Many authors from Rick Hess, the head of education at the American Enterprise Institute, to Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review magazine, have called for a Federalist Society for teachers. Such proclamations are understandable. The Federalist Society has reshaped the American judiciary and deserves much credit for the recent overturning of Roe v Wade, perhaps the most significant conservative victory this century.
The organization is thus understandably put forth as a case study for how conservatives could remake other institutions captured by left-wing progressivism. In the case of education, alas, we dissent. There are two differences between the judiciary and teaching professions that make such an approach infeasible.
First, our educational institutions themselves are far more dispersed than the judiciary. The courts, especially the Supreme Court, represent a definable target for reformation. A majority on the court is an easily discernible metric that, although it represents a more universal victory of originalism in law schools and lower courts, is a discernible metric that provides a truth north.
What institutions would a Federalist Society for Teachers recapture? The thousands of colleges of education faculty positions and 3.2 million teaching positions? In the past year, the conservative movement has begun the educational analog to the courts, winning many seats in local school boards, but these are not teaching positions and tenure is over as soon as any official is elected out.
The Constitution created the centralized judicial branch and all of its offices, whereas schools are far more localized and diffuse. Like tree branches spreading out from a central trunk, every court was built to look to the precedents set by the Supreme Court and the federal and state constitutions—with new rulings only needed in specialized cases where text and precedent were left lacking.
Education was built as a local function to spread outwards — more like a bramble of vines with thousands of different sources — with the values and common sense of the arts, sciences, ethics, and histories linking them all.
While reclaiming the judiciary can be achieved through the set precedents and revisions by SCOTUS rulings and Constitutional amendments, education is not so simple. Each individual bramble and vine must be scrutinized — their flaws remedied or hacked out.
Perhaps more fundamentally, though, is the lack of central belief around which a comparable conservative education organization could form. The Constitution creates something of an objective standard to which the Federalist Society can moor itself. There is a clear philosophy guiding the movement.
And this connects to the centralized nature of the institution mentioned in the former point. The judiciary has a clearly defined goal: interpret the Constitutionality of laws according to a written document.
Education is a more abstract affair. What does it mean to be educated? What role does the state versus the family play? What are the best methods of instruction? Understood so, such commitment around a core tenet is not possible – nor necessarily even desirable – in education.
Even within the conservative movement, there’s vociferous disagreement over what a “conservative education” ought to entail. Hillsdale College champions classical schools rooted in tradition and Judeo-Christian values. Many scholars at the CATO Institute advocate for unschooling, an approach that prioritizes child freedom and unstructured learning. Other conservative organizations have championed religious schools, homeschooling, no-excuse charter schools, project-based learning, and other models. Many of these varying philosophies of education play as well together as a dog and cat.
If there were any unifying tenet to the current conservative educational movement, it’s pluralism. While we know that against which we stand — progressive politics in the classroom, unionization, bureaucracies, and the like — what positive vision replaces that isn’t as clear, and considering the diverse nature of this country, perhaps it shouldn’t be. Even us authors, friends and fellow conservative reformers, vehemently disagree on the value of direct instruction versus project-based learning. This pluralistic vision is one reason why conservatives have unified around school choice; let localities and families decide on their vision of education.
While an admirable recommendation and an endeavor that we would in no way seek to stymie, a federalist society for teachers will not reform American education in the way the policy’s proponents think it would. It might be better to think about Federalist Societies for Teachers — plural. Where the conservative movement has countless student groups and think tanks representing the libertarian, socially conservative, nationalist, and other wings of the movement, such organizations would champion project-based learning, unschooling, classical education, or other approaches.
With that being said, there might be a better model for emulation than the Federalist Society that would do more for a conservative reformation of the education profession. We would suggest that not the Federalist Society but National Review is a better model for emulation — a central publication in which conservative educators, scholars, and other stakeholders can advocate for conservative policies and have out their internecine disagreements.
National Review famously brought together a hodgepodge of conservative coalitions — anti-communists, libertarians, evangelicals, and more — under one movement and began dumping thoughtful conservative arguments into the media space where they were once lacking. From Russian Marxism to American conservatism, any movement begins with persuasion and ideas, and any movement needs a publication to spread its message.
At present, it is difficult to sift through the muck and mire of education news and opinion. For decades, teachers’ unions, universities, and left-leaning corporations have staked tens of millions of dollars into publications from the mundane editorial column to the loftiest think tanks. Search engines, library catalogs, and word of mouth bring up hundreds of progressive approaches and criticisms of education for every one traditionalist suggestion.
As stories break in national and international media, the education angle effortlessly drifts into the liberal analysis and progressive-activist approach to the classroom.
As one example, consider that when the Supreme Court decisions of this term were announced, several education publications were quick to deliver progressive opinions on why this meant certain doom for some aspect of education. Chalkbeat specifically delivered an entire catalog of progressive fearmongering in the wake of the SCOTUS decisions on abortion, religious freedom, and state finances. Kennedy v Bremerton School District meant this court no longer drew “a clear line between church and state” and Dobbs will “increase child poverty,” hurt women’s education, and lead to the overturning of “other landmark civil rights cases like Brown v Board.” One would have to scroll until their thumbs hurt to find a non-progressive opinion in many of these publications that claim to be unbiased.
Whereas the left has Education Week, Edutopia, The 74 Million, Chalkbeat, The American Educator, and countless other publications, the right offers up occasional blog posts from conservative think tanks and opinion columns in our publications of repute. The left will thus win the argument over schools simply by sheer volume. No matter the militaristic skill of the Spartan 300, they could not withstand the full force of the Persian army. When article after article, story after story, and column after column batters into the debate space, a handful of magazine issues dedicated to education are insufficient no matter their rhetorical piquancy.
Consider a few of these publications. Edutopia is a publication dedicated to advancing progressive pedagogy that has turned the ideological dial from drill and kill to hemp underwear and tie-dye. They focus on the “how” of classroom instruction producing countless articles a day. Professional development and curricular resources are in high demand among teachers. If only left-wing organizations provide this service, progressive ideology can simply stroll into the classroom door. Some of the content is quite practical and helpful. Others disparage classic literature and advance progressive hobby horses like SEL and restorative justice.
Education Week and Chalkbeat brand themselves more like standard news agencies, the sources from which larger, general audience newspapers and magazines source their own education content. There are mountains of paperwork, school board minutes, district policy changes, laws pertaining to education, and countless more stories that require reporting. If conservatives leave this bulk of reporting to left-wing publications, only stories that aid leftist narratives make their way into discourse.
Reporting, opinion, curricular resources, and instructional how-to’s — these are necessary services, and we’re leaving the left to fill that demand. As such, teachers and anyone else interested in the debates of education only experience one-sided ideas: one narrative in articles, one undergirding ideology, one set of opinions, one perspective on public education.
What’s more, when left-wing organizations run these institutions, teachers and other readers develop a further affinity for that ideology. If the National Education Association funds their source of education news, if the American Federation of Teachers produces one of the most esteemed magazines of educational opinion, they garner — in this case rightful — prestige among and rapport with their readers.
Rather than a Federalist Society for Teachers, conservatives need publications to match and counter those of the left. They need a space to make and hone their arguments. They need a space to hash out the internecine disagreements between proponents of project-based learning, direct instruction, or unschooling.
Losing the educational institutions in this country — university departments of education, the teaching force, school boards, curriculum companies, testing companies — has been decades in the making, and so reclaiming them for conservatism is a generational undertaking. As such, more generally, the right needs to build up new institutions of education — from teacher organizations and publications to curriculum producers, standardized tests, schooling systems, and more. We need new institutions to undergird our society and mold the next generation. There are entrepreneurial individuals attempting such feats in education. Jeremy Wayne Tate established the Classic Learning Test, an alternative to the ACT and SAT that centers and advances a classical vision for education. Hillsdale is hard at work planting charter schools around the country.
The tasks are many but one is clear: we need a conservative publication for education.