Beyond School Choice: A Conservative K–12 Agenda

By Frederick M. Hess

When it comes to K–12 schooling, conservatives have been far better at explaining what we oppose than what we favor. Everyone knows we are broadly against federal overreach, reckless spending, and teachers unions. But what are we for?

Key Points:

  • Learning losses from a disastrous response to the pandemic and recent culture-war battles in public schools have caused many of America’s youth to fall behind in school.
  • Conservatives have generally lacked a cohesive K–12 agenda, but they can win parents over by enhancing educational choice, increasing school accountability, and adhering to standards of academic excellence.
  • Parents should be treated as partners in their child’s education. We must allow them to access their child’s educational materials and offer them increased flexibility through school choice and educational savings accounts.
  • Conservative policymakers should embrace a standard of excellence in the classroom, increasing Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate offerings and ensuring that high-quality teachers are attracted and retained.

It often seems the list begins and ends with “school choice” and “keeping Washington out of education.” This dearth of ideas means that conservative talk about equal opportunity can ring hollow—especially in those locales where expanding school choice is a less realistic option.

And yet, conservatives are positioned to lead much more effectively on education than the left is. The left’s intimate ties with unions, public bureaucracies, and higher education have turned it into the apologist and paymaster for the education establishment. This helps explain why Democratic K–12 proposals today mostly amount to subsidizing the status quo, boosting teachers’ salaries, and promoting woke dogmas.

Unburdened by such entanglements, the right is free to reimagine institutions and arrangements in ways the left is not. Moreover, as the contemporary left increasingly takes its cues from its activist fringe, the right has the chance to carry a mantle of broadly shared values that appeals to conservatives and moderates alike.

In doing so, the right should focus on two nested challenges. The first is the need to improve academic outcomes and defend educational excellence. A decade of stagnation in the National Assessment of Educational Progress and middling performance on major international assessments, all evident even before the devastating effects of the pandemic, makes the challenge clear. Moreover, a progressive assault on excellence—in which everything from exam schools to advanced math offerings, gifted programs, and the SAT have been attacked as “racist” and “inequitable”—demands a forceful defense of academic rigor and opportunity.

The second is that bureaucratic inertia and woke groupthink have suffused too many school systems, leaving parents frustrated that schools neither respond to their concerns nor reflect their values. It’s equally vital to empower parents by reforming the local schools and enabling parents to find a school that suits.

A Changed Education Landscape

Schools play three main roles in American life: (1) They provide academic and vocational instruction for children, (2) they teach and model values for children, and (3) they keep kids safe and socially engaged.

Most of the time, it’s the third of these, the custodial role, that frames how parents think about schools. If the bus shows up on time each morning, if the school feels safe, and if kids make friends and seem to like their teachers, most parents will defer to educators as the experts on academics. That’s especially true given that most parents don’t have much visibility into what happens in classrooms.

But this longtime dynamic was upended during the pandemic, which shuttered many schools for six months or even a year. Long after much of the nation returned to semi-normalcy, schools were engaging in byzantine quarantine protocols and shutting down intermittently due to COVID-19 scares or to give staff “mental health days.” For some students, by spring 2022 it had been two full years since they had eaten in a cafeteria or attended school unmasked.

This behavior largely broke the trust that parents had long placed in schools’ custodial function. What’s more, the shift to remote learning has been coupled with a rising tide of woke dogma in schools, fueling a furious backlash against practices that travel under the banner of critical race theory. And all this has unfolded against a background of severe learning loss produced by the lack of in-person learning, with McKinsey & Company estimating that students learned only a little more than half as much reading and math in 2020–21 as they would in a typical year.1

In short, the landscape of schooling has changed. After a couple years of school closures, bureaucratic indifference, and dismal remote learning, parents express a hunger for options and a growing distrust in the status quo.

The challenge for conservative policymakers is to seize this opportunity.

In answering this call, the conservative education agenda should be at least as much about the bully pulpit and articulating shared values as a policy platform. But the policy agenda is where conservative leaders must walk the walk. That agenda should be oriented around a few simple principles: empowering parents, promoting excellence, and busting self-serving cartels.

Empowering Parents Through Educational Choice

The conservative commitment to parental choice is foundational and has never been more timely. It’s rooted in the conviction that parents deserve the freedom to leave schools that aren’t serving their children well and find ones that will. It’s buttressed by the conviction that traditional bureaucratic systems are too often unresponsive and that they benefit from the pressure applied by empowered parents. But such a notion of choice is only a start.

Indeed, there are other powerful rationales for choice that aren’t acknowledged or articulated frequently enough. Choice empowers not only families but also educators frustrated by local districts and eager to find a better fit for their values and talents. Choice allows parents to hold a school accountable for how it is serving their particular child, rather than relying solely on accountability systems that judge schools based on aggregated numerical metrics.

This means that school choice is a foundational piece of the conservative K–12 agenda. Conservatives should support policies that promote choice within school systems, enable families to enroll across district lines, authorize more charter schools, provide substantial vouchers to attend private schools, and make homeschooling convenient.

But such policies are only a beginning. That’s because most American families want more flexibility and choice but don’t necessarily want to flee their local school—and few exhibit much appetite for “blowing up” school districts. Indeed, even as more than two-thirds of parents support school choice, roughly the same number routinely give an A or B to their own children’s schools.2

How can we reconcile those two numbers? It’s not hard, really. Parents want more options, flexibility, and choice, and they want the ability to access rigorous instruction and protect their kids from wacky math instruction and toxic ideological agendas. At the same time, many suburban families bought their home because they like the local school. Across much of rural and suburban America, schools serve as community anchors, places where children make neighborhood friends and parents forge bonds. These families hear calls to “end ZIP-code education” not as a promise but as a threat.

Yet these parents don’t really want to return to the status quo ante of public education. Indeed, more than half of all parents say—after the pandemic experience—that they’d like to retain some element of homeschooling going forward.3 They don’t want to do it full-time, however. Some parents say they want the opportunity to employ a hybrid model, in which they might homeschool one or two days a week and send their child to school the other days. Other parents have jointly hired a tutor or teacher and formed a “learning pod” with several local families, and they now want a voucher that provides the resources to keep this going—not one that allows kids to enroll in a new school. In each case, parents want flexibility, not necessarily the opportunity to leave one school for another.

Then there are parents who are concerned about the curricula or instructional programs their local schools use, especially when states like California or Oregon have attacked advanced math offerings and high expectations in the name of equity.4 Such parents may be content with their school option but are looking for course choice—the chance, for example, to opt out of their school’s math program and use the funds to procure a math course or tutoring from a highly regarded alternative source.5

In many of these cases, the answer is not school choice but educational choice. The optimal tool for this is the education savings account (ESA). Modeled on a health savings account, the ESA is like a school voucher that gives families enhanced freedom to spend the funds as they see fit. Optimally, an ESA should be available to the broadest-feasible swath of families and funded as generously as possible. The sums involved in ESAs can vary widely, but policymakers would be well-advised to provide families with as much of the per-pupil state and local allocation as is legislatively feasible. Parents can use these funds for private school tuition (just as with a voucher) but also for any approved instruction, tutoring services, courses, or learning tools. Coupled with policies that make it easier to organize learning pods and encourage school systems to accommodate hybrid homeschooling, ESAs can empower parents profoundly.

Empowering Parents via Transparency and Accountability

Parental empowerment requires choice but also information. Parents need more visibility into how schools are doing. During the pandemic, for instance, state assessments have proved invaluable in showing the devastating consequences of school closures.6 So maintaining and improving state assessments for reading and math are essential places to start. But transparency regarding academic outcomes is only the beginning.

Those achievement data should be joined with school spending data to provide transparency regarding return on investment. The public vastly underestimates how much schools spend per pupil.7 When informed of the actual cost in their state, the share of respondents who think schools need more money declines by double digits. (Nationally, schools spend more than $14,000 per pupil on average.)8 Especially after Washington devoted more than $200 billion in emergency funding to schools in 2020–22, parents, taxpayers, and voters deserve to know where those dollars are going and what kind of bang for the buck schools are delivering. State accountability systems should incorporate school spending data, provide insight into where funds are going, and present various outcomes in terms of relative spending levels.

Another crucial kind of transparency is curricular transparency, which enables parents to see what schools are teaching and what materials are being used. In too many public schools, it’s remarkably difficult—even risky—for a parent to look into what a child is being taught. Parents’ requests for information have been met by vague or misleading “frameworks,” bureaucratic resistance, and onerous record request fees, and some inquiring parents have even been sued by school districts and the National Education Association.9

Obviously, addressing such concerns once children are halfway through an academic unit is hugely problematic for parental engagement and response. It means parents don’t have the chance to ask questions or raise concerns on the front end and that potential issues aren’t addressed until after the fact.

The right course is for states to ensure that parents can access curricula at the beginning of the school year, before they enroll their children. If parents could view curricular materials in the same way that they can access graduation and dropout rates online, they would be empowered to respond appropriately. Such an approach would minimize clashes during the school year, as parents and educators could resolve tensions earlier.

An appealing model is the Academic Transparency Act model legislation developed by the Goldwater Institute, which would require public schools to share a list of the actual instructional materials they used during the previous school year on a publicly accessible portion of their website by each July.10 Because school curricula tend not to vary greatly from year to year, this would offer parents a good sense of the materials their children are likely to encounter in the coming year. Such an approach avoids imposing extra burdens on teachers, as it requires school staff to post online only the same materials they’re already expected to share with their school administrators.

Legislation based on the Goldwater model has been introduced in several states. It should be adopted and put to work. The federal government doesn’t have a direct role to play here, but it’s worth asking if it might—taking a page from the Clinton-era Improving America’s Schools Act or the Every Student Succeeds Act—require states to adopt some kind of transparency model as a condition of receiving K–12 aid.

Embracing an Excellence Agenda

In an era of ubiquitous remote learning, every qualified high school student should have access to a full suite of Advanced Placement offerings. While far too many students are not even proficient in basic subjects, and much more needs to be done for them, it’s fair to say that the kids left behind have been the focus of education policy for two decades. While we must strive to do better by those students, we also must address the inattention to excellence—a crisis that has worsened in the face of progressive attacks. School choice programs and investors should launch and grow schools that offer gifted or advanced instruction, like the Arizona-based BASIS Charter Schools.

Four years ago, in “A Culturally Responsive Equity-Based Bill of Rights for Gifted Students of Color,” a group of equity scholars argued that “gifted students of color” need skilled gifted educators, gifted programs committed to recruiting and retaining them, and access to “Advanced Placement, accelerated, magnet, early college, and other programs for advanced students/learners.”11 They’re right. In fact, when equity is understood this way, there’s endless opportunity for simultaneously pursuing equity and excellence.

We need many more teachers prepared to teach gifted students, especially given a pipeline that attracts too few teachers skilled in the sciences or advanced instruction. For starters, those who teach science, math, or computing generally have more lucrative nonteaching opportunities than do those who teach social studies or physical education. Simple respect for labor force realities would suggest altering salary schedules accordingly. While such adjustments are all too rare today, even in private schools and charter schools, it’s past time to start allowing compensation to reflect that it’s far tougher to recruit and keep chemistry teachers than social studies teachers (no matter how tough a pill that may be for a former social studies teacher, like me, to swallow).

State and school system leaders should prioritize expanding the International Baccalaureate program, Advanced Placement courses, K–8 gifted offerings, and high-caliber opportunities in areas such as robotics and music. One tack is to incorporate information on local offerings, the share of students participating, and the relevant outcomes into state reporting systems. Another is to create state challenge grants to match funds for districts that step up in providing such opportunities.

Of course, there’s no reason all this instruction must happen in conventional K–12 classrooms. Apprenticeship and career and technical education programs can engage students and expose them to exciting professional opportunities. Dual-enrollment options allow high school students to enroll in postsecondary courses—either at a local campus or remotely—to accrue college credits, reduce the cost of a degree, and explore intellectual challenges beyond those available on a high school campus. In all this, state and federal officials can play an invaluable role by urging schools to embrace new opportunities, providing more flexibility around the use of funds, and removing bureaucratic and logistical impediments that may get in the way of willing students, staff, or school leaders.

All students need and deserve these things, especially those who’ve been denied such opportunities. An excellence agenda can help deliver them.

Paying and Professionalizing Excellent Teachers

Teachers today are mostly paid using “step-and-lane” pay scales, with salaries based on years of teaching and advanced credentials rather than performance. Meanwhile, even as after-inflation, per-pupil spending has more than tripled over the past half century, real teacher pay hasn’t budged.12 The primary culprit? Steady growth in employment rolls, with schools adding teachers and nonteaching staff faster than they’re adding students. Indeed, between 1992 and 2015, the number of nonteaching staff grew at twice the rate of enrollment.13

The problem is that we’ve tackled the teacher-pay challenge backward: by trying to find enough money to boost pay for a constantly increasing number of teachers (now up to 3.6 million) to do the same things they always have.

There’s a better path: rethinking what teachers do and how they do it. The nation’s teachers are not all equally adept. Schools struggle enough to replace the 270,000 teachers who depart each year, much less ensure that all teachers are effective. Meanwhile, teachers note that many of the duties consuming their time don’t deliver much value to students. This adds up to an opportunity to rethink the shape of the profession so that valuable educators are better paid and skilled instructors aren’t spending hours patrolling hallways and filling out virtual forms.

Other professions are arranged differently from education. In a well-run medical practice, for instance, someone other than a skilled surgeon spends time filling out patient charts and negotiating with insurance companies. Such basic division of labor has been largely absent in schooling, meaning many teachers are paid a middling amount, with all of them—veteran and novice, expert and beginner—devoting much time and energy to nonessential tasks.

Policymakers should push state agencies and school systems to explore more promising approaches. One possibility is the New York–based New Classrooms model, in which middle school math teachers share 100 or more students.14 This allows teachers to customize students’ experience, provide intensive support for students who need it, and use technology strategically. The shared-duties model enables veteran teachers to operate more as team leaders than as instructors and allows compensation to more easily reflect individual teachers’ duties and roles. Another model comes from the Opportunity Culture initiative in Charlotte, North Carolina, in which accomplished teachers provide online instruction, coach junior colleagues, and otherwise extend their reach—with compensation to suit their responsibilities.15

Teacher-led charter schools should play a larger role in pioneering such arrangements. Just as law and medical practices are run by partnerships, education would benefit from a thriving sector of teacher co-ops in which teachers assume school leadership—and use the hefty administrative savings to hire the requisite help while boosting teacher pay. The possibilities are eye-opening: One New York City charter school, the Equity Project, slashed administration and reassigned duties, which allowed it to raise pay to $125,000—for starting teachers!16

Governors should push their state departments of education to set forth new job descriptions that school districts can adopt without having to run the administrative gauntlet. State leaders should set aside funds for districts and charter schools that develop plans to redesign roles and compensation—with the clearly stated goal that some designated share of teachers (say, at least 5 percent) will earn at least twice the state’s median teacher pay, yielding pay of roughly $150,000 to $200,000 per teacher.

Here arises a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Educators are not trained for these kinds of roles. This means new training programs are needed, ideally under the roof of education schools. It’s important to keep such efforts out of federal bureaucrats’ hands, but Washington can certainly help by making it easier for states and school systems to use Title II dollars (intended to boost educator quality and effectiveness) or redirecting grant programs to support places that are stepping up to lead this kind of redesign.

Moving beyond a one-size-fits-all profession will create new professional opportunities, allow teachers more control over their professional paths, and beget the possibility for life-altering educators to be compensated like life-saving physicians. All this will, of course, challenge the teachers unions to evolve as members’ roles do. Such a development would be enormously healthy for the profession and education.

Ending the Teacher Licensure Cartel

Of all the professions, one might expect teaching to be among the most open to embracing a diverse applicant pool. After all, education experts routinely remind us that teaching depends on relationships, empathy, and understanding. Perversely, however, those same experts defend convoluted licensure systems that do not consider those qualities while ensuring that public schools are staffed solely by the graduates of teacher-education programs.

Licensure systems require would-be educators to earn credentials through programs that typically consist of courses at education schools and student teaching under the supervision of education-school faculty. These prerequisites narrow the pool of potential teachers, saddle educators with onerous costs, and deter career switchers and nontraditional candidates from pursuing teaching careers.17

The costs of this approach take the form of both money and time. Analyst Chad Aldeman, a former Obama administration official, has estimated that because of licensure requirements, training the average teacher costs about $25,000 and requires 1,500 hours—more hours than the typical teacher works each year.18 The requirements bar a host of seemingly qualified, promising candidates from applying for teaching positions and are especially burdensome for professionals seeking new careers.

Teacher-licensure proponents make analogies to professions like law and medicine, arguing that being an effective professional requires certain knowledge and skills. They have it partly right; those fields do require licenses, but there is no presumption that licensing ensures someone is a “good” lawyer or physician, much less an empathetic one. It ensures only that the licensee has acquired a basic grasp of certain knowledge and skills. Advocates of educator licensure themselves routinely suggest that the process should be about not knowledge but whether teachers have the right sort of disposition. That may be a reasonable hiring criterion, but licensure is ill-suited to identify and cultivate a disposition in hundreds of thousands of candidates each year.

Indeed, teaching is more akin to journalism and business management, in which excellence is an alchemy of interpersonal gifts, natural talents, and acquired skills. In those fields, formal training can be useful and frequently offers a leg up in landing a job. But one need not possess a license to obtain employment as a journalist; employers are free to evaluate a given credential as they see fit.

It is time for a vision of teaching that is more inviting to career switchers and others with prized expertise—one that judges new hires on skills and aptitude rather than suspect credentials. Policymakers should reform state licensure systems via statutes and directives issued in state departments of education. Aspiring educators should be able to apply to work in schools if they possess a degree from a recognized college or an appropriate alternative credential, pass a rigorous criminal background check, and demonstrate competency in relevant essential knowledge and skills.

By no longer requiring school leaders to focus narrowly on candidates who can meet century-old licensure restrictions, licensing reform will enable leaders to ask how they might recruit and best employ career switchers, military veterans, and even local seniors. It will allow students to benefit from the rich experiences and skills of those in their communities.

Such a shift would dramatically change America’s 1,400 teacher-preparation programs. But it would not “blow up” teacher education; rather, it would subject these programs to the same healthy market pressures that confront business and journalism schools daily. Absent a licensure requirement, the question will be whether programs are equipping graduates with essential skills and knowledge.

Trust-Busting Through Bankruptcy

Many state laws and school district contracts contain “evergreen” provisions stipulating that contract terms for public employees remain in effect in perpetuity unless both parties agree to alter them. Theoretically, this evens the scale between employees and employers, since public employees are limited in their ability to strike. In practice, of course, teachers unions are among the nation’s most powerful unions, making the justification laughable. The result is that an entirely new school board can be elected with a mandate for reform and still lack the ability to revamp even an expired contractual agreement without union acquiescence. Needless to say, such acquiescence is rare.

In the private sector, when past decisions leave ventures struggling with inflated costs, bad contracts, or rigid business models, firms can reinvent themselves through bankruptcy. Chapter 11 bankruptcy, in particular, has given countless corporations legal sanction to downsize costly operations, revisit contracts, and modify long-established but anachronistic practices.19

That same option is not widely available to school systems, primarily due to mid-1990s revisions to the bankruptcy code that made it possible for states to block municipalities from filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy—the kind of bankruptcy that school districts can use.20 Fewer than half the states allow school districts or other municipalities to file for bankruptcy. Between that restriction and general risk aversion, the nation’s 14,000 school districts simply don’t use Chapter 9 bankruptcy, no matter how grim their circumstances. In many school districts, especially the big, struggling urban districts, bad contracts, regrettable vendor agreements, and ill-conceived school-board policies can border on the immortal.21

Experts in bankruptcy law note substantial opportunity exists to restructure school systems through Chapter 9, should school leaders be willing to act. The first step, of course, would be for more states to authorize school districts to file for bankruptcy. There is also a place for more expansive federal action. After all, the US Constitution vests Congress with the authority to set a uniform bankruptcy code precisely because providing individuals, businesses, and communities with the opportunity for a fresh start is integral to maintaining the national fabric.

Federal officials should explore creating a new bankruptcy-like mechanism specifically designed to allow school districts receiving federal Title I funds—virtually every district in the nation—to petition for relief from contractual, benefit, and vendor obligations that constrain their ability to improve schools or otherwise spend funds in alignment with their students’ interests. A school district that filed such a petition would propose a plan to reorganize debt, restructure agreements, and alter operations, with a Title I bankruptcy judge considering the filing through an appropriate adjudicatory process. Such changes would obviously address financial constraints, but they could also be used to alter archaic contract provisions, staffing restrictions, and vendor agreements that are as problematic for their academic impacts as for their financial ones.

Critics of charter schools frequently argue that they have an unfair advantage over traditional schools because charters have the leeway to sidestep bureaucratic constraints. This kind of clean-slate proposal levels the playing field and gives traditional districts a shot at a fresh start, empowering reform-minded mayors and school boards to show that they’re able and willing to lead.

Even a handful of districts seizing the opportunity could have a salutary effect on the behavior of employee groups, vendors, and others. Indeed, the absence of a bankruptcy threat makes it far easier for local employee unions to eschew even sensible compromises on issues such as health care or pension costs. A viable bankruptcy mechanism just might encourage some to think strategically about revisiting benefit commitments, concluding that doing so is prudent if it forestalls the possibility of bankruptcy.

Final Thoughts

Since the dawn of the Obama administration, I have regularly hosted dinners and off-the-record webinars with leading conservatives who work in education policy. These passionate, knowledgeable reformers have arrived time after time, on topic after topic, at a familiar quandary: Other than “more choice” and “less Washington,” what exactly are we for? What are we proposing that will improve the lives of Americans and their communities, promote our shared values, and extend opportunity?

Too often, the conversation has been bogged down at that juncture. The pandemic brought to light, however, that parents are tired and the bureaucracy is stilted—delivering conservatives a powerful chance to lead. Concerns that schools can’t be relied on to provide their age-old custodial function, coupled with the transparency of remote learning, have prompted parents to take a hard look at what schools are doing when it comes to values and instruction. And they haven’t liked the answers.

When the education debate hinges on who will funnel more dollars into subsidizing 20th-century bureaucracies, conservatives tend to lose. But the advantages that progressives enjoy when education becomes a bidding war quickly turn into weaknesses when the question becomes: Who is able and willing to redesign institutions that no longer work for families, students, or taxpayers?

For decades, Democrats have enjoyed a sizable advantage on education policy, fueled by support for ever more school spending and the perception that they like teachers more than Republicans do. Now the left is stuck defending teachers who won’t teach, schools that demand more while delivering less, and ideological extremism in elementary school classrooms.

Conservatives are positioned to challenge the status quo, speak up for common sense, and bust the self-serving trusts that have come to dominate the education landscape. And it just so happens that’s the kind of K–12 reform Americans want and need.