Are Conservatives About to Beat Liberals on Education?

For decades, polling has shown that the public trusts Democrats – and their more liberal-minded policy ideas – far more than Republicans when it comes to education.  Now, one nationally-celebrated education thinker thinks he can change that.

“Conservatives should own this issue,” says Rick Hess, Director of Economic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “We’re actually much better positioned than liberals to take the lead on education.”

Will conservatives actually manage to get out ahead? Our edited conversation is below…you be the judge.

Listen to the full conversation here:


Matt Robison: How did we get to where we are on education policy in America?

Rick Hess:  For a long time,  reform Democrats and reform Republicans actually looked a lot alike. Don’t forget that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was as much Ted Kennedy‘s baby as it was President Bush’s. It was a huge bipartisan deal. That started to change about 10 years ago.

Matt Robison: How has the conservative approach on education evolved?

Rick Hess: Republicans got as frustrated as everybody else with where NCLB ended up. It went into the realm of over-testing. It felt alienating to teachers. After Common Core, Republicans increasingly started to say, well, we’re actually not for any of that. We’re for school choice. And look, I think school choice is a reasonable approach, but it’s not a full solution.  Republicans just got into a habit during the Obama years of “let’s push back on everything.” We got out of the habit of offering conservative alternatives.

Matt Robison: Why is this an issue that conservatives should “own?”

Rick Hess: The approach from President Biden is to spend a lot more subsidizing the status quo.  No matter how thoughtful or farsighted our progressive friends may be, they have entrenched interests to deal with that we don’t.  Conservatives have a chance to think creatively and purposefully, rather than doubling down on old ideas.  We actually have a chance to re-imagine and rethink.

Matt Robison: Let’s get into some of the ideas you got from conservative thinkers for your “Conservative Policy Agenda.”  What stands out to you?

Rick Hess: They’re not all big, sweeping ideas.  Some of them are small and practical. For example, there’s been a lot of discussion over the last decade about discipline reform.  We know that some students are disproportionately getting disciplined: boys compared to girls, black and brown children compared to white children. So we started thinking about how can we get meaningful, individual feedback from teachers on what is actually happening, so we can have educator-driven, honest conversations about how we’re fixing discipline.

We also have a piece about how we’ve been using the same basic school day and school year for the last a hundred years. How can we re-think that? One-size-fits-all tends not to work.  There are charter schools that for years now have offered Saturday programming, often half days. There are schools that have wraparound services until 6:00 PM.  The point is, we need more flexibility and localized solutions, not Washington-driven solutions for everyone.

Matt Robison: How about leveraging technology and remote learning?  It got a bit of a bad rap during the pandemic, but how do you see it for the future?

Rick Hess: There’s definitely a big role. We want teachers to spend more of their time on the high value stuff and less time on the routine stuff. But that means you’ve got to rethink job descriptions. You’ve got to rethink contracts. You’ve got to rethink vendor agreements. These are the things that my friends on the left have enormous trouble doing.

Matt Robison: Moving to higher education, the agenda has a piece in it about the degree to which college campuses have monitored, limited and in some cases punished speech.  One of your authors wrote that a so-called “cultural approach” could be the solution?

Rick Hess: What he is saying is that there’s a temptation to look to legislation first on an issue like this. But the real way to start with this is a conversation: to be clear that we’re fighting for. We’re not really fighting for “free speech.” I don’t want people yelling fire in crowded theaters, or saying lunatic things. The idea of free inquiry that it is okay to  have honest discussions about questions like “whether or not America is systemically racist.”  You shouldn’t be shouted down for talking about that. Polling shows that most American agrees. If you put it that way, what we’re arguing for is actually broadly shared consensus.

Matt Robison:  Your authors have proposed some innovations ranging from a three year Bachelor’s Degree to “hybrid college.”

Rick Hess: Yes exactly. I think it’s a little bit like what we were saying with K-12: there’s different needs and we need different solutions. Not one size fits all free community college for everybody. Can we save low-income students 50 grand for that fourth year? Can we give more remote options? There are opportunities to do things differently and serve 21st century needs.

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