Conservative Education Reform Failures


Woe unto me: I am a Republican teacher who must watch as her own party continues to stymie its own reform efforts, and it has only worsened this last year.

The pandemic has frayed away the usual nod of “we don’t hate teachers, we only hate unions,” and the battle over school openings has exacerbated the animosity between conservatives and unions. The conservative and libertarian intellectual classes have been almost gleeful in their outrage, writing treatises that attack entitled teachers and their greedy demands. Teachers’ unions have killed the goose that laid the golden eggs, Matt Welch wrote. John Podhoretz wistfully daydreamed on the GLOP Culture podcast that maybe the public will realize that unions are only interested in that “slovenly slothful vast majority of people who work in this profession who are just in it for the two months vacation and whatever they can get from the 6-7 hour workday.” This derision bleeds into discussion about public education carried out by the right. 

Unfortunately, such angry rants are uncompelling to any who do not already agree and this comes from someone who agrees with the underlying problem! The arguments are shallow and often outright ignorant. The interest is never sustained as yet another cultural outrage to blame on schools arises, and then comes another op-ed on the old topic, often by the same author. The only solution presented in these op-eds is “escape public schools and this insanity! School choice is the answer!” 

Republican policy echoes this elite class. The penalties in No Child Left Behind were “give parents a choice” to leave failing public schools. Adopt Common Core curriculum and nationwide standardized tests will prove  children aren’t learning, so that parents would abandon their failing school. Every policy has the “penalty” of choice, the threat of falling enrollment, the promise of increased demand for school choice.

Unions are the enemy. Democrats, the actual political opposition, are only occasionally mentioned as “in bed with” or “financially beholden to” the unions.  Public education discourse is “choice and accountability” on the right, with unions taking up opposition, demanding more money and “equity” in all its egregious, expensive, and indoctrinal forms.

Education Reform Failure

Thirty years of single-minded focus on choice, accountability, and curriculum—the three legs of conservative education reform—have come and mostly gone. Two consecutive reform-friendly Presidents approved No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which were then renounced or rendered toothless.

Similarly, voters have rejected propositions for increased charters or vouchers. In Colorado’s Douglas County, voters elected a new school board for the express purpose of stopping a pro-voucher court decision.  Originally a strong reform state, California voters have twice rejected pro-reform candidate Marshall Tuck for school superintendent, despite Tucker’s 2:1 spending advantage. Governor Gavin Newsom has approved a law that increases district authority to reject charter applications. These aren’t simply Democratic victories. Republican support or indifference to teachers unions and increased teacher pay is about 45%, which matches their opposition or indifference to charters, vouchers and merit pay. 

When close to half of your own team either opposes or doesn’t care about positions you find blazingly obvious, perhaps it’s time to consider a new approach. Education reform as envisioned by the conservative intellectual class has thus far failed to convince its own voters, much less the public at large.

To reclaim and restart a real debate on public education, the right needs to recognize the complexity that laws and court cases have created for public schools, and start thinking seriously about what can be done. Similarly, the reality is that parents rate 35% of public school teachers as “excellent” and nearly half of all parents say unions have a positive effect on schools. Parents, families, and taxpayers tend to love their local public school, and an effort to dismantle them will win the right no friends.

A Different Vision for Reform

I’m more worried about the real educational issues facing our schools today.

Public schools are very popular. Most parents love their kid’s school and are concerned about issues within the school like transgender student rights, special ed regulations, 1619 curriculum, reading instruction, and lowered academic standards. Charters and private schools aren’t a solution they’ll consider. Both sides of the political spectrum ignore these parents. The left is pushing these policies. The right simply sees these policies as just more examples of public school insanity that makes wise parents choose to opt out. 

Public education is complex. Shouting at it won’t change anything. Consider phonetics instruction as standard reading instruction practice in opposition to whole language or three-cuing.  Proponents of phonics are found throughout the political spectrum, because phonics instruction is an obvious best practice. Nonetheless, op-eds indict reading teachers committed to ineffective methods as woefully uninformed. The blame varies from ed schools to unions to stubborn teachers who think they know better than science. Meanwhile, the argument continues, struggling readers, disproportionately poor, black, and Hispanic are not learning to read in the critical time period and set up for permanent failure in life. The boilerplate usually varies at the end when the political indicators show up. Conservative authors will add a paragraph about how this inept education makes charters so essential, while progressive ones will argue for more training and a required curriculum.

As it happens, I think there is a good case for phonics instruction. But here’s just a small list of issues that come to mind every time I read one of these articles:

Should students reading fluently above grade level get phonics instruction? What about a classroom with a three or four hundred lexile difference in reading ability? What about English Language Learners?  Should citizen ELL students who speak English as a first language be in the same classes as immigrant students who just arrived here and speak no English at all?  When will the struggling readers get time for background content? Will there be disparate impact concerns if African American, Hispanic, and ELL children are disproportionately placed into the phonics classes? Should high school teachers, who don’t even teach reading, be required to teach phonics? How can we do this without identifying the struggling readers and then treating them differently, which again raises the dread specter of tracking?

Try to fit all that into an op-ed. A simplistic plug for charter schools or choice addresses none of these complexities.

I come not to praise the system, but to explain it. Our existing laws evolved because court cases uncovered disparate impact, or because different theories fall in and out of fashion. In the case of phonics, struggling readers were perceived to be endlessly drilled without learning the joy of language, or were running into the edges of what phonics could do without improving their reading ability.  Advocates in bilingual learning argued that citizen children raised with non-English speakers would have language deficiencies that needed to be addressed.

If progressive union advocates are too eager to demand special treatment as equity for every single corner case–and they are–so, too, are conservatives utterly ignorant of the wildly complex situations that schools and teachers face when trying to apply universal mandates that make no sense for their community. Education reformers speak of “the blob”, that immovable force of institutional habit that seems to ignore change mandates. It exists for good reason. Many reforms would have catastrophic consequences on students and those teachers are right to resist. 

Do not abandon the cause as hopeless. But if we’re going to change and protect schools, more people need to understand the enormous range of legal, demographic, and economic hurdles facing schools because of the legal demands dumped on them by laws, court-ordered, state, and federal.

I want phonics, at least for struggling readers. I want schools opened. I want honest and accurate history instruction. I want schools that help instruct students in the skills and values they need to lead happy, productive lives. In my opinion, schools do a much better job than they are given credit for, although there’s always a burning need to improve. But we need both sides of the debate willing to engage with facts on the ground. Right now, the public favors unions despite their extreme politics not because they agree, but because they know that unions will fight for public schools. The conservatives with a platform make it clear they don’t share that interest—even if actual Republican voters do. 

Michele Kerr
Michele Kerr is a California teacher. She has four credentials, teaches math and engineering at the moment, thinks schools should never have closed, and is the proud MESA adviser of finalists in the state-wide National Engineering and Design Competition on Saturday. Go Titans!

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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