08/26/2011 07:41 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2011

Will Rick Perry Unravel the Strange Consensus on Public Education?

By all accounts, political polarization has made America ungovernable. Speaking in Holland, Mich., President Obama declared, "There is nothing wrong with our country. There is something wrong with our politics." He went on to say that we were experiencing the "worst kind of partisanship" and "the worst kind of gridlock."

Already, pundits are speculating that the president is going to run for reelection much the same way Harry Truman did in 1948, by declaring that he can't govern with a "do-nothing congress."

Is bipartisanship truly dead? Perhaps not. If you focus on the debt crisis, the divide between Democrats and Republicans appears as unbridgeable as the Grand Canyon at its widest point. But that's not the case when it comes to public education reform, where a strange consensus has emerged between Republicans and Democrats on the issue that appears to defy political logic.

If the issue is education reform, put Governor Chris Christie in a room with Governor Andrew Cuomo; Joel Klein, the education reformer and lifelong Democrat; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; and the editorial boards of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Post and New York Times, and you'd think you're at a family reunion straight out of "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet."

Conservatives, liberals, free-market advocates and supporters of big government alike have all agreed to either dismantle or modify how our schools operate, with a speed that approaches that of a Rocky Mountain avalanche. Moreover, the "modifications" are all rather radical.

But now Rick Perry has entered the room uninvited, and the question is, will he spoil all the fun?

That's because Perry doesn't agree with any of the other "family" members about the current course of education reforms. His opposition to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top is a finger in the eye of both Republicans and Democrats who've hopped on board this bandwagon.

Perry's rejection of these policies as governor of Texas suggests that he thinks both Republicans and Democrats have outsmarted themselves when it comes to education reform.

For Perry, the intrusion of the Federal government into the day-to-day running of our schools runs counter to the cherished values of federalism and local control. In fact, Ronald Reagan, the 20th-century icon of the Republican Party, wanted the Department of Education abolished altogether.

That's not to say that Republicans don't have a long tradition of supporting and shaping national education policy. It began when Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, signed the Morrill Act on July 2, 1862, providing Federal funds and land for development of post-secondary education in states and the territories. His predecessor, James Buchanan, a Democrat, vetoed the bill in 1859.

A second Morrill act was passed almost 30 years later and established a series of land grant colleges, mostly in the South, to ensure that the law was extended to blacks. Again, it was the Republican Morrill, who served close to four decades in the Congress, who championed the bill, and the Republican president, Benjamin Harrison, who signed it into law.

It seems that Republicans so fond of invoking Ronald Reagan and speculating what he would do were he still alive and governing, conveniently forget that when it came to education, Reagan's preoccupation was with the "culture wars" and the attack on America's exceptionalism and legitimacy in our textbooks and the classrooms.

In "Ronald Reagan & The Culture War," a review of a Reagan biography that appeared in Commentary Magazine in March 1991, Midge Decter observed that the reason liberals so feared him was his articulation of "that peculiar amalgam of old conservatism and new anti-liberalism ... Reagan's elections bore testimony not so much to a wish for radical new policies as to an open declaration of war over the culture."

Fast forward to 1994. On March 31, President Clinton signed "The Goals 2000: Educate America Act" into law. The legislation was an outgrowth of the education summit hosted by President George H. Bush, five years earlier in Charlottesville, Va. It was a bipartisan meeting of the nation's governors that addressed the nation's education crisis.

Less than three weeks after it was signed into law, Irving Kristol, the "Godfather" of the neoconservative movement, voiced his skepticism in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled, "The Inevitable Outcome of 'Outcomes.'" Kristol observed that at first the intention of the legislation seemed sensible. "The idea was to focus less on 'input' (i.e. dollars) and more on 'outcomes' -- i.e., what children actually learn." Kristol continued, "Ah, but what's an 'outcome'? That's a lot less obvious than one used to think. Is it merely test scores? Surely there is more to education than that! So defining 'outcomes has become the new educational game in the 1990s."

Kristol had little faith in the testing regime: "Tests will end up being 'normed' so that no student will suffer the trauma of discovering he or she has little academic aptitude -- as if the students didn't know it already! Besides, how does one test for 'curiosity, open-mindedness, skepticism, and compassion,' which the educational establishment thinks are the true goals of education?"

To be sure Kristol had little faith in legislators, the Ed schools or the teachers unions, and he believed that rising numbers of students attending private, parochial and home schooling was a result of the failure of the educational establishment.

But for Kristol, federal legislation was clearly not the answer. "This experience has only confirmed Kristol's first law of educational reform. It is this: Any reform that is acceptable to the educational establishment, and that can gain a majority in the legislature, federal or state, is bound to be worse than nothing."

One wonders if this essay could make it past editorial scrutiny and find its way into print at today's Wall Street Journal?

During the Age of Reagan, conservatives' great fear was the slow, steady march of the left through America's institutions. Today, those who claim his mantel have been at the forefront of the dismantling of public education, as another American institution finds itself increasingly delegitimized and the teaching profession stigmatized.

For those who claim that their purpose is to conserve and provide continuity to society's institutions, today's conservative assault on education is more reminiscent of China's Cultural Revolution than a neo-Confucian revival.

The Democrats are no less of a political puzzle. Not content with George Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation, President Obama doubled down with his Race to the Top initiative. He has applauded the closing of "failed" schools and the firing of teachers. Secretary Duncan has emphasized testing as an integral means of evaluating teachers.

Private foundations have provided both the intellectual construct and dollops of money to ensure that their agendas are enshrined as government policies. The result is that the heavy hand of the federal government increasingly dictates education policy on the state and local level without even a fig leaf of parental input that so characterized American education in another age.

The granting of mayoral control throughout the country has further vitiated local control of schools in urban areas. It has exacerbated the removal of parents from the public education square. In its stead, "school choice" has been offered up as a substitute for the democratic process.

The supposedly all-powerful teachers unions are treated as an afterthought by the Obama administration. After all, at the end of the day, they have no place else to go.

There has been speculation that the breakup of the urban public school systems is irresistible because it offers municipalities a way to reduce their payrolls while sloughing off the responsibility for running the schools.

It also affords "not for profits" that run charter schools access to public monies in an unprecedented fashion. You know the old adage, "Why do it for free when you can make money at it?"

Amidst the headlong rush to provide "choice" for the disadvantaged, an important question goes unanswered. If the government is so inept at running its schools today, why should it be any better at overseeing an exponential increase in charter schools in cities like New York or Los Angeles?

For Democrats who presided over failing urban centers for decades, the breakup of public schools might be just the "get out of jail" card they've been looking for. Blaming the teachers for all the underclass' ills instead of their own failed public policies is a small price to pay. This wouldn't be the first or last time a loyal constituency was thrown under the bus for political expediency.

So if Governor Perry would articulate a principled rejection of this bipartisan witch's brew and resist the usual bromides about the evils and inefficiencies of government and the unalloyed ability of the private sector to solve almost any problem, then a much-needed debate on the direction of public education will be joined.

Should Perry be unwilling or incapable of raising these issues, any other serious candidate for the White House will find that there is a substantial audience of mostly overlooked teachers eager to hear what they have to say.