Conservatives Take Wrong Turn on Education

For eons it’s been an article of faith among conservatives that public education should be controlled locally and never be subjected to the dictates and values of the federal government. But recently "conservative" Republicans like William Bennett have called for Washington to set curricular standards for every public school in the USA. This Big Government idea is not only horrible, says Cato Institute education-policy analyst Neal McCluskey, but it’s another 180-degree wrong turn from conservatism’s once-solid principles of limited government, free markets and parental choice. I talked to McCluskey about this ominous development on Tuesday.

When Bill Bennett and conservative foundations like the Fordham Foundation call for federal control over public schools, why is that such a big deal?

Neal McCluskey: Well, it’s a big deal because for decades conservatives understood that government was the problem in public schooling and that too many government controls and too little choice were what made American public education stagnant, lifeless and a failure in far too many cases. But they were talking about this when typically the party associated with conservatives, the Republicans, were not in power. Now that the Republicans are in power, they are changing their tune. That’s a real problem because we are losing a lot of the people who used to understand that freedom and competition is the key to good education and they have sort of gone over to the other side. We need as many people as we can who will focus entirely on getting the freedom and competition we need in education to make it good, rather than trying the same old thing over and over again with a different person in charge.

What should conservatives be doing to fix public schools?

McCluskey: What they should be doing, first of all, is not focusing necessarily on fixing public schools but on fixing public schooling.  That’s an important distinction. Public schools are, “How do we fix these buildings we have right now that are run by government and every student goes to them based on where they live?” Public schooling should be, “How do we have a system where the public assures that everybody can get an education, but how that education is obtained is entirely up to parents or students themselves?”

In other words, parents are driving the decision and they can take that public money to whatever school they like and the public is just really making sure that nobody goes without an education. That’s really the key – that conservatives need to get back to explaining that what we want is public schooling. And public schooling is what we had for a long time in the colonial period. Much of American history is schooling driven by parents, with just the public assurance that they would be able to get that schooling, and away from government-controlled, monopoly, special-interest-controlled schooling, which is what you end up getting any time you put big government in charge of education.

You’re basically talking about a bottoms-up, market-driven process of schooling people as opposed to a top-down, government-directed one.

Exactly.  In education we continue to have this Soviet model, where the government must supply the schools and you get to go to the schools the government gives you – and that’s essentially it. Conservatives, who’ve traditionally opposed big government, have to understand how the market works. They talk about the market a lot, but they never seem to really trust it — or they don’t now seem to trust it. They have to get back to saying, “Why shouldn’t our schools run like the computer industry, the automobile industry and all those things we take for granted every day?”

Is there anything going on in the public education sphere that is encouraging or hopeful — I don’t mean charter schools, or cyber schools or home schooling. But is there anything going on that gives any indication that the public school people have learned anything?

McCluskey: I haven’t seen evidence anywhere that they have learned anything. And that’s unfortunate. But any innovation, any improvement in education that I have seen has come through the nontraditional public school sector, which are the charter schools and school choice programs like vouchers and tax credits. Traditional public schools haven’t done anything innovative that I have seen that is very impressive — ever. I haven’t read about anything in decades.

What about the argument that parents can’t be expected to shop for their kids’ educations in a smart way?

McCluskey: It’s a common argument and it’s one that too many people in Washington who think they have all the answers like to trot out, without any evidence to support it. I think the reality is that most parents, if allowed to, will make good, informed decisions for their kids. But it goes beyond that, because even those parents who are not particularly savvy and who don’t know a whole lot about education, and who we think couldn’t make such a decision, wouldn’t even have to if we had a market working. I’ll just use myself as an example: I couldn’t fix my car to save my life. Yet somehow I’m able to get a good car that gets me pretty much anywhere I want to go. I can do that because it only takes having a small percentage of consumers knowing what a good car is to make sure that everyone gets one. When you let the market work, even those who don’t know much about the market will get a good car because the market will weed out anything that’s not a good performer.

Isn’t the education industrial complex too politically, economically and culturally powerful to break down or break up?

McCluskey: This is the problem with trying to change the education system using the system as it currently exists — a government-run, top-down system. It’s because in that sort of system, the groups that have the most power are the groups whose livelihoods depend on maintaining the status quo and therefore who spend all kinds of money and all sorts of political capital maintaining their position.

But the people who need the high standards and the good schools in the current system — the parents — can’t possible counter that because most of them have full-time jobs. They have kids they have to take care of. They have concerns that take up most of their time and most of their money and they can’t constantly be fighting political battles through organized lobbies to try to get what they need out the system and to counter those groups whose livelihoods do come from the status quo, who are going to spend inordinate amounts of cash to make sure that they keep getting the money they want and the power they want and that no one else can get out of the system.

If you could snap your fingers and redesign the public education system the way you’d like, what would it look like?

McCluskey: The ideal system for me would be a system in which, first of all, there’s no federal involvement at all. That is, for one, based on the Constitution. The Constitution gives the federal government all its power and nowhere does it give it any power over education. This is something that conservatives have to remember and drill into their heads, because they used to say it all the time and too many of them don’t now.

But more importantly, I would remake education into a system that is driven by parents and it’s funded through tax credits.  On one level the tax credits would allow anybody who has high enough taxable income to get a credit for whatever they spend on elementary and secondary education. That then leaves those people who don’t earn enough to have a large enough tax bill. For those people, I would have a corporate scholarship program, and those exist in Pennsylvania and Florida right now, where corporations, instead of sending their tax money to the state house could instead send a large amount of it to private scholarship organizations that then give the money to low-income kids.

That way, with that system, everyone would be able to exercise school choice, taking education money to the schools that they want, not to the schools they are given by government, and no taxpayer is coerced to pay for someone to go to a school they might not like. Everybody is voluntarily either taking the money to a scholarship organization or paying it to the school that they desire to go to. I think that is really an ideal system. Nobody has to pay for a school or for someone to go to a school they don’t like and everybody is getting to choose schools and to go to schools that offer the products they want and leave those that don’t. That’s the key to getting good standards and having real accountability, not what too many conservatives have now defaulted to, which is, “Well, now that we have power in Washington, let’s just try and dictate to everybody what they’re going to get out of education.”