Why Conservatives Must Lead on Education Reform

Glazov: Give us some for specific and concrete reasons why conservatives must take the lead.

Nelson: Let me give you three right off the bat:

First: School choice. One of the keys to fixing public schools is that we need to take control away from top heavy bureaucracies and give it back to individuals, families, and communities. Smaller schools, clustered together, giving parents and students choice is the way to go. The Belmont Zone of Choice in L.A. is a great example. Instead of just sweeping 6.000 middle school kids into one or two big high schools, an innovative district superintendent created a number of smaller schools and gave families the ability to choose where they wanted to send their kids. And it’s working. I’m on the advisory board for one of those schools, the Los Angeles School of Global Studies. It’s a great example. Ninety percent Latino, 100% from low income families, coming out of the inner city and facing all the challenges that encompasses, and they have a 90% graduation rate.

Second: We need to drive change through a values-based approach that sets high standards and expects results, and then create a system of accountability to get those results. Good private schools have this already. It’s about setting high expectations for kids, letting them know they can succeed, and then holding them accountable and creating an environment where they hold themselves and each other accountable. It’s a simple premise, but I see it all the time in schools that work. It’s the first time a lot of these kids have heard someone say, “I believe in you and what you can do and become. So I’m going to hold you to a high standard; I’m going to expect results from you and push you to achieve them, and I’m going to expect you to rise to the challenge” -- and the kids do. They push themselves and each other. It’s accountability -- the very thing conservatives often talk about in the public initiatives they think have failed, like welfare, or the Great Society. Giving people and asking nothing back versus giving people an opportunity and a framework to do something and then expecting results. It’s a structured investment of resources with an expectation of results, instead of a handout with no expectation of returns on the investment. One can argue that all kids are entitled to a good education, and I would say that’s true. But that doesn’t mean it comes at no cost or without an expectation from the students that they have to do their part to make that work.

Finally there’s the issue of unions. Many conservatives don’t like the teachers' unions. Unions aren’t going away, nor should they. They can play an important role in helping shape change. But they have to start putting the good of the whole, and the kids, ahead of what’s best just for teachers. This may be more likely to happen if the pressure is coming from someone outside their camp. Seems paradoxical but Nixon opened China, Reagan helped drive down the Wall, and FDR was able to get us into the fight against the isolationist mindset during WWII. And by the way, bloated district bureaucracies that resist change are just as much a part of the problem.

Glazov: Final words?

Nelson: Right now, conservatives have a huge opportunity to take the lead fixing America’s broken public education system. School choice; a values-based approach to change; an accountability-based approach rather than entitlement; these are all core to many conservatives’ bottom line. Conservatives should get out in front on this. It’s a huge opportunity to show that they do care about social change and that their philosophies can work in transforming traditionally liberal approaches to fixing a broken public sector area like education. Last thing. Go to www.drop50pledge.org and sign the petition in favor of cutting America’s dropout rates 50%. We need massive pubic pressure on those in charge to get this done.