Today! GOP Candidates Talk Education

What does it mean to be conservative about education? What ed policy will get voters excited? Today at 8:50 (Eastern Time, USA), you can watch live as a handful of Republican presidential candidates talk education.

The discussion will be hosted by The Seventy-Four. It will include Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, and Scott Walker.

Who is the conservative choice?

Who is the conservative choice?

As Carolyn Phenicie points out, these six candidates have very different interpretations of good ed policy. Jeb Bush supports the Common Core standards; Bobby Jindal has sued the federal government over them. There are some common themes that unite them. All of the candidates, for example, support greater privatization of public schooling. All of them would like to water down the power of teachers’ unions.

As I argued in my recent book, it has never been simple to define what it has meant to be “conservative” about education. It has never been easy for conservative politicians to figure out how to mobilize voters about schools. (If you don’t have time for the whole book, you can get a taste of the argument in this Time op-ed.)

In the early twentieth century, for example, most self-styled conservatives had absolutely no problem with an increased federal role in education. Back then, conservatives hoped the federal government could use its influence to make public schools more traditional, more Protestant.

What points will this year’s candidates make? They will likely emphasize their loathing for federal dictation of local school policy. They will likely point to their credentials as education leaders. Yet none of them will be likely to argue that as president they will not implement any education policy. None of them will make the point that federal officials should not have education policies.

As it has been for the last fifty years, conservative politicians these days are in the tricky position of insisting on a leadership position in education, even though they also insist that education should be in the hands of state and local officials.

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Bush at Liberty: “Seven Thousand Acres of Shared Conviction”

He didn’t have much choice. These days, any front-runner for the Republican Party presidential nomination seems required to make a speech at Liberty University. But when Jeb Bush gave his commencement address at Liberty this week, he did not have to emphasize one of American fundamentalism’s deepest-held convictions. But he did.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, I’m working on a book about the history of schools like Liberty. And among the issues I’m struggling with are the distinctive traditions that set off fundamentalist and evangelical colleges from other religious schools.

Certainly, as Roger Geiger outlined in his definitive new history of American higher ed, in the United States every religious group has scrambled to establish its own colleges and universities. It has become a way for religious groups to confirm their legitimacy and American-ness.

So, for Catholics, and Lutherans, and Methodists, and Nazarenes; for Muslims, and Jews, and Mennonites…every religious group has its own network of schools that train its young people in its distinctive faith traditions as well as in professional skills and the liberal arts.

Unlike most of those other traditions, however, the network of fundamentalist colleges that developed since the 1920s has seen itself not only as a haven from a hostile wider American culture, but more specifically as an enclave of true Americanism. Unlike most other conservative Protestants, even, fundamentalists have a fairly unique proprietary feeling about the US of A.

Back in the day, brainy Catholic kids might have gone to Georgetown or Boston College, either to become priests or just become educated Catholics. And they did so in order to study in an intellectual refuge from the relentless anti-Catholicism that permeated mainstream culture for so long.

Since the 1920s, brainy evangelicals and fundamentalists have gone to Bob Jones or Wheaton or Liberty, either to become pastors or just to become educated evangelicals. But these evangelical schools were not seen as islands set off from a hostile mainstream America. Or, to be more specific, they were seen as islands, but only in the sense that they represented a last resort of true Americanism. Such schools often talked about their need to preserve a slice of the true America.

Since the 1950s, those schools that aligned with the more moderate “evangelical” wing of fundamentalism tended to downplay this tradition. Schools who clung to the “fundamentalist” label—such as Bob Jones, Pensacola Christian College, the late Tennessee Temple University, and Liberty—often doubled down on their sense of usurped Americanism.

When Governor Bush made his Liberty speech, he made the usual paeans to religious freedom and religious liberty. But he also went the extra rhetorical mile to endorse Liberty’s sense of itself as an outpost of true Americanism. As Bush put it,

How strange, in our own time, to hear Christianity spoken of as some sort of backward and oppressive force. Outside these seven thousand acres of shared conviction, it’s a depressing fact that when some people think of Christianity and of Judeo-Christian values, they think of something static, narrow, and outdated. We can take this as unfair criticism, as it typically is, or we can take it as further challenge to show in our lives the most dynamic, inclusive, and joyful message that ever came into the world.

“Seven thousand acres of shared conviction”! A phrase surely calculated to warm the hearts of Liberty’s leaders. The implication, clearly, is that Liberty represents an enclave of purity, a reservation for America’s Moral Majority, which promises to preserve American values until that day that they can be spread back into the rest of America’s 2,432,000,000 acres.

What’s Left? Bernie Sanders on Education

It doesn’t really matter. But it has become a central part of the process nonetheless.

Even though the vast majority of thinking and funding of public schools is still done at the state and local levels, presidential candidates these days spend a good deal of time sharing their plans for fixing America’s schools. On the right, we’ve heard from all the GOP contenders. This week, Forbes Magazine summed up a few of Bernie Sanders’s positions on education. Some of the ideas are predictable, but some are surprising.

...and to my left...

…and to my left…

On the conservative side, candidates have a few hoops to jump through. Whatever their personal beliefs, contenders have to sound at least friendly to creationism. And these days—though as I argued recently this has not always been the case—GOP hopefuls have to denounce furiously any federal role in local schools.

Senator Sanders has a little more wiggle room. As a self-declared socialist representing the Peoples’ Republic of Vermont, Sanders has no real chance of snatching the nomination from front-runner Hillary Clinton. So his campaign can be more about ideas than votes.

What does the Socialist Senator say about schools?

First—no surprise—he has denounced the “privatizing” tendencies of vouchers and charter schools. Also, in February Senator Sanders suggested a federal program to cut college tuition in half. The federal government, Sanders thinks, must stop making profits off of student loans. More radically, Senator Sanders wants to make public universities tuition-free. Beyond higher education, Sanders has pushed for better pre-school options for all. And he has decried the fact that “the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers.”

It all fits. But there are some ideas that are conspicuous by their absence. Unlike other progressive pundits, we don’t hear from Senator Sanders an attack on the dehumanizing standardized tests that have taken over so many public schools. Nor do we see a strident defense of teachers’ unions.

Here in the Great State of New York, we’ve seen how protest candidates in the Democratic Party can win votes by adopting those popular positions. It’s still early days, of course, but we can’t help but wonder why Senator Sanders has not made more noise about these issues.

GOP Politics and the Educational F-Word

What are the education words conservatives can’t say without spitting and gnashing their teeth?

“FEDERAL CONTROL OF EDUCATION”

History News Network has been kind enough to include an essay of mine about the presidential politics of education among conservatives.

Won't say it...

Won’t say it…

Among the leading presidential candidates in the Republican Party, only Jeb Bush will admit that he likes the Common Core.  And even he denies ferociously that he supports more federal “overreach” in local schools.

Why do conservatives so loathe the federal government’s role in education?  It wasn’t always this way, as I argue in the HNN article.  And there are some signs that thoughtful conservatives are returning to their roots as the party of centralized power.

Vouchers: The Path to the White House

How can a conservative candidate get elected in 2016?

According to a recent story in the Weekly Standard, the conservative path to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. may be paved with school reform.

Image Source: Governor Jindal's webpage

Image Source: Governor Jindal’s webpage

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush stood side by side at a Washington press conference to denounce federal interference in conservative school reform efforts.

In Louisiana, that has meant a Department of Justice crackdown on the state’s aggressive voucher program.  The federal government has warned that Louisiana’s voucher system may violate racial desegregation laws.  For a while now, left-leaning pundits have warned that the voucher scheme swipes public school funding and gives it to conservative religious schools.  Diane Ravitch has concluded that Louisiana’s privatization program will drive a stake through the heart of quality public education.

Such criticisms don’t deter Governor Jindal.  He has insisted that the program represents the best educational hope for low-income students in his state.

Michael Warren of The Weekly Standard suggests vouchers may also represent Governor Jindal’s best hope for higher office.  As Warren notes,

the Obama administration’s attempt to thwart the voucher program has also been a gift for Jindal, who may run for president in 2016. Since the DOJ filed its lawsuit on August 18, Jindal has been campaigning loudly and publicly against the suit and, more broadly, for conservative education reform.