Teachers and the Right
There's a story often told about Ronald Reagan who, in 1980, hired Lionel Sosa, a San Antonio advertising executive, to help court the Latino vote for his presidential campaign. Reagan reportedly told Sosa his job wouldn't be difficult. "Latinos are Republican," he observed. "They just don't know it yet."
The remark reflected the small-c conservatism of Latino voters, whom Reagan often praised. At a 1982 White House event celebrating Hispanic Heritage Week, for example, Reagan described the community as "bound by strong ties of language, religion, family, and culture...that enrich America and keep us strong and free." Forty years later Reagan has proved prescient, as Latino voters have begun to drift rightward in recent election cycles.
A similar, if less intuitive, case can be made today about public-school teachers, who preside over one of the most crucial institutions in forming the attitudes, beliefs, and character of the nation's children. Only in this instance, Reagan's remark might be better rendered in reverse: Public schools and teachers are by their very nature, conservative; it's conservatives who just don't know it yet.
If this argument falls flat at first blush, it's because the political right has long conditioned itself to regard public education as broken beyond salvation. At the same time, public-school teachers, or at least their unions, have for decades borne the full brunt of criticism from conservatives and the broader education-reform movement — and not without reason. Teachers' unions have reliably resisted any attempts at meaningful change, often protecting the interests of teachers at the expense of students. Stanford political scientist Terry Moe — whose 1990 book Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, co-authored with John Chubb, is widely regarded as the urtext of the modern education-reform movement — has described the failure of the decades-long reform effort as "largely due to the power of the teachers' unions." For its part, the Republican Party has traditionally been anti-union, regarding public-sector unions in particular as bolstering electoral prospects for Democrats.
If teachers' unions have been fitted for black hats by their critics, they've often seemed inclined to wear them with glee. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) from 1974 to 1997, is said to have insisted that he represented teachers, not children (though he believed their interests were aligned). AFT's current president, Randi Weingarten, emerged as one of the highest profile (and most controversial) figures during the Covid-19 pandemic, pressuring public-health officials behind the scenes to keep schools closed while publicly insisting she was working to reopen them, and generally appearing indifferent to the learning-loss potential of disrupted school schedules and routines.
Conservatives commonly complain that public education has been captured by progressive ideology. But in many respects, education is inherently progressive. When it succeeds, it is an engine of social advancement, fairness, and upward mobility — all goals broadly aligned with the outlook of multi-racial, working-class progressivism.
At the same time, a school is an inherently conservative institution. We build and maintain schools to expose children to our nation's history and culture, and to prepare them for a responsible adult life of informed, engaged citizenship. While teachers might not think of themselves as conservative, they staff institutions that have proved remarkably resistant to change. Public schools endure in their basic form and function not because we lack alternatives to placing two dozen children in a classroom led by an adult every weekday, but because sending children to a place called "school" is an enduring and valued cultural habit in nearly every American community. Thus there lies a paradox at the heart of our relationship with public education: In the long run education serves progressive ends, but those ends are accomplished through conservative institutions.
In recent decades, left-leaning education activists have pushed too hard on the progressive side of the equation, causing trust in public schools among conservatives to plummet. In turn, many conservatives have escalated their attack on public education — and public-school teachers in particular — while calling for parents to abandon local public schools in favor of alternatives like charters, private schools, and homeschooling.
School choice is a necessary corrective to the well-documented failures of many public schools. At the same time, conservatives should think long and hard before retreating from engagement with traditional public education. The problems with American public schools are legion, but a simple fact dwarfs all others: They are where the children are.
ORIGINS OF ANTAGONISM
The roots of conservative antipathy toward public education stretch back more than a century, to an era of intense social and political reforms.
In his 2010 book Saving Schools, Harvard political-science professor Paul Peterson described how early in the 20th century, an "articulate class of educated middle-class professionals — an intelligentsia, as it were — was gathering strength in politics, journalism, the universities, and the professions." "It was only a matter of time," he concluded, "before schools would capture their attention."
These intellectuals became increasingly enamored with progressive pedagogical ideas championed by education theorist John Dewey, who believed that education was "the fundamental method of social progress and reform." "Few reform movements have been as successful at changing the educational system's structure of power," Peterson observed. "The progressives were so effective, in fact, that eventually it became quite unclear whether the schools belonged to the public or to the professionals." Echoes of this critique still resonate with the public today.
Among the more visible effects of progressive reforms was the consolidation and centralization of public-school districts, reducing their number from 120,000 to about 14,000 nationwide. Reformers also pushed school-board elections from November to other parts of the year, depressing voter turnout and placing even more control in the hands of the most engaged and invested citizens — particularly teachers and their unions. In Peterson's telling, progressive ideas congealed into a set of professional interests, further weakening local control of schools. Questions soon began to gnaw at the conservative mind: "Were the professionals really as public-spirited, politically disinterested, and scientifically grounded as they claimed? Were the schools of education, now in control of the paths to teaching, counseling, and administration, capable of turning out a talented workforce?"
Closer to our own time, doubts about the quality of American public schools and their teachers reached a full boil with "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform." Published in 1983, the report raised troubling questions about public education's capacity to produce a competitive workforce, famously asserting that "[i]f an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." The report drew intense criticism and rebuttals, but it instilled the message of education's decline in the nation's consciousness and would inform federal K-12 policies for decades to come.
Around the same time, the public image of the teaching profession reached its nadir — and not just among conservatives. At the start of the 21st century, Democrats, typically reliable union allies, joined forces with George W. Bush's administration to enact No Child Left Behind. The statute significantly changed the climate of nearly every classroom across America, mandating annual tests in reading and math for almost all students in grades three through eight.
At the same time, an emerging and youthful education-reform movement was bristling with do-gooder energy and optimism — much of which was directed at ousting poorly performing teachers. Time magazine put Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee on its cover wielding a broom, symbolizing her intention to sweep poor performers out of the city's classrooms. Newsweek soon followed suit with a cover story insisting that the fix for American education was simply to "Fire Bad Teachers." In her 2014 book The Teacher Wars, New York Times education reporter Dana Goldstein noted that the pro-reform movie Waiting for Superman "portrayed all urban neighborhood public schools as blighted places packed with incompetent tenured teachers, while presenting nonunionized charters as the solution." Elite college graduates, hoping to fill the gap in high-quality teachers at public schools, applied in record numbers to Teach for America, which trained them to teach students in impoverished schools.
As bipartisan enthusiasm for reform waned in the 2010s (in large part due to its failure to generate results, which Chester Finn and Frederick Hess have outlined in these pages), conservatives coalesced around school choice as their preferred lever for change. The thinking was that with more options available, public schools would have to compete for students by providing more attractive curricula, programs, and facilities. Conservatives continue to champion school choice to this day.
Curiously, there was — and continues to be — a decidedly anti-conservative cast to the education-reform movement of the last few decades. Disruption doesn't come naturally to conservatives, who are generally more inclined to prize the stability of institutions than to seek to disrupt or dismantle them. Moreover, there is an unmistakably technocratic flavor to an approach that imposes academic standards, accountability, and standardized testing from the top down to jolt American K-12 education from decades of complacency and desultory results. In that sense, the education-reform movement is an echo of the Progressive-era reforms that put off conservatives in the first place.
At the same time, conservatives' reverence for custom, convention, and continuity are more complicated when those institutions are government-run. This has become increasingly apparent in recent years. Writing for this journal in 2014, Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson described an "anti-government fervor" that was escalating in both its intensity and appeal on the American right. A skeptical view of government is nothing new among conservatives, particularly those with more libertarian convictions. But the pair took prescient note of a "rhetorical zeal and indiscipline in which virtually every reference to government is negative, disparaging, and denigrating."
The fervor they described would soon reach a tipping point, beginning in the spring of 2020.
The Covid-19 pandemic significantly altered the relationship between public schools and their many stakeholders — especially parents. Unpredictable schedules, masking restrictions, frequent forced absences due to quarantine rules, and discontent with remote learning contributed to an unprecedented student exodus: As the 2022-2023 school year commenced, approximately 1.2 million students had exited public-school districts nationwide since the lockdowns began.
The longer schools operated under a threat of closure, the more likely parents were to have made alternative plans for their children's education. Nationally, home-school enrollment jumped from 2.8% of students in 2019 to 5.4% in 2021. Public charter schools added 240,000 students to their rolls. Between 2020 and 2021, private schools — which were more likely to offer in-person instruction than their public counterparts — saw their enrollment swell by a staggering 19%, or an extra 1 million students. Even after the pandemic subsided and in-person schooling resumed, alternatives to traditional public schools had become part of many families' established routines.
At the same time, culture-war issues further exacerbated tensions between parents and school boards. Fights in many school districts over masking policies, critical race theory, gender ideology, book bans, and other hot-button social issues became commonplace in schools more accustomed to serving as community hubs than as ideological battlegrounds.
Hanging over all of this was the now indisputable evidence of profound student learning loss that occurred over the course of the pandemic. The latest round of test scores released last year from the National Assessment of Educational Progress — often referred to as the nation's report card — saw dramatic declines in reading and math scores for students in most states.
Each of these factors, separately or in combination, has had a deleterious effect on Americans' already complicated relationship with teachers and public schools. For decades, an annual Gallup survey measuring views of the honesty and ethics in various professions has shown teachers to be among the most trusted occupations in the country. Before 2020, 75% of Americans agreed that grade-school teachers have high "honesty and ethical standards." A year later, that number had dropped to 64% — still among the highest scores relative to other occupations listed in the survey, but an all-time low for the profession and moving closer to the ambivalent sentiments the public has long attached to public education at large. (Americans have seldom held public education in high regard, but local schools and their own children's teachers have historically tended to be exempt from such harsh judgment.) A separate Gallup survey found that only 42% of Americans say they are satisfied with U.S education — the lowest level in two decades, and the second-lowest rating recorded in the poll's history.
Today, few Americans are content with their children's education. In recent election cycles, Republican candidates for state and local office have seized on the moment by challenging the curricula and culture of public schools on ideological grounds. Many of them have positioned themselves as champions of parents, insisting that families must have a say not only in what is taught, but in who makes fundamental decisions in directing their children's education. This has led to renewed calls among conservatives to expand school choice, which is on the march nationwide. As of this writing, five states — Arizona, West Virginia, Iowa, Utah, and Arkansas — have adopted laws creating universal "education savings accounts," which give nearly all parents in those states the ability to opt out of district-run schools and command the use of state dollars to direct their children's education themselves.
SCHOOL CHOICE IS NOT ENOUGH
It's not entirely surprising that conservatives would see school choice as the best defense against a public-school establishment that seems unable to improve and hostile to conservative values. Breaking the monopoly of public education forces schools to compete for students and funding, spurring innovation and excellence in turn.
At the same time, favoring school choice as the exclusive, or even primary, lever of reform while disengaging from efforts to improve public education would be a mistake for several reasons.
For starters, asking America's parents to abandon their support for local public schools in favor of entirely new educational paradigms is a heavy lift. Changing schools or opting to home school can be profoundly disruptive to family life and routines, as well as children's social lives. Transportation challenges are often insurmountable. If the majority of American families seem stubbornly attached to local public schools, it can't be explained away by a lack of parental engagement or credible alternatives; it's often the result of more practical considerations.
Neither is school choice the bulwark against progressive indoctrination that proponents paint it as. At elite private schools serving families with the most resources and the greatest number of schooling options available to them, the cutthroat competition for seats, combined with social pressure to be "anti-racist," has made those schools more inclined to adopt progressive policies and curricula. For a range of reasons, many private-school parents have shown an unwillingness to buck their schools' strident progressive orthodoxies.
More fundamentally, though, arguments for choice as the main solution to failing public schools sidestep the shared interest Americans have in public education. Parents of school-age children undoubtedly have the most personal stake in the quality of schools available to them, but the claim that families should have control over "their" money elides the fact that the cost of education in the United States is socialized: We pay school taxes regardless of whether we send our children to public schools, or even whether we have children at all. Choice strategies like vouchers, education savings accounts, and other such mechanisms, therefore, put parents in control of our money.
It makes sense to put decision-making in the hands of those closest to schools and with the most at stake — namely their own children. But the shared cost implies a mutual interest, as well as a literal investment in every child. School choice can solve a school-based problem for a family, but it can't address the interest every American holds in the education of the next generation.
None of this is to suggest that conservatives should abandon the push for school choice. The clearest triumph of the reform era has been the creation of new education institutions — particularly public charter schools, which are largely free from unionization and bureaucratic meddling. New networks of high-performing urban charter schools in particular have provided critical relief to communities beset by generations of public-school failure. School choice is a positive force for education pluralism and system-wide improvements, and conservatives should continue encouraging and supporting choice-oriented reforms.
School choice can be many things — a safety valve for parents unsatisfied with local district schools, a way for schools with new curricular models to emerge, and a strategy for injecting competition and dynamism into K-12 education. What school choice is unlikely to provide anytime soon, if ever, is a replacement for the nearly 14,000 government-funded school districts in America and the 100,000 schools they run. As of the fall of 2019, more than 90% of America's school-age children attended schools run by public-school districts. While those numbers have fallen post-pandemic and are unlikely to return to their earlier level, only about 2.6% of students left public schools between 2019 and 2021.
The inescapable truth about education in America is that there is no foreseeable scenario under which traditional public schools will not educate the majority of the nation's future entrepreneurs, engineers, doctors, soldiers, and citizens for generations to come. Conservatives are not wrong to take exception when activists seek to impose a progressive agenda on what is at heart a bedrock government service, but their response of promoting school choice as a conflict-avoidance strategy functionally cedes public education — and the vast majority of America's schoolchildren — to the left. If conservatives earnestly believe that public education is a hotbed of progressive indoctrination on social and political issues, it would be an act of self-immolation to surrender future generations to its influence.
The failure of public schools to cultivate values and character traits congenial to conservatives is not an argument for disengagement any more than the breakdown of family structures or a high divorce rate delegitimizes family life. The appropriate response in both cases is not to abandon the institution, but to recommit to strengthening it.
On that front, conservatives will need allies. Their most promising potential partners could come from an unlikely group: public-school teachers.
Conservatives have long criticized teachers for their progressive ideological leanings. Yet most public-school teachers are less hostile to conservative views than is commonly assumed. In 2017, Education Week commissioned a nationally representative survey of teachers on their political views. Only 5% of teachers described themselves as "very liberal," while another 24% described themselves as "liberal." A plurality (43%) described themselves as "moderate." The remaining 27% identified either as "conservative" or "very conservative" (roughly the same number as those who identify as "liberal" or "very liberal"). This would make the teacher workforce only slightly less conservative, and somewhat more moderate, than Americans at large.
This should come as no surprise. There are over 3 million teachers in public-school classrooms — a number so large that it would be hard for the group to differ dramatically in its political positions from those of the population as a whole. Debates over education, however, tend to be driven by union leaders, political advocates, faculty at colleges of education, and philanthropic funders, all of whom are a deeper shade of blue than the teachers they represent or seek to influence.
Conservatives would do well to look past the rhetoric of these actors and focus instead on teachers themselves. If they do, they might be surprised to find allies among public-school teachers on any number of issues.
One fruitful source of the common ground may be student behavior, which has emerged as one of the most significant factors driving teachers from the profession. During the 2021-2022 school year, one in 10 teachers reported being physically assaulted by students, while 43% said at least one colleague was attacked in their district. Meanwhile, half of the National Education Association's teachers say they'll retire or leave the profession sooner than they'd planned, with 76% citing student behavior as a serious issue in their classrooms. Conservatives, already skeptical of trends like restorative justice and impatient with lax student discipline, are likely to find supporters among teachers who demand safe and orderly classrooms.
There is also a demand among teachers for common-sense, measured curricular policies that appeal to conservative pragmatism. The push for equity in schools across the country, to take one example, has led some administrators to make curricular decisions that will likely hurt the students they seek to help. In 2022, for instance, the Virginia Department of Education's Mathematics Pathways Initiative proposed "de-tracking" math classes for the state's students through 10th grade on the theory that tracking has a disproportionately negative impact on lower-income and minority students. In effect, students of all academic abilities would take the same math classes.
Predictably, the loudest outcry against this measure and others like it came from the right. But a nationally representative survey of teachers also found that only 10% thought this would be a good idea. Their reasoning is not hard to understand: It is exceedingly difficult to write and execute lesson plans that challenge the most advanced students while ensuring that students who struggle in the subject aren't being left behind. Without additional support, lumping together students of multiple abilities in a single classroom makes it harder for teachers to teach and, in turn, for students to learn.
There is even potential for consensus among conservatives and teachers on teacher pay. Dozens of models exist for raising teacher salaries that would appeal to those on the right, one of which involves giving teachers the opportunity to increase their pay based on performance. The IMPACTplus pay schedule in Washington, D.C.'s public schools offers an example: Highly effective teachers in schools with a high concentration of poverty can increase their salaries to as much as $130,000 per year.
Less expensive models provide better compensation while staying within school budgets by managing teacher workloads creatively; such strategies can boost pay by more than 40%. In March 2022, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a likely Republican candidate for president in 2024, announced that all teachers in the state would receive a raise, bringing the average starting salary for a Florida teacher to $47,000 — a $7,000 increase compared to the 2020 average. "It's just something I think is really, really important," he said of the measure. "We do appreciate the folks who are working with these kids, particularly during [the pandemic]." DeSantis's decision, coupled with the continued support he receives from conservatives, shows that increasing pay for public-school teachers is not a third rail for voters on the right.
Even on the most ideologically tinged arguments surrounding schools, there is room for compromise. In recent years, legislatures have passed curriculum restrictions on critical race theory in 17 states. Yet 74% of self-described moderate teachers and 57% of conservative teachers oppose such bans. With regard to bans on gender and sexuality curricula, 65% of moderate teachers and 49% of conservative teachers oppose them.
It's not surprising that teachers would prefer to facilitate conversations on sensitive subjects with students as opposed to being banned from mentioning them. But polls indicate that parents also want controversial topics discussed in school — particularly at the high-school level — as well. The discomfort comes into play with the perception that schools are preaching, not teaching. This suggests an opportunity for conservatives and teachers to coalesce around teacher codes of conduct aimed at ensuring viewpoint diversity in classrooms with a fair, community-deliberated consensus on how challenging discussions are to be framed.
Public-school teachers preside over critical institutions responsible for the education and character formation of the vast majority of the nation's young people. Yet in recent years, those institutions have drifted from the purpose of preparing children for productive adult life and engaged citizenship, causing a dangerous decline in parents' trust of public education.
Interestingly, mistrust runs in both directions: A 2018 poll conducted for EdChoice showed that only about a third of teachers (36%) say they trust parents — a level below teachers' confidence in their principals, union leadership, and district superintendents.
If teachers in our nation's public schools wish to restore Americans' trust in education — which enables them to continue serving as teachers — they must be willing to acknowledge a simple fact about their profession: They're not free agents, but government employees with enormous influence over a captive audience of other people's children. If teachers begin to see themselves not as independent actors or activists, but as self-conscious stewards of a crucial public institution, they might be surprised to find allies among conservatives on any number of issues that are key to their job satisfaction.
At the same time, conservatives would do well to cease fomenting parental discontent with public schools to advance prospects for school choice. Discontent breeds mistrust on both sides, and the less teachers trust American parents, the more willing many will be to take it upon themselves to reeducate their children — often with progressive principles in mind. Expanding school choice may be a worthwhile pursuit, but the fact remains that American parents overwhelmingly demonstrate a preference for local public schools. If conservatives cede public schools to the left, they will effectively abandon the vast majority of America's future generations to the progressive cause.
The opportunity exists, and would likely be acceptable to a critical mass of both public-school personnel and conservatives, to renew trust in public education by restoring it to its proper role as a collection of local institutions operating in the public interest to prepare American children for the challenges of citizenship and adult life. This is certainly a more modest role than the activist mentality embraced by some, but by no means all, of the nation's 3 million public-school teachers. And yet it serves the interests of both teachers and conservatives — not to mention Americans more broadly.
Making common cause on public education requires both sides to acknowledge what is plainly observable: that schools are conservative (in the best sense) institutions that serve progressive (in the best sense) ends. Our fiercest arguments occur when either is encroached upon: when schools stray too far into progressive activism, or when education fails to deliver on its promise of being an engine of fairness and social mobility. Reestablishing the proper balance between the two sides offers the critical first step toward restoring legitimacy and trust in this essential American institution.