• Concerns about education continue to engage parents and generate policy proposals
  • Winning the debate over the future of education requires a compelling vision based on principles
  • A commitment to a vibrant civil society, empowering parents to define the purpose of education, and educational pluralism are ways conservatives can shape a vision and guide the future

Masking, politicized curricula, lack of opportunity and dissatisfaction with remote learning: these are some of the issues that have enraged and engaged parents in North Carolina and across the nation. Parental activism has generated a raft of policy solutions, and while those are important, it has also led to the realization that more than policy solutions are needed. We need a conservative vision for education.

Sadly, conservatives are far better at articulating what we’re against than unifying around what we are for. A new vision is needed, built on conservative ideas and principles.

Sadly, conservatives are far better at articulating what we’re against than unifying around what we are for. A new vision is needed, built on conservative ideas and principles.

Three principles can help shape a new vision for education and help restore learning and order in the schools. Let’s review these principles.

Civil Society is pre-eminent. A vision for conservative education is premised not on government programs and ever-expanding budgets but on the belief that the conditions of human flourishing are best found and nurtured in civil society. This means solutions to problems are best found in local communities. That vision knows the role of government to be limited and focused on deterring tyranny.

Churches, civic associations, charities, and other institutions stand between the individual and the government. Civil society holds the government to account and also points out injustice. It works to help the poor, strengthen communities, and provide opportunity. A strong civil society enriches education by calling out inequities in our schools and ensuring children have access to the same educational opportunities.

Private education organizations have helped to meet this need by developing charter schools throughout North Carolina. Charter schools provide a remedy for children  trapped in failing or challenged public schools, simply on account of where they live. In addition to helping address economic inequities, a vibrant civil society provides families the opportunity to educate children in schools that affirm their own religious or moral values. America’s Catholic, Evangelical, Protestant, Jewish, and Islamic religious schools are examples of communities that came together to provide families an education consistent with their values. Today these schools educate the children of religious followers but also minister to the poor and uneducated. These options are only possible in a society where educational alternatives are encouraged and where religious and other organizations have the resources and wherewithal to meet the needs of families and society.

Parents define the purpose of education. All 50 states explicitly outline a role for government in education in their state constitutions. However, that’s generally where the agreement ends. Our land is filled with different communities that produce different ways to think about life, education, and how to raise children. These realities underscore why conservatives advocate for different schools and different types of education. It also explains why conservatives have had trouble coalescing around a clear national purpose for education.

How someone believes a child should be educated usually derives from the purpose we ascribe to education. Our history is defined by eras with different philosophies of education and the individual. In the early 19th century, public schools were the means to homogenize religious differences and assimilate immigrants. More recently, under the Great Society the purpose of education changed yet again. Education was used to fix the social ills of racial discrimination and help produce equal outcomes for disadvantaged students.

These differing impulses explain why so many conservatives have helped to spearhead magnet, charter schools, homeschooling, and experimental school districts, all of which try to match and affirm a student with a school’s pedagogical, philosophical, cultural, and religious beliefs.

The success and explosive growth of school choice validates the notion there is no one right way to educate a child.

The success and explosive growth of school choice validates the notion there is no one right way to educate a child.

Educational Pluralism is embraced. Our constitution enshrines religious and political freedom. Sadly, however, it has failed to guarantee educational freedom.

Our constitution understands that people have different religious, social, and cultural beliefs and that parents have a right to raise their children in those beliefs. We may respect differing beliefs, but if we exclude them from school, then it’s difficult to say we enjoy educational freedom. One cannot “embrace diversity” yet also oppose a diversity of educational options.

Most students attend public schools, which we are told are ideologically neutral. However, it is difficult today to find a school that does not embrace an educational philosophy –progressivism– that is also largely rejected by many Americans. That disconnect has fueled never-ending fights about the First Amendment freedoms and spawned parallel educational institutions. These fights are fueled by our definition of public education, which in the United States means education that is government-funded, government-regulated, and government-delivered.

As Ashley Rogers Berner points out, the United States is on a very short list of outliers where the government funds, regulates, and delivers education. Instead of working to assimilate individuals, such systems breed conflict. Many leading democracies sidestep this conflict by practicing what’s called educational pluralism. Educational pluralism is a framework where the government still funds and regulates education, but it does not necessarily provide education. For example, in many European countries parents have the freedom to send their child to a school that affirms their religious or cultural beliefs. Educational pluralism is the norm in many democracies around the world, but not here in the United States.

Forcing students to enroll in an education system that ignores the preferences of its families restricts the freedom of its users. If schools are truly serving the needs of families, they will reflect a diversity of viewpoints. As such, public dollars should support a variety of educational options and beliefs — even those with which we vehemently disagree. That’s the price of freedom.

Education issues continue to dominate policy discussions. And for good reason, education helps to determine the quality of one’s life and is also the best vehicle for transmitting social, cultural, and civic values. If conservatives want to win the public debate over education, they must articulate a principled vision. A vision based on civil society, freedom to define the purpose of education, and educational pluralism can help shape the debate and point the way to the future.