Editor’s Note – This essay was excerpted from Up from Conservatism: Revitalizing the Right After a Generation of Decay, published by Encounter Books.
Perhaps nowhere have the Right’s failures been more consequential than in American education. In America’s public schools, children are often taught to despise themselves and their country. Our history is distorted. Our constitutional traditions trashed. Through our textbooks, our literature and heritage are ignored or rendered ugly; through “comprehensive sex education,” students are encouraged to transition genders, and are manipulated and exploited; through “anti-racism” doctrines, now renamed “culturally responsive pedagogy,” students are taught whites are inherently evil and racist. No country can countenance, much less subsidize, schools that destroy a decent social fabric.
This moral corruption is only part of the story. American schools were once competent at the basics. Foreigners came to America to study, and to copy our infrastructure, from high schools to flagship state universities. Our system generated the talent required to sustain our scientific infrastructure, so critical to our prosperity and international competitiveness. That era may well be over. Today, about 55 percent of all students taking the Graduate Records Exam for graduate school in math, computer science, and engineering are foreign nationals. Astoundingly, America ranks fifth among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in total education expenditures, but only twenty-fifth in math proficiency among early-stage high schoolers and lower in other areas. American taxpayers are foolishly funding a system that produces unseriousness and inability.
As stated in Nation at Risk, a report commissioned at the onset of the Reagan administration: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” The situation is even worse today. The Left controls the real levers of power in education – the teacher preparation programs, the curriculum business, the accreditation programs, the state departments of education, the US Department of Education, the teacher’s unions, and the professional organizations. The Left also controls the moral high ground and thus the teaching narrative.
The Right’s defensive crouch is present in everything it does: While the Left writes and implements curriculum and educates the educators, the Right seeks educational choice. While the Left burrows into administrative roles and teacher colleges, the Right demands testing and accountability. While the Right is concerned about declines in literacy, numeracy, and citizenship, the Left sees these declines as part of closing the racial achievement gap. While the Left obtains vast funding for woke education, the Right begs for “opt-outs” from sex education programs and seeks to ban pornographic books from school libraries.
In its current state, this Right can only fritter around the edges of the Left’s institutional conquest. It more or less tacitly accepts the Left’s moral goals of sexual and racial radicalism. The growing anger on the Right at the incompetence, expense, and moral corruption in our schools is not matched with a plan to take away the Left’s institutions or to provide an alternative vision of education. The Right’s solutions are so based in narrow policy-wonkery and so lacking in spiritedness, that even if all its policy fixes were instantly implemented not much would change. This is what political defeat looks like. The New Right must endorse government and private actions to harm, humiliate, and destroy our education establishment and rebuild a competitive, patriotic, moral educational model suitable for a great country.
What Went Wrong
In many cases, the Right’s policies were pursued on the assumption that the education establishment, controlled by the Left, welcomed accountability and would react rationally to incentives for better outcomes. Conservative education reformers of the last generation (like Jeb Bush and Lamar Alexander) sought to make teachers’ pay dependent on students achieving higher test scores, and they hoped that such incentives would lead to higher standards.
The truth is, partly out of corruption, partly because of ideology, the leftist-controlled educational system simply absorbed the standards and testing movements without the promised improvements and reforms. Merit-based pay for teachers soon became detached from student achievement, allowing most teachers to be deemed worthy of merit-based raises. Moreover, testing proved inequitable across racial lines, so the system deemed testing racist. Accordingly, teachers’ unions turned against tests, as did many parents. To avoid public embarrassment, data are ignored, hidden or manipulated. Meanwhile, the embrace of higher standards has coincided with historic declines in achievement scores for math and reading since 2015. The whole accountability movement, a centerpiece of conservative reform for a time, died a quiet death. Meanwhile, the Left is more united than ever in pushing sexual license and antiracist-based education, all the while (successfully) demanding more money.
Rather than counterattack, conservatives have focused on creating exit strategies. First, they made homeschooling legal in all states. Many more students are homeschooled today than were ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. The quality of homeschooling has also improved. But recourse to homeschooling cannot be counted on to change the country’s trajectory, since most people will not homeschool. Second, conservatives invest great hope in educational choice. Earlier generations embraced charter schools, magnet schools, and targeted means-tested school choice programs. Now education savings accounts (ESAs) is the new goal. ESAs take the money that the state would have spent on a child and give it to parents directly. In West Virginia and Arizona, which have adopted ESAs for everyone, parents can now spend the money on private schools or on tutors or for homeschooling.
Both the rise in homeschooling and the achievement of more educational choice are welcomed expressions of public dissatisfaction. Given the situation, walking away from the public system is a reasonable. Parents should be lauded for saving their children from America’s failing and corrupting public schools. Today’s educational system attacks charter schools, ESAs, and homeschooling as if they are mortal threats to their monopoly. They may drain the public system of students and money and honor.
In the end, however, both homeschooling and educational choice are insufficient strategies of reconquest for four reasons. First, schools are more thoroughly conquered by leftist ideology than was previously imagined: many charter schools have been conquered by the Left, including KIPP, a charter school giant, which recently retired its motto “work hard, be nice” because the demand for working hard was viewed as demeaning to black students. Notable exceptions, of course, exist, but many schools are staffed with teachers certified by the Left, use curriculum produced by the Left, and are run by administrators credentialed by the Left.
Second, Americans remain committed to a public system. Only a trickle of students have taken advantage of ESAs for everyone in West Virginia (about 1–2 percent of West Virginian students used their Hope Scholarships in 2022) and Arizona (about 12,000 of Arizona’s million or so students used universal school choice in the first year). Perhaps, someday, 25 percent of students in red states will use ESAs for alternatives to public schooling. That would be terrific progress. But it may not be the game changer the establishment Right advertises unless it is accompanied by corresponding changes in the traditional public schools.
Third, educational choice programs assume that education is essentially private, protected from the rest of society. Thus, they assume that parents, school administrators, or teachers can operate in defiance of the reigning national moral orthodoxies. School choice, combined with alternative teacher certifications, or no certification programs, with loose state accreditation, independence from school boards or state agencies will, on this reading, allow schools to operate outside the system. And to a certain extent, this hope may be realized. One can see the insufficiency of the education choice movement and the importance of reigning orthodoxies most easily in higher education. Americans have educational choice in higher education. Student loans or out-of-pocket expenses follow students to their chosen higher educational institutions. Institutions can maintain their own distinctives – some are Catholic, others Protestants, others public. They can organize their curricula in different, creative ways, if they choose. Yet universities reflect a stultifying monotony, with the same kinds of general education requirements, the same majors, the same cookie-cutter policies in nearly every university.
Nearly every university is saddled with faculty and administrators that directly or indirectly agitate against or denounce the country. The same Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies are everywhere. Similarly, even without ESAs many private Catholic K–12 schools and other private schools have adopted leftist ideology over the last generation. Choice does not guarantee diversity because education is inherently political – so the battle must be fought on that basis.
Finally, school choice is a strategy for avoiding a showdown over what American education should be. At its best, this strategy reflects the liberal hope that mutual tolerance and forbearance have their place in a pluralistic country. At its worst, school choice advocates forget an inescapable truth: education is inherently political in the sense that a vision of education is always guiding a political community. For instance, either the country is good or at least worth saving as our own – or it is not. Either the body and soul are connected and biological reality exists – or there is no necessary connection and gender identity is fluid. Either educational excellence should be recognized as an individual achievement – or bemoaned as a sign of white supremacy.
Dwelling on school choice masks deeper weaknesses in the Right’s position. Unspoken moral confusions plague the Right’s effort to wage a counterrevolution. While the Left pushes sexual liberation, the Right is not clear about its own teaching. The Right opposes pornography in the libraries, but what does it want to do about sex education? While the Left is clear on race, the Right is confused. The Right opposes equality of results and Jim Crow, but what is it for? Nor is the Right able to stomach the group disparities that would arise when standards are enforced. For now, it cannot seem to clearly defend civic nationalism. At the core, it may be moral confusion, shame, or wanting it both ways, that prevents the Right from joining the real fight on the level of politics. The Left wins without a shot being fired.
For similar reasons, efforts to reform higher education have proved even more futile than they have in K–12 school programs. Conservatives first sought to engage university trustees. They promoted free speech policies. They tried to ban racial preferences. They tried to attack tenure, mostly in opinion but sometimes in policy. They have, more recently, poured millions of dollars into funding centers on campuses, hoping to keep the flame of liberal, patriotic education alive. All, broadly speaking, to no avail. America’s universities and colleges ratchet ceaselessly to the Left.
Fifty years of futility should teach conservatives many lessons. As in K–12, nothing can be done to repair our ruined education system without offering an alternative vision of education. And nothing can be done without using perfectly legitimate powers that the Right has shied away from using. When the leftist educational system controls all the institutions, only external force can impose discipline. Just as the Progressives marched through the education institutions while casting aspersions on the old education system, so the Right’s policies must be confrontational and destructive with the aim of recovering and rebuilding on a more solid foundation.
The Path Forward: Federal and State Actions
Conservatives must pursue a dual track. On one hand, they must use state powers to raise the costs for the Left and to strip its funding at the state and national levels. On the other hand, they must identify people and build institutions to win back public schools. The same applies to colleges and universities.
A Roadmap for a New Educational Vision: K-12 and Higher Education
States must first declare independence from the national government’s inducements in matters of education and from the educational establishment in general. The federal government, often with the help of large private foundations, has adopted a pay-for-play system: if states want money, for instance, for disabled children, they must teach transformative social and emotional learning. This cycle is replicated over and over.
Of course, it would be best to dismantle the Department of Education, but this will not happen, even if conservatives talk about it for another generation. Conservatives might settle for the half-measure of allowing states to opt out of federal strings while still taking federal money, as has been recently proposed. States can also act preemptively to keep the system out of their jurisdictions by refusing federal funds for fear of the strings that are attached to them. This declaration of independence takes many forms: a rejection of federal funds for K–12 schools; a rejection of implied national standards; and banning establishment forms of therapeutic education like transformative social and emotional learning or trauma-induced practices, along with private causes of action to enforce them.
Other steps must be taken. One is to eliminate state teacher certification standards, so that schools can hire anyone they deem adequate to be a teacher; often, new teachers are needed to lead a new system of education. Following this, state legislatures should defund existing state schools of education that simply serve to prepare teachers for our current corrupt system. States have ceded accreditation to corrupt private actors. Instead, legislatures should take back degree-granting authority and establish standards themselves or simply eliminate accreditation in K–12. Either way, accreditation should reflect the reality that education is inherently political and that the people’s representatives must weigh in on its future shape. Teachers who disagree can find employment in places more suited to their tastes.
Trusting our education establishment is often the same as trusting leftists who have openly declared war on the country. State legislators should mandate their own curriculum for K–12 and higher education. For K–12, legislatures could simply mandate that public schools use a particular curriculum like E. D. Hirsch’s knowledge-based curriculum or the one currently being written by Hillsdale College. In higher education, the Texas university system practices a miniversion of this in its general education, where it mandates courses in American history and American government.
Teacher jobs must be made less comfortable so as to decrease the benefits of being associated with our corrupt public system. Different pay scales should be adopted so that teachers are not overpaid compared to people working similar jobs in the private sector. Mandatory collective bargaining between teachers unions and school boards or collective bargaining altogether should be brought to an end. No sovereign immunity for teachers and other public employees should be given, so that when they peddle pornography to students, they are subject to the same criminal and civil penalties as any normal citizens committing such crimes would be, and are treated as the pedophiles or pedophilia-enablers.
But in breaking the current system, there must be a clear alternative vision. No one under the age of sixty has known an American public school system based unapologetically on the ideas of competitive merit, physical fitness, a decent patriotism, deep historical wisdom about America’s heritage, and respect for the moral foundations of the American republic. We should be preparing a genuine American elite for leadership of our country and its states. Some of that elite must know classics of American heritage and governance. Others must be pushed in mathematics and the sciences. All should be prepared to physical excellence and health from an early age. We should be trying to get people earlier into jobs to which they are suited. High schools should encourage the trades and prepare students for them. Many elements of America’s pre-1950s education system could be revived by red state legislatures, which are, after all, sovereign over their education systems.
Take two examples. First, physical fitness. Students could start building obstacle courses at an early age, learning to how to construct a wall and how to adapt the wall for climbing. Students should work on competing through these courses, being timed against their best time and against one another. Wrestling should be mandated in middle schools. Students could learn to build and shoot guns as part of a normal course of action in schools and learn how to grow crops and prepare them for meals. Every male student could learn to skin an animal and every female to milk a cow. This is what a training in citizenship looks like – fitness, independence of mind, skills in living, all undistorted by sophistry. There is no reason that education systems must confine students to institutions for book-learning all day, for nine months per year.
Second, physical fitness, mathematical skills, and excellence in the trades can be combined. Building obstacle courses is a beginning in practical math. Excellence in mathematics must once again be a national and individual ambition. Gifted and talented programs and academic tracking are stigmatized as inequitable. Instead, we must adopt a policy designed to create a leading corps of STEM experts, unapologetically, whether results are “inequitable” or not. If we are willing to identify state champions in high school sports, we should be more willing to identify state champions in physics, algebra, and inventions. State, national, and global competition should bring benefits and honors to America’s high school students. De-emphasizing competition has been a chief reason that American boys continue to be outperformed by American girls at nearly every level of education.
Educational visionaries should think about how to integrate competitiveness, physical fitness, a decent patriotism, and deeper historical wisdom about America’s heritage into every facet of education. We should study modern countries like Israel and adapt their methods. New wine must get into those old wineskins or new wineskins must be made for this new wine.
Universities: Crushing and Rebuilding
Much the same confrontational attitude must inform the New Right when it comes to higher education. An attitudinal shift is needed: our universities and colleges are assets of the Left; they are defrauding taxpayers and undermining our country, while hiding behind the authority of science. Our colleges and universities function as government-sponsored monopolies, with the national government funding the vast majority of university budgets through student loans, grants, and research support.
Many disciplines in higher education simply cannot be reformed and must be eliminated by state legislatures overseeing public universities. First, DEI offices must be identified, defunded, and disbanded. The personnel associated with DEI offices should be fired. Second, any university major with “studies” associated with its name is guilty unless proven innocent and should be defunded. This includes Women’s and Gender Studies; African and African Diaspora Studies; Latin American Studies; Latino Media Arts and Studies; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/ Sexualities Studies; and Critical Disability Studies (all of which are available at the University of Texas, Austin, for example).
Third, intellectual corruption has been sown into professional standards for many disciplines, such that few scholars have a living memory of genuine intellectual pursuits. Disciplines like sociology and social work must be jettisoned from public universities. State legislatures should do what it takes for such programs to lose accreditation.
Fourth, enforcement mechanisms should be added to bans on racial preferences. Such torts could allow third parties to challenge policies, make discriminating bureaucrats personally responsible for their practices, and force universities into large damages if they fail to comply.
A declaration of independence at the university level will prove much more difficult given the current structure of university funding. Today, federal student loans flow only to accredited universities and colleges. The Left then controls the accreditation standards, in order to ensure its ever-deepening grip on how universities are run. The national government controls the access to funds. Both sides of this equation must change, but it is not completely in the hands of state governments to change them. Experiments in alternative accreditation should be tried, as should seed money for student loan-free public universities.
States control much more than they think, first in the necessity of attendance at colleges and universities; and second, in the nature of the education. When it comes to attendance, states should work with professional groups to encourage college workarounds for entry to various professions. Apprenticeships and other forms of alternative certification can be used for entry into many blue-collar and white-collar professions. Prohibitions on using IQ tests in hiring processes could be lifted, allowing employers yet another way to identify candidates with potential. Universities should never have a monopoly on the future of an American worker. There should always be a way to be certified and hired that does not involve having the proper college major.
Moreover, state universities should be broken up. No matter how much we wish it were not so, general education at modern universities is most often poisonous. Red states could break up universities between “hard sciences” and “pretend sciences,” funding only the hard sciences with public monies, while allowing the others to compete or wither away on the vine. The relatively healthy and competitive science portions of schools could be detached and made independent from the corrupt humanities and social science portion. Business schools could be detached from the corrupt humanities schools, too. Without general education, the Florida university system, for instance, could establish a University of Florida (STEM in Gainesville); a Florida State University (business in Tallahassee); and a University of Central Florida (sociology and humanities in Orlando). Each could have its own tuition, administration, and curriculum. None would fund the others. The Florida regents could even privatize its university of sociology and humanities. If it dies, it dies.
At the federal level, reforms can be achieved when public opinion reaches a boiling point. Elected officials must prepare public opinion. Conservatives have settled for the appearance of reform for a generation. Conservatives must have an active national agenda, since colleges and universities are dependent on federal funds for their existence. Congress can end all student loan programs, and should not guarantee any private loans for higher education. Congress should end research funding for universities that promote DEI or undermine free speech or practice racial preferences. Congress should tax university endowments instead of pretending that universities are anything but big businesses that harm the common good while defrauding the taxpayer and creating a pseudo-intellectual revolutionary class that agitates against the country.
The newly emerging flagship universities, which will be elevated because of these reforms, should make it their goal to hire up the faculty from the universities pushed into failure. Governors must attract talented but disgruntled scientists from all over the country to boost their own science departments, perhaps even doubling their salaries as an incentive, and paying to transfer their laboratories. Picking up the pieces from the old order will be a generational opportunity.
The slow draining of the legitimacy of the education systems is not enough. It is true that new universities are popping up; that the number of universities working outside the system is growing; and that charter schools and classical Christian schools are growing exponentially in K–12. All their numbers, however, are quite small. These efforts will come to naught unless they are matched with an equally determined effort to destroy and dishonor the current K–12 and higher education systems. Destruction followed by reconquest is necessary and proper.