The audacity of pragmatism

Liam Julian

New York Times columnist David Brooks is that kind of conservative. In Why I Turned Right, a new collection of essays by leading members of the right detailing their moves away from liberalism, Brooks calls himself "the kind of conservative some New York Times readers can stand."

Which means, of course, that lots of National Review readers can't stand him. Avowed social conservatives are often disappointed by Brooks's writings because he seldom takes sides in the culture wars. But Wall Street Journal-type fiscal conservatives aren't so enamored of Brooks, either, because his columns often call for more government, not less. Yet, Brooks is no liberal. His articles consistently trumpet the classical conservative virtues: humility, hard work, personal responsibility, obedience to authority, etc.

There are precious few places in the larger political world where such a fellow can feel truly at ease. But in the education policy realm, his kind should be, and often is, welcomed with open arms.

Why? Because a successful education policy, despite the prevalence of "culture war" issues in schools, eschews ideological distinctions. At bottom, schools are schools, kids are kids, and one way or another, youngsters must learn to read, to write, and to do math. It's no accident that the most-promising school reform ideas are those that cannot easily be slipped into an ideological slot. Is holding schools accountable for closing achievement gaps a conservative or liberal policy? Well, it's both.

Those who begin with a policy problem and attempt to fix it are different from those who begin with an ideological solution and attempt to adapt it to various problems.

Charter schools have the potential to be public education's brightest light. But they don't fit nicely into any political category; both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal editorialize in their favor. Charter schools combine choice and autonomy with standards and accountability. The best of them have been huge successes, allowing less-wealthy parents options for their children's educations while also (through testing and accountability) assuring taxpayers that those educations will be high-quality. But despite this seemingly win-win compromise, charter schools are being attacked (see below) from the left by those who will not support anything that disrupts their preferred status quo.

Similarly, No Child Left Behind brings together folks on the left and the right by demanding compromises from both. The law has problems, sure, but it's the most ambitious tool for attacking educational achievement gaps to date. Which is why the Congressional Republican rebellion against NCLB (see here and here) is so discouraging. Instead of looking forward, trying to address educational problems in innovative ways, lots of GOP legislators would rather throw up their hands and retreat to their ideological safe grounds. (Federalism is a handy argument when you are bereft of actual solutions.) 

But philosophical grandstanding won't help educate any kids.  Brooks notes that such bickering between big government liberals and small government conservatives is outdated: backward-looking, stale, and not conducive to problem-solving. It's no less disappointing in education.

The most "principled" may fight their wars with signage, marches, angry op-eds, and 24-hour news programs. Meanwhile, others will try to solve problems.

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