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Conor Williams Headshot

Education Reform Opponents Are Education Policy's Libertarians

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I was reading House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) op-ed in Monday's Washington Post when something occurred to me: he either doesn't have the foggiest idea how to get the economy going again or he doesn't plan on it. The column is predictable, in light of the GOP's recent wholesale capture by our nations' plutocrats. Cantor argues that the free market can be counted on to: restore American prosperity, pay down the national debt, responsibly use our natural resources, bring orange wedges to weekend soccer games, and much more! In Cantor's world, political leaders can't do anything to solve these problems -- except get out of the way and leave it to the market.

And that's when something else occurred to me: this is exactly the same sort of rhetoric that the opponents of education reform use. There are plenty of problems with the American education system. We spend less money less effectively on our most underserved students. We give them the most dilapidated school buildings and the least effective teachers. Reform's opponents insist that there's an easy solution to all of this: "Get out of the way and let teachers teach!"

That's right! Don't bother these folks with fancy policy talk. We can't adjust our education policies to provide a better teacher accountability system. We can't adjust teachers' contracts to reform tenure or ineffective credentialing systems. We can't develop tests to measure student progress or evaluate the quality of their instruction that year. We can't, in short, do anything to solve our education system's problems -- except get out of the way and leave them to our underpaid, overburdened teachers.

You would be forgiven for suspecting that reform opponents have very few concrete, specific ideas for improving American education. Sometimes they jazz up the slogan: "We need to support teachers!" Well, yes, but what could that possibly mean? Pretty much everyone from Michelle Rhee to Diane Ravitch to Jonah Edelman to Cory Booker to Dora the Explorer agrees that we should pay teachers better. Everyone agrees that we need to give teachers training and the basic resources they need to succeed in the classroom. That's not a policy idea -- it's a banal truism. What sort of "support" do they have in mind? Their answer varies, but usually it veers back to "leaving teachers alone" and keeping them free of oversight.

Don't get me wrong. Their arguments aren't perfectly identical to Cantor's. His free-marketeerism trusts a spontaneous system to produce optimal solutions to all of our political challenges, while reform opponents trust all members of a one profession to produce optimal results for their students. It's not quite the same thing, but the rhetorical move is still similar. Both respond to challenges by counseling policy withdrawal.

The really strange part, though, is that education reformers get stuck with the "market-based" policy label. Seems to me like it's time for a switch. Education reform's opponents are education policy's free-market libertarians. This doesn't mean that they're wrong -- it just means that they should own up to their bare-bones approach to our education problems. And that, I think, is where Cantor's way ahead of them. He proclaims his do-nothing position, because he's confident that it will work. Shouldn't education reform's opponents be brave enough to do the same?