Book Profile

Advancing After Getting Education Right

Rick Hess, dean of the American Enterprise Institute’s excellent education policy shop, and Michael McShane, director of national research at the school-choice advocacy group EdChoice, have issued a guide to conservative education policy and philosophy. Policymakers interested in improving education could do worse than declaring Getting Education Right: A Conservative Vision for Improving Early Childhood, K-12, and College is “what we believe”—echoing the anecdote about British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who allegedly slammed a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on a conference table at a policy meeting while saying, “This is what we believe!” Policymakers could even do this in conjunction with Hess’s 2023 volume The Great School Rethink.

While I could use this post to dispute finer points of family policy (I think Hess and McShane are too dismissive of the negative consequences of two classical “ice cream” policies, expansive child allowances and paid-parental-leave mandates), I would rather focus on schooling policy and philosophy, in which I am broadly in agreement with the authors, and the question of what comes after the policymaker has done the Iron Lady impression. Allow me to play Red Team and guide education thinkers who want to advance Hess and McShane’s very good ideas into public policy to the next steps—taking on the institutions that stand in the way.

The Problem of Institutions

Hess and McShane know from hard experience that even education institutions that will play footsie with the Right may not be true friends. The book tells an anecdote of McShane quoting a song lyric to tell conservatives that “This place is a prison. These people are not your friends,” in a Kansas City educational debate. Hess has written elsewhere at length on the failures of previous cases of the Right being the junior partner in a Left-led education reform coalition that gave conservatives little in exchange for part of their souls.

The effects liberals have had on defining right-of-center education policy are extensive. A notable example is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, a massive expansion of federal education power adopted in a bipartisan effort shepherded by then-Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and the George W. Bush administration.

Showing perhaps how little innate conservative education policy there was at the time, Hess details the most harrowing public-policy anecdote I have ever read or heard from the law’s immediate aftermath. He was sitting in a Pentagon meeting before the Iraq War listening to the bureaucrats standing up the educational administration of post-war Iraq talk about applying NCLB-style policy to the Iraqi education system. Similarly, the Common Core curriculum devised with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and advanced with support from conservative education activists like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) did little on the right except provoke opposition.

Getting Education Right offers an alternative to “whatever the liberals are doing, but less” as an education policy. Standing against it are a massive bureaucracy, teachers unions motivated to elect pliant bosses, and a left-wing Big Philanthropy architecture with billions of dollars to throw at advocacy groups that will call any deviation from Everything Leftism racist, sexist, fascist, Christian Nationalist, or whatever “ist” the prevailing winds of their ideology declare the worst at any given moment.

I will focus on the authors’ eight “beliefs that anchor our approach to education.” To most conservatives, seven will be unobjectionable. The eighth I will address separately. But left-wing institutional interests will either outright oppose or interpret in a tortured manner the same seven in ways that are important when considering how to move Hess and McShane’s proposals from think tank white papers to real classrooms.

Parental Rights

Hess and McShane argue, “Education should be a handshake.” They note that parents and students have rights against and owe duties to school systems and teachers, who have reciprocal rights and duties if the education of any given child is to succeed. But the organized Left wants nothing more than to kick parents out of the handshake system, and the organized Left has little more respect for those calling for more personal responsibility by students and parental responsibility over students. Indeed, one of the 13 “guiding principles” of the influential Black Lives Matter at School is “disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another.”

That guiding principle collides violently with Hess and McShane’s second anchor belief: “Policy should put family first.” Outright rejection of parents’ views on fundamental questions like their children’s identities is deeply entrenched in the education system. According to Parents Defending Education, 1,059 school districts serving 10,825,893 students have explicit policies that “openly state that district personnel can or should keep a student’s transgender status hidden from parents.” If parents complain, they may find institutional education-bureaucracy groups like the National School Boards Association calling on the feds to investigate them for domestic terrorism.

When members of the National Conservative faction of the Right call to “destroy and reconquer” education, this is what they most want to destroy. It certainly looks like any conservative advances will require not convincing but defeating liberals and progressives. While Hess and McShane are probably right in saying that the average liberal citizen is not as anti-parent as these examples, those who are that anti-parent and anti-family have disproportionate influence over what happens in classrooms. Taking that influence away, or overcoming the groups that they influence, is key.

Purpose and Performance

The third belief is the anchor belief that lays out the purpose of education: “Education should instill love.” Drawing on Roger Scruton’s concept of “oikophilia,” roughly defined as love and honor for one’s own home, family, community, and culture, Hess and McShane call on educators to raise students’ horizons to the “true, good, and beautiful.” Conservatives will again echo agreement; the aspiration certainly tickles the heartstrings more fully than calls to compulsory 19th-century farm labor proposed by other right-wingers.

But where conservatives feel the heart rise and hear the strains of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” from calls to oikophilia, the contemporary left-winger sees Blackshirts and jackboots. (Yes, even from the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank denounced by national conservatives for its relative centrism.) Making the purpose of education instilling love of the natural family and local community, rather than the identity-based “communities” and “chosen families” of the Everything Leftists who run the education institutions will be a battle, and those who want to do it must prepare to fight.

Related to the question of education’s purpose is the authors’ anchor belief that “Schools should be formative, not performative, institutions.” But until the purpose of the institution is established, until the battle for oikophilia is won, can one even argue, as Hess and McShane do, that it is wrong for civics teachers to put teaching students how to do progressive activism over knowing the First Amendment?

Considered similarly, does the “LibsofTikTok Teacher” phenomenon demonstrate extraneous performative behavior or is it the purpose of 21st century education? The public sees numerous K–12 teachers brag about being progressive activists, especially on sexuality-related matters, online until they are caught by conservative activists like Chaya Raichik, creator of the LibsofTikTok Twitter account. The fact the question must be asked shows both the stakes of the battle for oikophilia as well as the steepness of the grade conservatives must climb.

For all Hess and McShane’s talk about how their experiences do not indicate that most teachers are LibsofTikTok Teachers, the two principal representative groups for the profession (the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association teachers unions) spend political capital opposing regulations on what books are age-appropriate for school libraries and how extensively teachers can indoctrinate students in leftist critical race and gender theories. The sexuality education programs in public-school classrooms are devised by ideological advocacy groups like Planned Parenthood and SIECUS, which has the tagline “Sex Ed for Social Change.” The fight is coming.

Hess and McShane argue that “education should free students from circumstances of their birth,” a statement with which the Left and even the most radical LibsofTikTok Teachers fundamentally agree. The point of debate is from what circumstances students should be freed. Hess and McShane write about the tension between educating students to love home but also equipping them wish skills to become “anywheres” who leave hearth and home for the big city (or abroad) if they so choose.

For the Left, this is not a tradeoff. All circumstances (even biological sex) are subject to liberation. In the dichotomy between the anywheres and the “somewheres” who revere and remain at home, the Left simply holds that all students should be molded into anywheres (if not some even-more-transcendent “anybodies” or “anythings”). Why should conservatives help them? Hess and McShane have written in this book on the failures of previous cases of the Right being the junior partner in a Left-led education reform coalition, and it is easy to see how this could become the first, and ultimately (and intentionally from the coalition “partners”) the only of the eight anchor beliefs that a cross-ideological coalition might advance.

Theories of Change

Hess and McShane argue, “Wisdom should guide us,” and sets wisdom as practical experience in opposition to “science” as practiced by uncontrolled experiments and econometric models and “scientism” that holds that only quantifiable ways of knowing are valid. Opposed to this change in epistemology are the education bureaucracy and the institutions that build it up, which are fundamentally scientistic—just look at how many institutions demanded deference to teachers unions and public health officials’ maximalist COVID-19 closures.

The New York Times and the elite classes to which it speaks will call policies based on practical wisdom over “studies” (whether they replicate or not) “unscientific” or worse. Expect denunciations of this sort of change as “Christian Nationalism,” never mind what religion one may privately profess, for failing to “follow the science.” Conservatives will need a plan to push past those blocking tackles.

The eighth and final anchor belief in Hess and McShane’s reckoning is, “We should pursue change, properly understood.” This raises the question of movement building. The Conservative Education Reform Network (CERN), the AEI-housed network of policy wonks Hess helped create, is a good start, but how does one move policy from CERN whitepapers to classrooms, knowing the teachers unions, multi-million-dollar Big Philanthropy foundations, and liberal individual donors like Mackenzie Scott have tens of millions of dollars to spend to stop those efforts? Conservative institution-builders and donors must prepare for the battle that is coming.

“Confident Pluralism”: A Double-Edged Anchor

Hess and McShane’s other anchor belief about education is, “We should be confident pluralists.” Drawing on a book on the subject, they define “confident pluralism” as respecting the confidence to be firm in one’s own beliefs while pluralist in accommodating the conflicting beliefs of others. So far, so civic-minded. But at both ends of the ideological spectrum, activists reject it.

The Left is not pluralist, except in the manner of the most superficial college-admissions-brochure “representation” of visually distinct demographic groups. The appalling state of free speech on university campuses detailed by groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) confirms this. There was a reason that appeals to free-speech principles by the former presidents of Harvard and UPenn amid the ongoing anti-Semitism controversies failed to save their jobs as their august institutions sat last and second-to-last in FIRE’s assessments of campus speech freedoms.

Instead of pluralism, the Left has a commitment to its vision of the true, good, and beautiful: Everything Leftism. Public policy is good to the extent to which it affirms Everything Leftism. Public policy that does not affirm Everything Leftism must be swept away. Thus, a LibsofTikTok Teacher proselytizing gender ideology at government expense on government time is a matter of free speech, and a parent protesting a book with explicit depictions of sexual acts in the school library is (probably) a domestic terrorist.

Further, the Left is extremely confident. Drawing on its Hegelian and Marxist ideological heritage, the Left believes capital-h History is on its side; drawing on the book that broke American politics and intersectional theory, it believes the capital-d Demographics are on its side. With victory nearer as each pale, male, and stale Boomer succumbs to the actuarial tables, why be pluralist? The leftist believes in xir very bones that “Tomorrow belongs to me.”

Backing those beliefs are tens of millions of dollars from Big Philanthropy, thousands of professional organizers from the teachers unions and left-wing advocacy groups, hundreds of school boards the teachers unions worked diligently to elect, and dozens of government administrations at the state and federal level under leftist control. How does policy force these left-wing institutions to be less confident—less confident in History, less confident in Demographics, and less confident in Everything Leftism—and thus inclined to more pluralism?

Conservatives, especially the national conservatives, have a mirror problem driving them to anti-pluralism. Instead of deranging overconfidence, conservatives can suffer from deranging pessimism. Anti-pluralism becomes a necessary defensive tactic against the aggressive march of Everything Leftism. “Of course a couple of Establishment RINOs, who talk down populist heroes like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) who ‘Know What Time It Is’ would call for pluralism. It will get them invited to Chevy Chase cocktail parties as part of the Controlled Opposition,” a NatCon might say.

While such a statement would be unnecessarily personal, it is hard to blame a worried NatCon for his broader concerns. Social policy and cultural reverses, culminating in the exposure during the COVID-19 school closures that public schools were teaching children Marxist-inspired racial and gender theories with the apparent intention to supersede the values students would otherwise learn from families, are real. Hess and McShane lead the book with one example, in which a state-level California State Board of Education encouraged chanting “prayers” full of leftist revolutionary slogans to Aztec deities honored in history with human sacrifice as part of its ethnic-studies curriculum. How can conservative visionaries help the Right become more confident, and therefore open to more pluralism? More immediately, how can they put points on the board quickly to help break the cycle of depressive-pessimistic spiral?


Advancing from Getting Education Right to, er, getting education right will require combating the institutions—the teachers colleges, the labor unions, the bureaucracies, the Big Philanthropies, the universities—that have put education into the crisis in which it finds itself. Hess and McShane note that conservatives have an opportunity since their political coalition does not include any of those institutions to devise a new vision and fix the problems those institutions propagate and defend. And they’re right—it is an opportunity. But to avoid simply charging blindly into the well-resourced opposition, conservatives will need to build institutions and raise funds of their own.

Michael Watson

Michael is Research Director for Capital Research Center and serves as the managing editor for InfluenceWatch. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, he previously worked for a…
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