How Conservatives Can Lead on K-12

By Frederick M. Hess via The Hill

America’s schools face unprecedented challenges. Massive learning loss followed a decade of academic stagnation. Parents say they want more options and schools are scrambling to find staff. There’s a lot of work to be done.

Yet, when it comes to K–12 schooling, conservatives have been far better at explaining what we oppose than what we favor. Indeed, it can seem like the list of what we’re for can begin and end with “school choice.” That’s a good start, but it’s not enough — for families, communities, or conservatives hoping to reassure voters they’re more focused on practical solutions than MAGA performance art.

The irony is that the right is well-positioned to lead on education. The left’s intimate ties with unions, public bureaucracies, and higher education have turned it into the apologist and paymaster for the education establishment. The right, meanwhile, is free to reimagine institutions and arrangements in ways the left is not.

Moreover, as the left has found itself defending woke excesses, conservatives are put in the position to defend broadly shared values — speaking up for all those who don’t think America was founded as a “slavocracy,” who don’t think personal responsibility is a legacy of “white supremacy culture,” or who reject schemes to cut parents out of sensitive conversations around students’ gender identity.

In short, a commitment to educational excellence and core values should proceed hand-in-hand, precisely because those who’d use schools to promote ideological agendas are a threat to rigorous learning and respectful discourse.

How to do that?

Well, there’s a lot to do, but here are four places conservatives should start — recently outlined in a new volume of conservative policies from the American Enterprise Institute, “American Renewal”  — in addition to school choice.

Promote transparency and accountability

Choice empowers parents. So does information.

Parents need more visibility into how schools are doing.

During the pandemic, for instance, state assessments proved invaluable in showing the devastating consequences of school closures. Maintaining and improving state assessments for reading and math are essential places to start. But transparency regarding academic outcomes is only the beginning.

Another crucial kind of transparency is curricular transparency, which enables parents to see what’s being taught. Today, it can be remarkably difficult for a parent to find out, with parental requests for information too often met by vague or misleading “frameworks,” bureaucratic resistance, onerous record request fees, or even lawsuits filed by school districts or teacher unions.

States should ensure that parents can access curricula at the beginning of the school year, before they enroll their children, an approach which also promises to minimize clashes during the school year.

Embrace excellence

If we’re serious about combating learning loss, schools need to get serious about instruction.

Schools need to embrace the science of reading and ditch the half-baked foolishness that often masquerades as reading instruction. In an era of ubiquitous remote learning, every qualified high school student should have access to a full suite of Advanced Placement offerings.

It’s especially challenging to attract teachers equipped to teach science, math, or computing — largely because they have exceptionally lucrative nonteaching opportunities; respect for labor force realities would suggest altering salary schedules accordingly.

State and school system leaders should prioritize expanding the International Baccalaureate program, K–8 gifted offerings, and high-caliber opportunities in areas such as robotics and music — and incorporate information on local offerings, the number of participating students, and the relevant outcomes into state reporting systems.

Get serious about career and technical education (CTE)

Apprenticeship and career and technical education programs can engage students and expose them to exciting professional opportunities. Dual-enrollment options allow high school students to enroll in postsecondary courses — either at a local campus or remotely — to accrue college credits, reduce the cost of a degree, and explore intellectual challenges beyond those available on a high school campus.

State and federal officials can emphasize the importance of CTE and help remove bureaucratic and logistical impediments that otherwise get in the way. One promising model is Louisiana’s “Fast Forward” program, featuring fast-track professional certifications created by partnerships between school systems, business, and community college.

Teacher pay and professionalism

Everybody thinks teachers should earn more. After all, after-inflation teacher pay hasn’t budged for a half-century — even as real per-pupil spending has more than tripled.

That’s because schools have added teachers and nonteaching staff a lot faster than they’ve added kids.

To really boost pay, we need to stop adding bodies and start rethinking what teachers do. In a well-run auto repair shop, for instance, someone other than a skilled mechanic spends time filling out paperwork and negotiating with insurance companies. Schools could benefit from that same good sense, ensuring that skilled teachers spend more time on things that matter for kids.

Ventures like New York–based “New Classrooms” or Charlotte-based “Opportunity Culture” offer intriguing models that can lead to dramatically higher teacher pay and the chance for effective, experienced teachers to spend more time putting their skills to work and taking control of their professional path.

Today, the left is stuck defending unions that kept schools closed, bureaucrats who demand more while delivering less, and ideological extremism in kindergarten curricula. Conservatives are positioned to speak up for common sense and practical solutions, which is the kind of school reform Americans actually need.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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