Polls have shown for decades that the public trusts Democrats – and their more liberal political ideas – far more than Republicans when it comes to education. Now a nationally celebrated educational thinker believes he can change that.
“Conservatives should own this issue,” says Rick Hess, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “We are actually much better positioned than liberals to take the lead in education.”
Will the Conservatives actually manage to get ahead? Our edited conversation is below … you are the judge.
Listen to the full conversation here:
Matt Robison: How did we get to the point where we are educational in America?
Rick Hess: Reform Democrats and Reform Republicans have long looked very similar. Don’t forget that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was Ted Tedy’s baby as much as President Bush’s. It was a huge non-partisan deal. That started to change about 10 years ago.
Matt Robison: How has the conservative educational approach developed?
Rick Hess: Republicans were just as frustrated as anyone else where the NCLB ended up. It went into the review area. It felt alienating to teachers. After Common Core, Republicans increasingly began to say that we aren’t really for it. We are in favor of choosing the school. And look, I think school choice is a reasonable approach, but not a complete solution. In the Obama years in particular, Republicans got used to “pushing everything back”. We have made it a habit to offer conservative alternatives.
Matt Robison: Why is this an issue that conservatives should “own”?
Rick Hess: President Biden’s approach is to subsidize the status quo much more. No matter how thoughtful or far-sighted our progressive friends may be, they have entrenched interests in dealing with what we don’t. Conservatives have the opportunity to think creatively and purposefully instead of focusing on old ideas. We actually have the opportunity to re-imagine and rethink ourselves.
Matt Robison: Let’s dwell on some of the ideas you received from conservative thinkers for your “Conservative Politics Agenda”. What did you notice?
Rick Hess: These are not all great, comprehensive ideas. Some of them are small and practical. For example, there has been a lot of discussion about disciplinary reform over the past decade. We know that some students are disproportionately disciplined: boys versus girls, black and brown children versus white children. So we thought about how we could get meaningful, personalized feedback from teachers on what actually happened so that we could have educator-led, honest conversations about how we set discipline.
We also have a piece about how we have used the same elementary school day and school year over the past hundred years. How can we rethink this? One-size-fits-all usually doesn’t work. There are charter schools that have been offering Saturday programs for years, often half a day. There are schools that offer all-round service until 6:00 p.m. The point is, we need more flexibility and localized solutions, not Washington-led solutions for everyone.
Matt Robison: How about using technology and remote learning? It got a bad rap during the pandemic, but how do you see that going in the future?
Rick Hess: There is definitely a big part. We want teachers to spend more time on high quality things and less time on routine. But that means that you have to rethink the job descriptions. You need to rethink contracts. You need to rethink supplier agreements. These are the things my friends on the left are having enormous problems with.
Matt Robison: On the way to higher education, the agenda is the extent to which higher education institutions monitored, restricted and, in some cases, penalized speech. One of your authors wrote that a so-called “cultural approach” might be the solution?
Rick Hess: What he says is that there is a temptation to look into legislation on such a subject first. But the real way to start is by having a conversation: to be clear that we are fighting for it. We’re not really fighting for “free speech”. I don’t want people screaming fires or saying crazy things in crowded theaters. The idea of free inquiry that it is okay to have honest discussions on issues such as “whether or not America is systemically racist”. You shouldn’t be verbally abused for talking about it. Polls show that most Americans agree. If you put it that way, what we are arguing for is a generally divided consensus.
Matt Robison: Your authors have suggested a number of innovations, ranging from a three-year bachelor’s degree to a “hybrid college”.
Rick Hess: Yes exactly. I think it’s a bit like what we said with K-12: there are different needs and we need different solutions. No one size fits all for all free community colleges for everyone. Can we save low-income students 50 grand for fourth year? Can we specify other remote options? There are ways to do things differently and meet the needs of the 21st century.
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Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst focusing on demographics, psychology, politics, and economics trends that shape American politics. He served as the legislative director and chief of staff for three members of Congress on Capitol Hill for a decade, as well as serving as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or advisor on several New Hampshire congressional races. In 2012, he ran a comeback race, dubbed the election’s biggest surprise win by national political analysts. He then served as Policy Director in the New Hampshire State Senate and successfully helped coordinate legislative efforts to pass the Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulation policy. Matt holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts with his wife and three children.