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.


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.


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.


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?


Can Conservatives Care about Black People?

Would you take twenty-five million dollars from a conservative donor?

That’s the question posed recently to the United Negro College Fund.  The love-em-or-hate-em Koch brothers gave a $25 million donation, and some voices in the academic community want the UNCF to give the money back.  We have a different question to ask.

The prominent historian Marybeth Gasman argued that the UNCF should give the money back.  [Full disclosure: Professor Gasman and I will both be contributing chapters to an upcoming volume about agnotology and education.]  For anyone who knows the history of African-American higher education, Gasman wrote, this sort of conservative funding raises ominous red flags.

As Gasman has demonstrated, philanthropists have too often exerted control over historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the UNCF.  James Anderson, too, has argued that philanthropists have pushed HBCUs away from liberal-arts education and towards manual training courses.

With that history in mind, Professor Gasman insisted that the Koch money is tainted.  “The Koch brothers,” she wrote,

have a considerable history of supporting efforts to disenfranchise black voters through their backing of the American Legislative Exchange Council. In addition, the Koch brothers have given huge amounts of money to Tea Party candidates who oppose many policies, initiatives, and laws that empower African Americans.

Balderdash, say leading conservative intellectuals.  In the pages of Forbes  Magazine, George Leef argued that the UNCF should be celebrating.  First of all, Leef insisted, the Koch brothers’ anti-big-government activism will help African Americans, not harm them.  And in addition, the money is just money.  Take it, spend it, help people, Leef concluded.

In an interview with Michael Lomax of the UNCF, American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess suggested a similar happy ending.  Lomax told Hess that he hoped to take money from whomever he could.  Too much ideological thinking, Lomax said,

has really poisoned the thinking of some people all across the country. For them, there’s this kind of purity thing that, unless we agree on everything, there is no common ground.  Call me a pragmatist but, if I can agree on something meaningful with folks that I don’t agree with on other things, I’m going to try to work on what we agree on and, hopefully, build a meaningful and productive relationship.

Professor Gasman worried that the Koch brothers will use their gift to have a nefarious influence on the UNCF. Lomax insists it won’t. But in the world of conservative education policy, we’ve seen a different struggle.

As I argue in my upcoming book, conservative intellectuals and activists have argued since the end of World War II that their school policies did not make them racist. As we’ve seen in these pages, conservatives have worked long and hard to overcome the accusation that conservatism is inherently anti-black.

In 1950 Pasadena, for example, progressive superintendent Willard Goslin pushed a new zoning plan that would have desegregated Pasadena’s schools by race. Conservatives reacted furiously and eventually booted Goslin. But their opposition to desegregation, conservatives insisted, did not make them racist. To prove it, many conservatives cited the support of prominent African American leaders. As one conservative activist told a packed school-board meeting, her anti-deseg petition could not possibly be racist, since it was signed by “her Negro, Mexican and Oriental neighbors.”  Plus, this woman told the meeting, she could not be racist, because she had become friends with a “Negro physician” in her neighborhood.

Similarly, in the fight over textbooks in 1974 Kanawha County, West Virginia, conservatives insisted that their position did not make them racist. In that case, new textbooks included provocative passages from writers such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson. White conservatives hated the books, but not because they were racists, they insisted. In their support, conservatives cited prominent African American voices such as George Schuyler.

In all these cases, conservative educational activists trumpeted the support of African American voices to prove that their conservative ideas did not make them racist. In a way, foes of the Koch brothers could argue that this UNCF gift will serve a similar purpose. If folks like Professor Gasman accuse the Koch brothers of racism, the Koch brothers can now call on Michael Lomax and the UNCF to burnish their anti-racist credentials.

Professor Gasman argued that the Koch gift will come with unacceptable strings. But we could also ask this question: Is the UNCF now vouching for the Koch brothers? Is the UNCF willing to back the Koch brothers when they insist that their conservative activism does not make them racist?


Teachers’ Unions: The Root of All Evil

Last week a California judge decided that bad teachers can be fired.  In his decision in Vergara v. California, Judge Rolf M. Treu dealt a severe blow to the power of teachers’ unions.  Not surprisingly, conservative intellectuals rejoiced.  For almost a century, conservative school reformers have insisted that teachers’ unions represent a double-headed threat.  But here’s my question: why do today’s conservatives only focus on one half of their traditional gripe against teachers’ unions?

In Judge Treu’s decision, he argued that ineffective teachers have a negative impact on students.  And since the poorest students suffer most, the judge concluded that the situation was open to judicial remedy.

In the pages of the conservative National Review, writers celebrated the decision.  One “liberal” pundit shared her horror stories of terrible teachers and school principals, protected and made more arrogantly despicable due to their union-backed sinecures.  Andrew Biggs suggested taking the California decision national.  Biggs offered a simple four-word phrase to rejuvenate the nation’s public schools: Fire the Worst Teachers.

Not every conservative intellectual liked the decision.  Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute warned that the judge’s power-grab could spell out a future of terrible decisions by similarly activist judges.

But even Hess did not support the unions’ traditional role as the unpopular defender of teacher-tenure rules.  After all, conservative school reformers have for generations identified unions as the source of all that was rotten in America’s public-education system.

Perhaps most memorably, the late free-market economist Milton Friedman argued that the dead hand of teachers’ unions had strangled public schooling.  As I wrote a few years back in the pages of Teachers College Record, Friedman’s narrative of educational history pivoted on the development of teachers’ unions.  Most teachers, Friedman wrote, were “dull and mediocre and uninspiring.”  Nevertheless, beginning in the 1840s, Friedman believed, those teachers had captured control of America’s educational system.  Instead of working to improve education for all, teachers’ unions only worked for their own “narrow self-interest.”  The driving force of expanded public-education systems in the 1840s, Friedman argued in Free to Choose, was teachers’ selfish desire to

enjoy greater certainty of employment, greater assurance that their salaries would be paid, and a greater degree of control if government rather than parents were the immediate paymaster.

Today’s conservative complaints about the power of teachers’ unions owe a lot to Friedman-esque free-market critiques.  Schools suffer, free-market conservatives argue, when the market for good teaching talent is blocked by sclerotic union rules.  Instead of bringing in the best teachers, unions dictate a self-interested last-in-first-out rule that preserves seniority, no matter how incompetent.

But there is another reason why conservative intellectuals have long battled against the power of teachers’ unions.  Those unions, after all, have resolutely supported left-leaning or even frankly leftist social programs.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this leftist tendency was the tumultuous history of New York’s Teachers Union.  From the 1930s through the 1950s, as Clarence Taylor has described in his great book Reds at the Blackboard, New York’s Teachers Union wrestled with questions of communism, reform, and subversion.  Again and again, the union suffered internal factional disputes, most famously the expulsion of the communist Local 5 faction.  And again and again, the union came under attack for harboring subversive teachers, most famously the purge of hundreds of affiliated teachers in the 1950s.  Throughout its history, though, the famous union supported left-leaning causes.  Internal factional disputes were not left versus right, but rather left versus left.

Even today, teachers’ unions often endure factional disputes on the left.  The militant Badass Teachers Association wants to push the more moderate American Federation of Teachers and the staid National Education Association to take more recognizably leftist positions.

Given all this history, why do conservative these days focus on the free-market angle?  That is, why don’t conservative pundits attack unions as islands of antiquated leftist ideology, instead of just attacking unions as inefficient and self-serving?

One possibility is that conservative school reformers these days take the tried-and-true school reform tactic of taking the politics out of education.  As historian David Tyack argued most memorably in his 1974 book The One Best System, school reformers always insist that their ideas are not about politics, but only about better schooling for all.  As Tyack showed, calls to “take the schools out of politics” never really want to take the politics out of schooling.  But reformers from every political background score more success when they appear to be impartial educators, interested in pedagogy, not ideology.

Is that what’s going on here?  Do today’s conservative intellectuals hope to eliminate the power of leftist teachers’ unions without making it look like a politically motivated hack job?  Do conservative pundits focus on the educational problems of teachers’ unions, instead of focusing on their left-leaning political positions, in order to make it look as if conservatives only want better schools for all?