Enemies of school choice need better slogans

In my latest op-ed for the Bowling Green Daily News, I took on the slogan being used by opponents of this year's school choice constitutional amenment that "public dollars are for public schools." This argument fails to convince on two fronts:

First, public dollars are already used in private colleges and universities. Pell grants, the GI Bill and government-subsidized student loans all follow beneficiaries to the college of their choice, including private, faith-based institutions. Even the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES) program, which gives high school students money for college tuition based on their grades, can be used in private colleges. Many opponents of school choice have championed preschool programs that would empower Kentucky families with resources to choose from both public and private early childhood options.

Outside of education, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, the WIC program, Section 8 and Social Security are all programs that allow beneficiaries to choose from a wide variety of providers, almost all of which are private entities. It’s only in K-12 education that we systematically deny low- and middle-income families a choice in who educates their children.

As for the second problem with this slogan,

“public dollars for public schools” assumes education tax dollars automatically belong to public school districts and the state. Instead, school choice is based on the idea that, like the other programs just described, education is a highly personal public good. Education dollars are for helping children thrive intellectually. Families should be able to direct those resources to the provider that best fits their needs in the same way Medicare beneficiaries choose their own doctor and hospital.

Read the full argument here.


Tough talk for today's graduates

In my most recent commentary for the Bowling Green Daily News, I offered some unsolicited advice to recent college graduates. 

While we should celebrate the accomplishments of our graduates, the predictable, upbeat messages of encouragement we often hear during graduation season aren’t sufficient.

It’s time for students to hear some tough talk too: put down your phone, stop focusing on your feelings, give thanks for your blessings and get busy sacrificing yourself for others.

And while they’re at it: go to church, get married and stay together, raise a family, and do something good for your community.

Because these are the ingredients to a genuinely happy life and a just social order.

Read the whole thing here.


Campus threats to free speech

The Bowling Green Daily News has asked me to start regularly contributing a op-ed on various public policy issues of state and local interest. My first offering was this recent piece about the visit of Kyle Rittenhouse to Western Kentucky University's campus, which I considered a triumph for free speech.

But the event also demonstrated why lawmakers need to go further to ensure that college campuses remain places where a diversity of viewpoints are free to be expressed.

In 2020, Rittenhouse, age 17, took a rifle into the middle of a riot in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, attacked and later acquitted for shooting and killing two of his three assailants in self-defense. He now advocates for the right to bear arms on campus and was invited by a student group to speak at WKU.

Two weeks prior to Rittenhouse’s visit, WKU officials took the unusual step of sending a campus-wide message clarifying that the speaker was not invited by the university itself.

Controversial speakers often come to campus, many officially sponsored by some unit within the university, and almost all espousing far-left views that conservative students and faculty find disagreeable or upsetting.

In none of these cases does WKU issue such a disclaimer. But also in none of those cases do conservative students and faculty try to silence free speech. Sadly, that was exactly what was happening.

Read the whole thing here


Unpacking 7 Myths About Education

Over the years, there have been a handful of books about education I find myself recommending over and over, like E.D. Hirsch's Knowledge Matters and David Didau's What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong. A third at the top of my list is Daisy Christodoulou's 2014 book, Seven Myths About Education, which I reviewed here.

I recently had the great honor of being a guest on the Freedom in Education Founders Podcast to discuss the enduring relevance of Seven Myths About Education. Freedom in Education is a new grassroots organization, which, according to its website, is dedicated to "restoring parental rights, high-quality education, and civic virtue to our public schools by enhancing and improving content transparency, curriculum quality, learning options, and equipping parents to act." I love what Freedom in Education is trying to do, and so I happily agreed to chat with co-founder Beanie Geoghegan about the book.

Our conversation covered two podcast episodes. Watch the first here:

 

And the second here:

 

I hope many more educators and parents discover Seven Myths About Education and change the way they think about teaching and learning.


What research really says about school choice

The opponents of school choice are just getting started as they rev up to convince voters to oppose a constitutional amendment that would give lawmakers the opportunity to establish policies that assist families in accessing non-public school education options. A recent op-ed in the Louisville Courier Journal shows the lengths to which defenders of the status quo will go to distort the truth about school choice.

University of Kentucky economics professor emeritus John Garen and I penned a response, which appeared in newspapers around the state, including the Bowling Green Daily News. Here's an excerpt:

The enemies of giving families options constantly claim that education choice will devastate public schools. But the Indiana and Ohio studies clearly show that achievement among low-income students in public schools is not damaged by school choice. In fact, the authors of the Ohio study speculate that competition with private schools improved student learning outcomes in public schools.

The various defenders of the education establishment miss the point that your tax dollars are not meant to benefit the public school system, but rather students themselves. Education freedom means that we should start treating education like other public goods where the beneficiary (in this case, families) gets to choose their provider (schools of various kinds).

Kentucky’s school choice constitutional amendment gets us one step closer to funding students, not systems.

Read the whole thing here.


Toward a conservative vision of education

Heritage

Earlier this week I was honored to join some of America's most prominent conservative education reformers in Phoenix, Arizona at the invitation of the Heritage Foundation. The Conservative Vision of Education conference featured leaders in K-12 and higher education, policy experts, and advocates. I attended in my role as policy advisor to Commonwealth Educational Opportunities. As the conference name implies, the gathering was meant as the first step toward articulating a compelling vision for education reform based on conservative principles.

Heritage President Kevin Roberts and Education Research Fellow Jason Bedrick framed the day's discussion by pointing out how conservatives have long been known for things they are against in education (federal overeach, divisive ideological content in schools, etc.), but other than school choice have sometimes struggled to articulate what they are for in ways that have consistently resonated with voters and policy makers. This is not because conservatives are short on education policy ideas, however, but perhaps because we've not attempted to ground those ideas in a clear and comprehensive understanding of what education is and what schools are for.

In his opening remarks, Roberts said that a conservative vision is closely tied to the conviction that education is for the formation of a virtuous citizenry that has gratitude for its cultural inheritance.

Three broad topics framed the day's discussion:

  • What is the proper role of STEM subjects in classical education?
  • How can we promote rich content as a complement to science-based reading instruction?
  • How do we transmit the best of our cultural heritage, especially in history and civics education, to today's youth?

Presenters with content expertise in each question provided background information and context, and then conference participants engaged in a vigorous discussion. At risk of oversimplifying the diverse and nuanced range of perspectives that surfaced, I think the rough consensus on the above questions were as follows:

  • Student mastery of applied science and math (as in technology and engineering) is a natural byproduct of a strong foundation in the humanities and advocates of classical education should not shy away from STEM, even as we recognize that a solid foundation in the liberal arts helps mitigate against the pure utilitarianism that is often associated with STEM subjects.
  • Rich, literature-based curricula are essential for promoting student mastery and the necessary complement to the phonics instruction that figures prominently in science-based reading strategies. Conservatives should advocate for improvements in state education standards and especially the local adoption and implementation of strong, comprehensive, content-rich curricula.
  • Conservatives should not shy away from contrasting our view of Western Civilization with that of liberals. We should own that we want children to learn the best (and worst) features of our cultural inheritance, but generally be proud of our country and especially the moral and political virtues upon which it was founded.

The conversation was exciting and suggested a wide range of new directions and important questions for conservative education policy. There was insufficient time to turn all of those insights into an organized vision, but follow up activities will seek to condense the discussion into a more coherent manifesto. Personally, I had several takeaways that will inform my own work on education reform in Kentucky.

First, as I've written before, classical education is the most exciting development in the K-12 realm, but we must find ways to take the lessons of classical learning and apply them to traditional public schools. I haven't given up on the idea of a traditional public school district embracing classical education outright, but I believe for every district, we should insist on the implementation of content-rich curricula. Teachers should not be making daily decisions about what gets taught in their classrooms. Rather, schools should adopt curricula that clearly lay out the instructional materials for every grade with a strong emphasis on science, social studies, and rigorous math and science materials. Kentucky should continue to review and improve its standards, but the state should also review and recognize comprehensive curricular programs (Core Knowledge would be a good one) and incentivize districts to adopt and implement them.

Second, we should partner this emphasis on rich content with an expansion of Kentucky's science-based reading initiative. Every teacher and administrator in the state should be required to participate in LETRS, or some similar, rigorous professional development focused on the science of reading. Every university teacher education program should be required to teach this approach to reading and pre-service teachers should be assessed on it.

Third, conservatives should relentessly push for more school choice programs so that families and educators have an opportunity to offer more innovative education options, including classical learning, to every family. In Kentucky this year, that means promoting the constitutional amendment that will free legislators to adopt school choice policies without the interference of anti-school choice judges. Beyond, it means fighting to push the legislature to adopt the most robust school choice policies possible. School choice empowers parents to make schools more accountable to their child's needs, and to conservative values.

Finally, the work started by the Heritage Foundation this week should continue as we ground all of our policy efforts in a clear philosophical viewpoint about the meaning and purpose of education. This is, in part, the way I framed it recently:

Conservatives and liberals have very different views of the purpose of education. For conservatives, education involves the passing down of a civilization from one generation to the next, handing on values, ideas, and institutions that our forefathers found valuable. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. It is the transfer of a way of life.”

Of course, conservatives do not hold that everything from the past is worth conserving, nor that our institutions are never in need of updating. Repairs to our institutions must be made both because there is inevitable decay in the best of institutions due to human nature and because some institutions have proven unworkable or unjust over time. But conservatives seek to make repairs to institutions, causing as little damage to traditions as possible. Education is also about forming young people to not just honor the past, but to lead changes in the future that restore our social institutions to the original and enduring values of our culture.

And more fundamentally, conservatives believe that the primary purpose of education is to form young people for lives of virtue. Conservatives have a realistic understanding of human nature. We are born as fallen creatures in need of formation. Conservatives also believe in an enduring moral order that can be accessed through a combination of faith and reason and we can learn to better conform our lives to that enduring order. Schools in their various forms exist to help parents in their vocation of forming their children in just such a way.

That’s the conservative vision of education.

Conservative policy makers, political leaders, and education activists should regularly express our understanding of the goal and purpose of education and how it contrasts with that of progressives and liberals, who see education as either a purely utilitarian pursuit to train students to be good consumers or as a method of training them to dismantle the very foundations of Western Civilization. Parents and voters understand these differences, and we can make great headway in promoting conservative education policy by making them clear.

Related posts:

 


It's time for Kentucky to elect the state board of education

Serving on the Kentucky Board of Education from 2016-2019 was one of the greatest honors of my professional life. But it was emotionally brutal work, especially when it came to a legally dubious end when Gov. Andy Beshear, on his first day in office, fulfilled a frequent campaign promise and fired me and all the other sitting board members for blatantly political reasons. 

Often during my tenure on KBE people asked me why state board members aren't elected by the people (rather than Kentucky's policy of appointment by the governor). I was aware that some states elect some or all of their state board members, but I thought that Kentucky had generally gotten it right in trying to shield the board (and the education system as a whole) from the more brutal elements of partisan politics.

But there we were in 2019, victims of the most ugly partisan powerplay ever inflicted on Kentucky education. In the years that  followed, I've become increasingly convinced that the direct election of state board members is the right way to go. It gives greater transparency to the work of the board and makes the education system more directly accountable to the public. 

The board is already political, but under the current system it functions as the political football of governors and the state legislature. Direct election of board members just makes clearer their political values and commitments.

This year Senator Mike Wilson (R-Bowling Green) has introduced a bill to make KBE an elected office. In a recent op-ed for Kentucky Today, I argued in favor of the proposal, listed as SB 8. You can read my full argument here.

Usual disclaimer: Opinions on this website are mine alone and do not reflect the views of my employer, organizations with which I am involved, or anyone affiliated.

Related posts:


Educating for Wisdom

SteinerLate last year the Imaginative Conservative published my review of David M. Steiner's recent book, A Nation at Thought: Restoring Wisdom in America's Schools

I argued that even though Steiner makes an excellent case for an education system based on classical purposes, I am skeptical that such an approach can work in a secular school environment. An excerpt:

There is much to admire in David M. Steiner’s prescription for American education. Most of his platform already constitutes the focus of America’s revival of K-12 classical education, a phenomenon that is almost entirely taking place in faith-based private schools and public charter schools.

Steiner, however, seems most interested in the implications of teaching for wisdom in traditional public schools, and believes his agenda is appropriate for the kind of diverse, multicultural constituents served by these secular institutions. “The elements [of my proposal] are meant to inclusive, acceptable to those whose politics or beliefs would otherwise divide them,” Steiner writes.

It is not clear, however, that this is the case. As much as we should hope that public education in America would embrace academic rigor and the ethical and aesthetic formation of children, the moral relativism of many of our citizens – and their children – make it hard to imagine a public school district adopting Steiner’s program. Steiner says that teaching phronesis is not the same thing as the amoral “values clarification” programs or bland, content-free “character education” programs of previous decades. But one can imagine the angry school board meetings where parents of various ideological camps demand to know “whose” virtues represent the standard to which students should be trained.

Read the full review here


Conservatives, Liberals, and the Purpose of Education

Conservatism

Yesterday I posted about my recent speech "A Conservative Reclamation of Education." At least part of that talk was inspired by my reading of Yoram Hazony's 2022 book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery. I wrote about this book for the website Imaginative Conservative back in March 2023. An excerpt:

Of course, an appreciation for individual freedom is also a premier value to conservatives of the Anglo-American tradition, but for them personal liberty is situated into a larger framework of sometimes competing social obligations and purposes for government.

According to Dr. Hazony, “Many of us learned something like this view of the political world from our parents and grandparents, or from the Bible and religious community to which we belong,” though not likely from our education in secular, government-run schools (p. 101). But if civilizations, including those that value freedom and democracy, are to persist across the ages, children must learn to honor the past that gave rise to those values in the first place.

Honor is a concept that appears across all human societies, Dr. Hazony argues, and “We find that there can be no conservative society – by which I mean a society capable of conserving any teaching or text, institution or form of behavior, so that it persists from one generation to the next—unless it is permeated throughout by a concern and regard for honor” (p. 118).

This begins with helping children learn to honor their actual, biological parents, as the family is “the training ground for one’s participation in all other hierarchies, whether one has joined them by consent or not” (p. 131).

Read the full essay here.


The Conservative Reclamation of Education

NKYTPI was recently invited to speak to the Northern Kentucky Tea Party on Kentucky's proposed school choice constitutional amendment. My friend and colleague Dr. Thomas Davis, president of Commonwealth Educational Opportunities (where I serve as a policy advisor), gave an update on the current legislative landscape, and then I situated my comments within the larger context of education in Kentucky and America. I titled my remarks "The Conservative Reclamation of Education."

I tried to offer a definition of "conservative" based on the ideas of political philsopher Yoram Hazony, explain how conservatives and liberals see the purposes of education differently, and argue why conservatives must reclaim education institutions for their original purpose. I also tried to describe what a conservative reclamation of education looks like in practice and policy. Excerpt:

Conservatives and liberals have very different views of the purpose of education. For conservatives, education involves the passing down of a civilization from one generation to the next, handing on values, ideas, and institutions that our forefathers found valuable. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. It is the transfer of a way of life.”

Of course, conservatives do not hold that everything from the past is worth conserving, nor that our institutions are never in need of updating. Repairs to our institutions must be made both because there is inevitable decay in the best of institutions due to human nature and because some institutions have proven unworkable or unjust over time. But conservatives seek to make repairs to institutions, causing as little damage to traditions as possible. Education is also about forming young people to not just honor the past, but to lead changes in the future that restore our social institutions to the original and enduring values of our culture.

And more fundamentally, conservatives believe that the primary purpose of education is to form young people for lives of virtue. Conservatives have a realistic understanding of human nature. We are born as fallen creatures in need of formation. Conservatives also believe in an enduring moral order that can be accessed through a combination of faith and reason and we can learn to better conform our lives to that enduring order. Schools in their various forms exist to help parents in their vocation of forming their children in just such a way.

That’s the conservative vision of education.

You can watch the talk at the link here. Thomas goes first and I come up around the 16 minute mark.

Usual disclaimer: The views expressed on this website are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer, organizations with which I am involved, or anyone affiliated.