Energized Retrenchment: The Coming Conservative K-12 Approach?

This is the third in Andy Smarick’s series on whether education reform is anti-conservative. You can find the first article here and the second article here.

This series’ first two posts mostly noodled around with concepts, probably leaving dirty-fingernail types sighing, “What does any of this have to do with our actual work?”

In subsequent posts, I’ll narrow in on applications, but it probably makes sense to spend a little time on this now. Here, I’ll try to explain why a conversation about the intersection of conservatism and ed reform is timely and, hopefully, whet your appetite for further discussions.

It’s probable that Republicans will shortly wield more power. The 2014 midterms are nearing, and President Obama’s approval rating is but 42 percent.

Even if that number were higher, Democratic prospects would still be gloomy. The second midterm for the sitting president’s party almost always produces big losses (see FDR, Ike, GWB, etc.). The GOP already controls the House of Representatives, and it is expected to take the Senate and maintain control of a strong majority of governorships. While it’s too early to forecast the 2016 presidential election, history teaches that seldom does a party hold the Oval Office for three consecutive terms.

So how would an ascendant Right, cognizant of the governing responsibilities of a majority party, approach education reform? I predict a paradoxical blend of modesty and vigor. Channeling Shakespeare and his famous oxymorons, I’ll call it “energized retrenchment.”

Why retrenchment? The sophistry of today’s political “experts”—whose trenchant analysis of the Right consists of sneering, “Tea Party”—has cloaked a crucial fact: After two hyperactive presidential administrations, conservatives yearn for a time out.

George Will recently described the “minimalist” president America desperately needs (a leader who would regularly say, “This is none of my business”). The same appetite exists in K–12.

Rick Hess recently censured federal activism with a damning assessment of Race to the Top. With billions of dollars, the feds induced a “sugar high,” enticing states into “dreaming up ambitious new spending programs” aligned with “half-baked” federal priorities. Fordham’s Finn and Brickman took to the pages of the conservative National Review to scold the Obama team for its “big mistake” of issuing “nudges and bribes” to induce states to adopt Common Core.

Sensing its timeliness, Education Week recently resuscitated a 33-year-old story about conservatives trying to end the U.S. Department of Education, and Alyson Klein noted the 1981 memo in question might be useful to today’s GOP congressional staffers. GOP Senator Lamar Alexander’s successful primary campaign featured an ad saying, “Washington just can’t keep its sticky fingers off our public schools.”

All this suggests a grand scaling back, yet it would be a mistake to assume this translates into a philosophy of do-nothing-ism and that, as a result, the most disadvantaged kids will be forgotten.

Semi-conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote (and got conservatives’ attention) about the extraordinary importance of character development. He argued that “noncognitive” skills like gratification-delay and perseverance are essential to enabling low-income kids to succeed.

Brooks’ column offers an example of the new conservative approach. It attempts to advance positive change, not through massive new federal programs or fanciful technical solutions but via traditional, experience-informed means. Grit might not be new and shiny, but it is as valuable today as it was on hardscrabble Depression-era farms and in turn-of-the-twentieth-century, big-city, recent-immigrant-serving Catholic schools.

The same themes can be seen in the widespread conservative embrace of Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty agenda. Henry Olsen, of the conservative Ethics & Public Policy Center, recently wrote approvingly of Ryan’s manifesto, “Expanding Opportunity in America.” Olsen noted the plan focuses on “what government can and ought to do to help” those in need, including enabling “people on the margin to support themselves.” Again: care for the disadvantaged, modesty (“what government can do”), and energy behind time-tested interventions (i.e., teaching to fish, not merely providing fish).

There are many more such ideas gaining prominence in right-leaning circles; they add up to what Yuval Levin calls “a conservative approach to government that advances our vision of a free society.”

Levin was recently profiled in a New York Times Magazine article for his leadership in the “reform conservatism” movement—a revival of creative policy thinking on the Right. He serves as the editor of the influential National Affairs, a conservative journal qua coffee house that, even the Times concedes, “exudes seriousness.”

Percolating in its pages are the makings of a fulsome “energetic-retrenchment” approach to domestic policy-making, which might inform the governing agendas of ascendant conservative leaders. Levin is deeply skeptical of complex government systems promising to tidily fix what ails society. This view and his preference for gradual, organic, experience-informed change are clearly reflected in National Affairs, and they might animate conservative K–12 policy proposals for the foreseeable future.

At an abstract level, this almost certainly means an enervated Uncle Sam. It also might mean the waning of sweeping, technocratic K–12 reforms of all types under an ascendant right.

As for specifics, Hess and Kelly offered a lucid, comprehensive vision for a new, limited federal education agenda (fittingly, in National Affairs). Though I’ll offer a variant in a post to come, their piece, which I’ll give more to attention later, is the opening bid to which other conservative proposals must respond.

The more interesting and trickier question is what “energized retrenchment” means for state and local K–12 activity. Would the Recovery School District or statewide teacher-evaluation systems be too sweeping? What about chartering, vouchers, and blended learning? I’ll consider these issues and more in future posts.

A final thought for the dirty-fingernail types looking for an actionable takeaway: If the future holds a diminished federal K–12 role, greater respect for tradition and longstanding institutions, increased faith in gradual change, and deference to experience-informed reform, then those dependent on federal largesse and reliant on the big-and-bold mentality may be seriously mismatched with the coming zeitgeist. And organizations with uniformly progressive leadership teams may neither understand nor be equipped to navigate it.

– Andy Smarick

This first appeared of the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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