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Commentary By Andy Smarick

How Conservatives Can Seize the Moment on Education

Education Pre K-12

By focusing on smart, practical, targeted reforms, executed competently, Republican elected officials can make school policy a winning issue.

Last Tuesday night was exciting for conservatives, especially those passionate about education. Glenn Youngkin’s win in the Virginia gubernatorial race promised an opportunity to end a long period of frustration with the state’s schools. In fact, it quickly became conventional wisdom in conservative circles that Youngkin’s victory showed education was now a winning issue for the GOP nationwide.

But the Right should hit pause on that assessment and recognize that there’s a world of difference between campaigning and governing. Education won’t be a boon to Republican candidates for long if the party’s leaders are unable to transition from talking about it to responsibly leading on it from positions of authority. Governor-elect Youngkin has an outstanding chance to serve as a model for other elected Republicans seeking to reform education policy, but he and his team — and the broader conservative community — must now capitalize on the opportunity provided by voters.

Four obstacles stand in the way. First, for more than a decade, conservatives have been unable to deliver results on many of the issues we deemed winning. Immigration hasn’t been fixed. Obamacare hasn’t been replaced. Entitlements haven’t been reformed. Infrastructure Week never happened. Too often, it seemed as though Republicans were the proverbial dog that caught the car and didn’t know what to do with it. More energy has been put into raising and campaigning on issues than into understanding how to solve them.

If Republicans are to remain voters’ top choice for education leadership, we can’t be satisfied with using the issue to create viral tweets, raise campaign cash, or just win elections. We have to deliver the things that voters want once we’re in office. Unfortunately, we’ve lost the skillset needed to do that. Too many prominent elected officials, particularly in Washington, seem content to issue heated statements, hold fiery press conferences, and get booked on cable-news programs without producing much in the way of actual legislative accomplishment.

The takeaway for conservatives nationally is that we need to relearn the tools of governing: crafting practical proposals, developing sound legislative strategies, building broad coalitions, and finding workable compromises. Mr. Youngkin won over voters on the campaign trail by identifying the right problems; his success as governor will hinge on his ability to solve them. Virginia is purple, its state legislature is closely divided, and its parents want schools that serve the interests of their children rather than one side in a prolonged political war. Developing sensible plans that satisfy families and succeed in Virginia’s political context will be the name of the game.

That relates to the second issue: GOP leaders, especially governors, too often err by following national commentary too closely. Because America is so large and so diverse, those who drive the national conversation can’t know very much about the nearly limitless variety of community conditions and concerns. As a result, commentators’ national assessments can be insightful, especially about broad themes, but their diagnoses of state and local challenges and prescriptions for state and local action can fall short. As GOP figures transition from candidates to elected officials, they need to pay less attention to national storylines and more attention to their constituents’ assessments of the specific challenges bedeviling their communities.

For example, Republicans nationwide had strong showings across the board last Tuesday, not just in races such as Virginia’s where school policy was a central focus. Indeed, exit polls indicate the economy and jobs were the most important issues to Virginia voters. The president’s party typically suffers in off-year elections, and voters are especially disappointed in President Biden at the moment. While it’s not unreasonable to think that education played a role in Youngkin’s win, it is not clear which particular education issues were at the forefront of voters’ minds. School closures? Masks? Divisive curricula? Learning loss during the pandemic? Too few school options? Unresponsive school boards? Disrespectful treatment of parents? School safety? Something else? No national figure can say for sure. Indeed, the answer may be different in different areas, and in some places, voters and parents might be quite satisfied with the state of their local schools.

A policy agenda that worked in another state might not work so well in Virginia, and vice-versa. A sweeping, statewide reform plan might be well-received in some areas and poorly received in others. For instance, a disproportionate amount of attention is paid to a few of the massive Virginia school districts just outside of Washington, D.C., which are prone to contentious debates and have 80,00090,000, or 180,000 students, making them among the biggest districts in the nation. But Virginia has more than 200 districts, many in exurban and rural areas, many with fewer than 2,000 students. Heavy-handed, comprehensive state legislation — for example, burdensome statewide reporting requirements or curricula or textbook mandates — that doesn’t take account of such differences might disaffect lots of voters. Moreover, in some places, the top concerns might be lower-voltage issues such as teacher recruitment or facilities upgrades.

The best plan for Virginia — and a plan that can only be pulled off by those on the ground, in meaningful collaboration with the relevant stakeholders — might be a collection of micro-reforms, each tailored to the specific needs of a specific area. That might include a tutoring effort to compensate for COVID-related learning loss; a robust charter-school law that prioritizes the creation of college-prep programs in low-income areas, classical-education middle schools, and career-and-technical-education high schools; breaking up large districts to make systems more responsive to parents; or an education-savings-account initiative to help dissatisfied parents find or develop microschools, pods, private schools, supplemental services, and other innovative solutions. The overarching point is this: If conservatives want to be seen as responsible, responsive education leaders, they should not worry about pleasing the national audience. They should advance agendas that cause parents to say, “They helped solve the biggest problem in my community.”

This approach might strike some observers as too modest, but it is essential because of the third consideration in play here: When policy-makers overreach, once-popular education stances can quickly become politically toxic. This has happened time and time again. In the early 2000s, there was a growing consensus, including among many GOP governors, that we should adopt rigorous content standards shared across states. But that process became opaque, presumptuous, and disruptive, devolving into what we now know as the Common Core debacle. Not long ago, there was support for tough assessments and accountability in public education. But over time many parents decided that there were too many standardized tests, that the pursuit of higher scores was distorting classroom practice, and that accountability systems inaccurately rated schools. The recent union-led “Red for Ed” movement that energized large teacher demonstrations and strikes was largely a response to years of policy changes related to school funding and educator accountability. For years, charter schools were widely embraced on the right, but many rural and suburban voters balked when such schools expanded rapidly and were perceived to affect their own local public schools.

A commonality across these examples is that those of us in the education-reform movement can become overconfident about our conclusions and unresponsive to legitimate criticism, ultimately overplaying our hands. Conservatives nationally should recognize that risk in this moment: We can’t let our hubris become an obstacle to capitalizing on a tremendous opportunity. So Governor-elect Youngkin should advance prudent reforms supported by families and closely tailored to the needs of the many communities making up Virginia’s electorate, while guarding against the impulse to reach beyond the mandate provided by voters.

Lastly, new governors often make education-personnel mistakes. A governor typically gets to appoint members of the state board of education, as well as the state superintendent or education commissioner. The governor’s office also typically has staff members whose job it is to focus on education issues. Unfortunately, newly elected governors often don’t take the time to get these picks right. Incoming administrations have hundreds and hundreds of appointments to make across the entire state government, and key education slots can be quickly handed to respected state figures, prominent issue activists, and campaign staff. Too frequently, those selected aren’t philosophically and temperamentally aligned with the governor and don’t know enough about the issues they will face or the institutions through which they will need to work.

In every state, education policy is shaped by a thicket of statutes, regulations, and court decisions. Every state has informal decision-making processes — important, but largely invisible — involving influential actors and long-standing customs. If a governor wants to get things done and done well, it’s not enough to choose people who care passionately about an issue. Such folks might be able to give a mighty stump speech, but it won’t matter if they’re incapable of working through the system to achieve reform. They might be smart and energetic but ignorant of relevant federal statutes, opinions by the state’s attorney general, and long-standing compromises codified in state laws and local practices.

In any policy domain, clumsiness by state officials can set back a governor’s agenda. But mistakes in education can be especially costly. School policy is entwined with just about every aspect of a state’s history, including its most sensitive episodes. Education touches everything from economic opportunity to geographic disputes to race and gender equality to jobs and housing. Bad legislative strategy, intemperate comments by a state school-board member, poor judgment by a gubernatorial staffer, or a sloppy roll-out of an important initiative can quickly undermine the public’s trust. For conservatives nationally, it is of paramount importance to develop a bench of informed, principled, judicious individuals who can serve honorably in public capacities and get things done. In Virginia, Governor-elect Youngkin’s team should work overtime to find people who are aligned with the new administration, know the state and its issues inside and out, and possess the skills and disposition for effective public leadership.

If the GOP wants to be understood as the “Party of Parents,” one good election won’t do the trick. Parents’ trust and voters’ confidence are hard to earn and easy to lose. But by using the power they’ve been given to get important things done in a responsible, responsive fashion, Republican elected officials can bolster their own political fortunes — and the fortunes of the communities they serve.


Andy Smarick is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online