorities of respondents agree that some forms of speech deserve to be blocked. If someone calls for violence, for example, 81% of respondents think their speech should not be protected. Saying the Holocaust never happened? 57% of people think such ideas should be blocked. “Outing” illegal immigrants on campus? 65% said no.

If someone pulls a James Damore, though, 60% of people think his speech should be protected. And small minorities even want to protect other sorts of offensive speech, including accusations that all Christians are “brainwashed” (51%) or even that some racial minorities have lower IQs (52%).

It seems as if there is a lot more agreement about free speech than one might think. Americans in general often don’t know the rules—for example, significant numbers of respondents thought it was already illegal to make racist comments. Overall, however, Americans seem to agree that most speech should be protected, even offensive and possible dangerous speech. If it becomes TOO dangerous, however, we agree it must be stopped. We just don’t agree on where or how to draw that line.

Always Look for the Union Label

It’s back. The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear another teacher-union case. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, the conservative sport of teacher-union-bashing has a long history. The current case will likely redefine the landscape of school unionism.

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Commies, unions, and teachers, c. 1938

As I explored in my book about educational conservatism, beginning in the 1930s conservative activists attacked teachers’ unions as dangerous fronts for communist subversion. Conservative patriotic groups exposed the connection of unions to leftist academics such as Harold Rugg. They pushed successfully for loyalty laws to sniff out subversive teachers.

In cities like New York, during the 1940s and 1950s, such union-bashing achieved great political success. Fueled by the testimony of former-communist-turned-witness Bella Dodd, the New York City School Board declared war on communist-affiliated teachers’ unions.

In her 1954 book School of Darkness, Dodd explained that communists actively sought influence—secret influence—in teachers’ unions. They fought for innocuous-sounding perks such as teacher tenure. They screened their subversion, Dodd claimed, by using intentionally misleading labels such as the “Friends of the Free Public Schools.”

In reality, Dodd warned, the Communist Party

establishes such authority over its members that it can swing their emotions now for and now against the same person or issue.

Teachers might be well-meaning folks, Dodd wrote, but at best they served as dupes for mind-controlling communist spies and sneaks. Such warnings carried great political weight. As historian Clarence Taylor has pointed out, by 1955 239 teachers and board personnel had been forced out of New York City schools, accused of subversion.

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From Hearst’s New York Journal-American, July 7, 1948.

No one these days is going to stand in front of SCOTUS and accuse teacher unions of communist subversion. The issue is still one of left-leaning political influence, though. The most recent case before this one, Friedrichs v. California, hoped to give teachers freedom to refuse to pay union dues. In many states, even if they don’t join the union, teachers have to pay a portion of the union’s dues, since the union bargains collectively for all teachers.

Justice Scalia’s death forced that case into a 4-4 deadlock.

Plaintiffs in the new case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, hope the new court will give them a decisive win. The plaintiffs are hoping to be allowed to opt out, since, as Rebecca Friedrichs argued in the previous case, union support is “quintessentially political.” Forcing teachers or other workers to pay for political activism, plaintiffs insist, violates their rights.

With Neil Gorsuch filling Justice Scalia’s seat, it’s likely they’ll win. No one’s saying “communist subversion” anymore, but the long legacy of conservative anxiety about teachers’ unions remains politically potent.

Will the Real Educational Conservative Please Stand Up?

No one can say Michael Petrilli doesn’t understand educational conservatism. As head of the free-marketeer Fordham Institute Petrilli has long championed aggressive conservative activism in schools and educational bureaucracies. In a recent piece at National Affairs, though, Petrilli tries once again to impose an ill-fitting definition of “conservatism” onto America’s educational landscape. This strategic attempt at a flattering self-image for conservatives might help conservatives sleep at night, but it doesn’t fairly depict historical realities.

school choice march

Is this conservative?

This isn’t the first time Petrilli has tried and failed to convince conservatives of what they should think. A few years back, when then-new Common Core State Standards reared their heads, Petrilli struggled to convince conservatives that the Common Core was conservative. He failed then and he’ll likely fail in his current attempt as well.

This time around, Petrilli is hoping to impose an image of educational conservatism as split between “accountability-plus-choice” and mere “choice.” All conservatives, Petrilli writes, make school choice a “paramount objective.” “Conservatives believe,” according to Petrilli,

that parents should be able to choose schools for their children that match their educational priorities and moral values. This principle stems from our deep respect for the family as the building block of a free society.

The split, Petrilli writes, is between conservatives who are happy with expanding choice and conservatives who also want to force traditional public schools to improve. Smart conservatives should want both, Petrilli thinks. As he puts it,

If we care about economic growth, upward mobility, and strong families, we should make improving America’s educational outcomes a priority. Education is both a private good and a public good, and a society has a legitimate interest in the education of its next generation — the more so when public dollars pay for it.

In short, Petrilli is hoping to convince conservatives that they should work to improve public schooling for all. He wants conservatives to see themselves as the true guardians of American values and prospects, the side of the future.

If we could all agree on improving public schools for everyone, we could likely skip much of our culture-war shouting and have drinks together on the patio. The problem is that Petrilli’s flattering definition of educational conservatism doesn’t match reality.

For example, Petrilli wants to convince his fellow conservatives that they have always been on the side of social justice for the least powerful members of American society. He writes,

Conservatives view upward mobility as a key objective of social policy, and want to empower poor families to choose schools that can catapult their children into the middle class.

Now, I’m happy to grant that Mr. Petrilli himself truly values such things, but it is more than a stretch to say that such lofty social goals have ever been a primary motivating factor for conservative educational activists. As I argue in detail in my book about educational conservatism in the twentieth century, the primary goals of conservatives have been starkly different.

From Grace Brosseau of the Daughters of the American Revolution to Norma Gabler of Longview, Texas; from Homer Chaillaux of the American Legion to Max Rafferty of California’s State Department of Education; from Bertie Forbes to Alice Moore…conservatives have wanted a bunch of different things out of schools, but elevating the economic prospects of “poor families” has never been their primary motivation.

What have they focused on? I hate to quote myself, but here’s how I put it in the 2015 book:

Educational conservatives have insisted, in short, on two central ideas. First, schools matter. Conservatives, like their progressive foes, have rarely questioned the notion that the schools of today generate the society of tomorrow. Second, because schools matter, their content and structure must be guarded ferociously. Ideas that challenge inherited wisdom must not be crammed down the throats of young, trusting students. And teachers must not abdicate their roles as intellectual and moral authorities. Educational conservatism, in other words, has been the long and vibrant tradition of defending tradition itself in America’s schools.

Of course, Mr. Petrilli is happy to offer any definition he wants for conservatism and his fans are welcome to agree with him. The rest of us, though, should understand that educational conservatism has been mostly about protecting kids from progressive trends in school and society.

And that leads us to Petrilli’s second big goof. Much as he might dislike it, school “choice” has never been anything but a convenient tactic for conservatives. Most conservatives have been decidedly blah about the notion of school choice unless that choice seemed like the best way to achieve their real goals of insulating their kids.

If we need proof, we don’t need to look any further than the mottled history of the idea of school choice itself. When Nobel laureate Milton Friedman proposed the notion of charter schools back in 1950, it met with a profound fizzle. Conservatives back then—everyone back then—mostly ignored the idea, as Friedman himself admitted.

It took nearly fifty years for conservative activists to embrace school choice as their number-one go-to plan for saving their kids from America’s schools. And even then, notions of school choice often take pride of place only in the wonky visions of brainy conservatives like Petrilli himself. Many more conservatives these days look instead to their traditional havens of private schools and the exciting new world of homeschooling.

Looked at one way, Mr. Petrilli might be right. The world of educational conservative activism might really be split in two. The sides, however, aren’t the ones Petrilli imagines. Instead of a split between conservatives who are happy with expanding charter schools and conservatives who also want to improve public schools for all, it might really just be a split between idealistic conservative reformers like Petrilli and almost all the rest of the conservatives out there.