Over the course of the 2018–19 school year, the Education 20/20 speaker series, sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Hoover Institution, will prod prominent conservative writers, intellectuals, and policymakers to provide compelling answers to the age-old question, “What's the purpose of school?” On, September 27th, an event featuring Heather Mac Donald, author of The Diversity Delusion, kicked off the series with her perspective on race-based discipline reform, including why it hurts the children it purports to help and how it cuts against one of the core goals of schooling.

These were my opening remarks.


Good afternoon. I’m Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Thank you for joining us today, here in person or online, especially given the competition we’re facing from a certain hearing across town.

It is my honor to welcome you to the first event in our Education 20/20 speaker series. In a moment I’ll introduce today’s amazing speaker, Heather Mac Donald, but first let me spend a few minutes explaining the purpose behind the series and what we’re hoping to accomplish.

And if you’re following along on Twitter, please use the hashtag #Ed2020.

The basic idea of Education 20/20 is to get an esteemed group of the nation’s leading conservative thinkers, scholars, intellectuals, and policymakers to weigh in on the purpose of K-12 education. Not a familiar bunch of education policy wonks—we have plenty of opportunities to dig into the weeds of this policy or that. But wonky policy stuff isn’t what we’re about with this project. So we asked people who think broadly about social policy from a right-of-center perspective. And almost all of those we asked said yes.

Our goal is to bring fresh insights and timeless principles into the education reform conservation. My colleague Chester Finn and I both believe that today’s reform discussion has grown stale and even a little boring, especially on the right. Once upon a time, conservatives were bursting with ideas for how to fix what ails American education, important things like school choice, charter schools, accountability, merit pay, character education, core knowledge, and on and on. In Bill Bennett’s day there were the “Three C’s”: Character, content, and choice. These days it’s more like the one C: choice. That’s all most conservatives seem to talk about. Like so many others who aren’t conservative, they tend to settle for some sort of silver bullet rather. Along the way, they—like so many others who aren’t conservative—have sort of become one-trick ponies.

Don’t misunderstand me:  we wholeheartedly support school choice, too, in all of its forms. We are particularly bullish on high-quality charter schools, as well as inner city Catholic schools, both of which have proven to be highly effective at boosting the achievement of low income kids and kids of color, and demonstrating that it is indeed possible to push back against intergenerational poverty and all the social ills that come with it. And like many conservatives, we look at most big urban districts and agree that nothing except choice appears to be doing anybody much good.

Where we disagree with many of our friends on the right—and especially the libertarian right—is around the notion that choice alone is the answer, that it’s a bona fide silver bullet.

Some libertarians, for example, point to the many culture wars that have invaded our schools, and argue that choice is the solution. Why fight over what curriculum to teach, which heroes to emulate, how to tackle human sexuality or human evolution, whether to be strict or lax, whether to teach virtue or vocation, or any of the other debates that can divide us? Just let individual schools find their own way, and then allow parents to find THEIR way to the school that matches their values. Don’t try to make these decisions democratically, as that will inevitably mean the majority will get what they want, and the minority will lose out (or a mushy middle compromise will be found). Let the market rule, and let everyone get what they want.

Even some non-libertarian conservatives settle for choice alone, especially in the context of a culture that is increasingly at war with conservative values. In so doing, they seem to us to be settling for a version of the Benedict Option—retreat into our own educational communities, especially religious schools—and protect our children from the culture at large. The reasoning is that the culture is hopeless so let’s isolate ourselves and our kids from it.

Yes, we support parents who make that choice. It’s a free country and choice is a plus. But it’s no silver bullet for education, not in the lifetimes of ourselves, our kids and probably our grandkids. Even with the growth of scholarship programs, tax credit initiatives, and education savings accounts, as well as charter schools, virtual schools and home schools, the vast majority of American schoolchildren attend traditional public schools, and will for the foreseeable future. We’re talking about upwards of forty million children. If conservatives don’t engage on debates around what these children do and learn all day, we are ceding the public schools—and the country’s future—to progressives. We did that already with higher education. Are we really sure we want to do that with primary and secondary education, too?

The topic that Heather is tackling today is a perfect example of the risks of that approach. School discipline is an inherently difficult issue, because it pits the needs of the vast majority of children—who come to school, do what they are told, and generally behave—against the needs of a small minority of disruptive students, many of whom are growing up in tragic situations. Yet if we cede this issue to the left, virtually the only students who will be valued are the disrupters, the misbehavers. As Heather will explain, the entire focus of the left, when it comes to so-called “discipline reform,” is less discipline. Which may or may not help the unruly kids, but likely won’t help their peers.

If conservatives decline to engage, we do so at great peril. So over this academic year, about once a month, we will be here, with leading conservatives, to engage in the great debates, and to focus on the purpose of K-12 schooling. We hope you’ll join us. At the end we’ll turn the keynotes into an edited volume, to be published by the Templeton Press. We appreciate the support from the Kern Family Foundation for making all of this possible.

Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, executive editor of Education Next, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education Commission of the States. An award-winning writer, he…

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