The Next Conservative Education Agenda
When it comes to education, conservatives have been far better at explaining what we are against than what we favor. Everyone knows we broadly oppose federal overreach, reckless spending, free college, and teachers' unions. But what are we for?
It often seems that the list begins and ends with "school choice," "free speech," and "keeping Washington out of education." This dearth of ideas poses a problem because it means that conservative talk about equal opportunity can ring hollow — especially for office-seekers who need to say more than "Washington should keep its hands off" to govern effectively. This has particularly large ramifications at the state and local levels, where education runs high on voters' lists of concerns.
The odd thing is that conservatives are positioned to lead much more effectively on education than they do. The left's entanglements with unions, public bureaucracies, and the academy leave it as the paymaster for the education establishment. This helps explain why the 2020 Democratic presidential field's litany of education proposals have consisted mostly of new ways to subsidize and supersize the status quo — think of policies like free college, student-loan forgiveness, teacher-pay raises, and universal pre-kindergarten. Such measures, whatever their shortcomings as policy, have the virtue of allowing progressive officials to sing from a common hymnal.
Unburdened by such entanglements, the right is free to reimagine institutions and arrangements in ways the left is not. Moreover, as the contemporary left increasingly takes its cultural lead from its activist fringe, the right has the chance to carry a mantle of broadly shared values that can appeal to conservatives and moderates alike.
The right has yet to seize this opportunity. Instead, for close to two decades, it has repeated the mantra of "more choice, less Washington" and, in turn, failed to put a dent in Democrats' edge in education polling. The problem is not that the mantra is wrong, per se; it is that the prescription is massively incomplete, with only a glancing relevance to most Americans' kitchen-table concerns.
While school choice can be a wonderful thing — providing a lifeboat to parents frustrated by unsafe or unresponsive schools — today it appeals mostly to families trapped in awful schools. At a time when 70% of parents would award their child's school an A or B grade and when much of suburban America chooses homes based in large part on the quality of the local schools, most families regard school choice as a curiosity. Meanwhile, in small towns, school choice can feel more like a threat than a boon — requiring longer bus rides, undercutting neighborly ties, and disrupting local rhythms and routines.
What's more, calls to reduce the federal footprint, though welcome, make more sense at the K-12 level than in post-secondary education. For the latter, Washington covers a major chunk of the nation's annual tab — including two-thirds of publicly funded student aid. So unless policymakers are willing to slash Pell Grants and student loans — and few state actors of any stripe are — Uncle Sam will continue to play an outsized role in higher education. More to the point, while it is crucial to be clear about what Washington should not do, conservatives also need to explain what should be done to improve education — especially at the state and local level, where education looms large for voters.
It is easy to understand why conservatives have busied themselves playing defense. From Title IX campus kangaroo courts to the silencing of heterodox voices on college campuses to mandatory race-based quotas for school discipline efforts, the right has no shortage of misguided measures to fend off. With the left busy placating groups whose interests remain entrenched in the status quo, conservatives remain charged with asking the hard questions about universal pre-kindergarten, teacher-pay raises that fail to touch outdated salary schedules, and college-for-all proposals that threaten to inflate costs and sacrifice rigor.
But this does not excuse a failure to articulate what conservatives are for when it comes to education. It is time for a new agenda.
Today's education debates are dominated by voices well to the left of the nation as a whole. Although the ideological views of K-12 teachers broadly reflect those of the nation, this is decidedly not the case when it comes to teachers' union leadership, college faculty, administrators, advocates, and funders. Even the once-bipartisan world of K-12 reform has taken on a deep blue hue, with a 2019 analysis finding that staff at more than 200 major school-reform organizations support Democratic candidates and causes over their Republican counterparts by better than a nine-to-one margin (about the same ratio as teachers' unions do, in fact).
But it is useful to keep in mind that, properly understood, education should be remarkably hospitable to conservatism. After all, education is about preparing youth to become responsible citizens, instilling them with our culture and our shared history, and equipping them to live as free and productive adults. "Responsibility," "community," and "self-determination," then, should be the watchwords of a coherent, positive vision of education reform. Such a charge suits both a classically liberal and a more populist conservatism, and also resonates with parents and educators alike. Let's touch on each of these three values in turn.
The notions of both student and parental responsibility have come under fire on the left in recent years. This is so despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans of all backgrounds see responsibility as a bedrock American value. Indeed, in 2018, a Grinnell College poll reported that 88% of respondents regard responsibility for one's actions as a "very important" component of what it means to be a "real American," right alongside "treating people equally" (which 90% regard as "very important"). In this vein, conservatives should unapologetically insist that education be a partnership — between school and family, between teacher and student — and that everyone in this compact do their part. While that message has been in short supply in recent years — often for fear of piling on those in need, giving teachers a free pass, or sounding judgmental — straight talk on personal responsibility should comprise a pillar of conservative education-reform efforts.
The left frequently discusses education in terms of "community," but it often seems to do so as a pretext for expanding government services in schools, colleges, and universities. A conservative vision for education should entail something very different: schools as engines of social capital and repositories of shared traditions. After all, schools serve as focal points of common culture and conversation. They are where people come to know their neighbors. They introduce children to the values and ideas their parents hold dear. As such, schools must do more than depict America as a basket of villainies; they must also teach the history of our society and explain why this nation stands as a beacon of liberty and opportunity for those across the globe.
Finally, education is central to the American creed both because schools are communitarian institutions that preserve shared culture and because education liberates youth from the strictures of circumstance. We expect schools and colleges to teach the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that enable students to chart their own paths. After all, many families (wealthy and poor alike) lack the resources or expertise to nurture their children's gifts. Self-determination — the third value that should define conservative education reform — means giving all parents options for early-childhood education, whatever their circumstances. It means empowering families to choose safer, better schools. It means ensuring that college is a choice and not a requirement compelled by runaway credentialing. It means making certain that students are free to wrestle with different viewpoints without fear of reprisal.
Ultimately, education should not and cannot be approached simply as a question of policy per se. Such a tack is removed from the realities of how most people experience and think about education. Focusing too narrowly on policy also ensures that the debate will be sold to the highest bidder — to whomever pledges to hand out the most free stuff. Education must be first and foremost about the kind of people we want to be. And, as is evident in debates over issues ranging from campus speech to school discipline, this terrain is hospitable to the right.
The conservative education agenda should be at least as much about the bully pulpit as it is about a policy platform. The trick is that conservatives must not offer a values agenda instead of a policy agenda; rather, the values agenda should serve as the rationale for a policy agenda.
It is admittedly too glib to suggest that the right's education-policy cupboard is bare; conservatives have championed a vibrant spectrum of school-choice options ranging from education savings accounts to innovative course-choice models. In higher education, the right has led by promoting income-share agreements and combatting campus censors.
The aim here, then, is to complement these ideas in a way that expands the agenda. There are common themes that run throughout these ideas, namely a commitment to expanding individual choice, jettisoning one-size-fits-all legacy arrangements, and creating room for both the public and private sectors to pioneer promising solutions. Putting these themes into practice will require breaking up cartels, cultivating communities, and removing impediments to opportunity while empowering those frustrated by stifling, bureaucratic education systems. This means parents. It means students. And it means educators who do the work.
In early-childhood education, parents should find it far easier to make the best choices for their children. All parents want to prepare their children to succeed in school, but families are often overburdened by the demands and costs of childcare. This explains the appeal of early-childhood education and universal pre-kindergarten policies, with Gallup noting that more than two-thirds of American adults favor increasing federal funding for pre-kindergarten programs.
While the case for funding early-childhood education is easy to make, the most familiar proposals leave plenty to be desired. Just as the expansion of kindergarten morphed into tacking a 13th grade onto existing school districts, so too has the push for early-childhood education frequently amounted to a call to add a 14th grade. This is how Mayor Bill de Blasio's pre-kindergarten expansion played out in New York, with the city simply stitching a year of early-childhood education onto the existing K-12 system. The result has been a bureaucratic operation that functions during regular school hours, in school-district facilities, with all the resultant off-days and routines.
This approach is a poor fit for many families — especially those most in need of assistance. Scholars at the Urban Institute have estimated that 20% of working Americans work non-traditional schedules, meaning their hours do not align with conventional school hours. The misalignment is even more pronounced for middle- and low-income families, with one-third of mothers and a quarter of fathers below the poverty line working non-standard schedules. For such families, the expanded K-12 model is of limited utility: It creates transportation problems (parents are understandably loath to allow their four-year-olds to ride buses), does not help parents find childcare during work hours, and leaves them scrambling to cover school-closings and vacations.
At bottom, putting early-childhood education into the hands of K-12 administrators means consigning it to officials with a lackluster record of customizing offerings to meet families' needs. It does nothing to address concerns of parents leery of entrusting very young children to impersonal institutions, those who might prefer options more flexible than a full-time school program, and those who have schedules that make drop-off and pick-up difficult — a special challenge with children too young to be left alone and for whom illness or incident can constitute an emergency requiring parental attention.
It is time to expand the palette. Making early-childhood education proximate to employment — and operating it on a schedule that reflects an employee's work schedule — would be a boon to both parents and children. And in contrast to health care, where a link to employment creates problems when workers lose or change jobs, employer-provided early-childhood education has innate value.
Unlike most early-childhood proposals, which funnel funds into school districts or familiar networks of existing providers, expanding employer provision of early-childhood education could be achieved by reforming the tax code in ways that make it cheaper and more attractive for employers or employer groups to offer on-premises early-childhood care as an employee benefit. This proposal would allow a range of approaches to develop in order to meet the needs of different communities of employees. Such an approach works even for parents with erratic schedules because — unlike in K-12 — high-quality early-childhood education does not require highly coordinated curricular sequencing or lesson planning. Indeed, models like Montessori education make mixing and matching students of various ages almost seamless as children work at different paces on varied tasks.
Dramatically expanding tax credits for employer spending on early-childhood education could provide many more families with the choice of on-site options or alternative arrangements. In fact, a blueprint for this approach already exists: The federal tax code currently allows employers to take a partial tax credit of 25% for qualified childcare expenditures up to a maximum credit of $150,000. Boosting the share of the outlay that is credited and lifting the ceiling on the allowable credit could give employers the incentive and the opportunity to act. The National Study of Employers reports, for instance, that just 7% of companies provide childcare at or near the worksite. This is the case even as a 2019 Harvard Business School study found that three-quarters of employees are responsible for some type of caregiving, and the 2019 Cost of Care survey reported that 86% of employees wish their employers offered childcare benefits.
Another model — one that specifically targets those in financial need — is the Fischer Tax Credit, a pilot program included in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The Fischer program offers a partial tax credit to employers who provide paid family and medical leave to qualified employees (employees who do not exceed 60% of a "highly compensated" salary, or $72,000 in 2018). Policymakers could readily adapt this approach to an early-childhood provision for qualified employees.
There is copious room in all this for state, community, and philanthropic activity. Twenty-eight states offer some kind of a tax credit to employers who provide a childcare benefit. State officials should look to create or expand these offerings. They should also ensure employers are able to fully participate in all publicly provided support for the provision and expansion of early-childhood education. Meanwhile, supportive funders and advocates should identify and promote promising models and help develop the policies and practices that will make this solution both practicable and appealing to employers.
Such measures could also help to crack open the early-childhood-education cartel, which tends to be dominated by a clubby crew of advocates, funders, and policymakers. They would create room for new entrants while rejecting the batch-processing approach implicit in conventional pre-kindergarten expansion proposals. Perhaps most importantly, they would allow parents to make decisions for their children that meet their families' needs and circumstances.
PRIMARY AND SECONDARY SCHOOLING
When it comes to K-12 schooling, a few key areas require the attention of conservative policymakers in particular: teacher pay, teacher licensure, and district-leader authority. Together, these moves can empower educators, challenge comfortable cartels, and give dynamic school district leaders the freedom to actually lead.
Teacher compensation has drawn much attention in recent years, most of it consisting of technobabble about Rube Goldbergesque evaluation strategies or calls for across-the-board pay boosts. Less evident has been a clear vision of how to empower and promote excellence among practitioners, meaning we have missed an opportunity to cultivate a professional culture that attracts great teachers and makes them feel valued. Indeed, pay-for-performance proposals have often felt more suited to sales work than the professional work that teachers perform. Perhaps not surprisingly, even terrific teachers have bridled at many of these supposedly performance-oriented schemes.
Teachers today are mostly paid based on "step-and-lane" pay scales, in which salaries are based on years of teaching and advanced credentials with minimal regard to the work a teacher actually does or the quality of that work. While strikes have put teacher compensation firmly in the spotlight in recent years, the discontent has long been building. Indeed, even as after-inflation, per-pupil spending has more than doubled over the past quarter-century, real teacher pay has not budged. A primary culprit is staffing, with schools steadily adding new teachers as well as non-teaching staff — in fact, between 1992 and 2015, the number of non-teaching staff grew at twice the rate of enrollment. And not only has pay been stagnant, but schools offer teachers little opportunity for professional growth or significant pay increases — unless they leave the classroom for administration.
The public is sympathetic to teacher frustrations, with more than two-thirds of adults saying they would like to give teachers a raise. The conundrum is that we have tackled the teacher-pay challenge backwards: by trying to find enough money to allow 3.6 million educators to earn more, while school systems continue doing what they are used to doing. The boldest proposals to redesign the teacher-compensation system have mostly used test scores or paper-heavy evaluations to layer bonuses atop this framework. In short, we have assumed static school designs and job descriptions as well as a steady increase of workers — and then concluded that the only way to raise pay is to boost spending even more rapidly than we have already. That approach is why steady increases in real school spending have not delivered the positive results one would expect.
But there is another path: rethinking what teachers do and how they do it. Unsurprisingly, the nation's teachers are not all equally adept. Schools find it difficult enough to replace the 270,000 teachers who depart each year, much less ensure that all teachers are effective. Meanwhile, researchers have documented that only about two-thirds of teachers' classroom time is used for instruction, even as teachers note that many of the duties that consume their time are of greater and lesser value. These challenges add up to a vast opportunity to rethink the teaching profession. When even terrific teachers can spend a dozen hours every week patrolling hallways and cafeterias, taking attendance, making copies, filling out forms, listening to announcements, and wrestling with balky technology, it is a sign that rethinking compensation has to be about professionalism as well as pay.
Other professions are arranged very differently. In a well-run medical practice, for instance, someone other than a skilled surgeon spends time filling out patient charts and negotiating with insurance companies. Compensation reflects, in part, the relative difficulty of those tasks. Such basic division of labor has been largely absent in schooling, meaning many teachers are paid a middling amount, with all of them — veteran and novice, expert and beginner — spending much of their time and energy on non-teaching tasks.
We need to energetically explore more promising approaches. One possibility is the New York-based New Classrooms model, in which middle-school math teachers share 100 or more students. This allows teachers to customize a student's experience, provide intensive support for students who need it, and make strategic use of technology. The shared-duties model enables veteran teachers to operate more as team leaders than as instructors and allows compensation to more easily reflect individual teachers' duties and roles. Another model comes from the Charlotte-based Opportunity Culture initiative, in which accomplished teachers provide online instruction, coach junior colleagues, or otherwise extend their reach — with compensation to suit their responsibilities.
There is also much room for teacher-led charter schools to pioneer more lucrative, more professional work arrangements. Just as law practices and medical practices are run by partnerships, so too would it be healthy to see a thriving sector of teacher co-ops where teachers are able to assume the responsibilities of school administrators — and use the hefty savings to hire the requisite help while boosting teacher pay. The possibilities are eye-opening: One New York City charter school, the Equity Project, slashed administration and reassigned duties, which allowed it to raise pay to $125,000 — for starting teachers!
Dislodging a complicated, bureaucratic sector will entail pilot projects, philanthropy, and energetic leadership at the state and local levels. Governors should push their state departments of education to set forth new job descriptions that school districts can adopt without having to run the administrative gauntlet. There is also a chicken-and-egg conundrum inherent to this solution: Educators are not trained for these kinds of roles. This means new training programs — ideally out from under the roofs of traditional education schools — will have to emerge. State leaders should craft budgets that reserve some new funds for districts or charter schools that develop plans to redesign roles and compensation — with the goal that some share of teachers (say, at least 5%) will earn at least two to three times the state's median teacher pay, yielding pay of roughly $150,000 to $200,000 per teacher.
Moving beyond a one-size-fits-all profession will upend the way we think about what teachers do and how they are paid. It will create new professional opportunities, allow teachers more control over their professional paths, and beget the possibility for life-altering educators to be compensated like life-saving physicians. It will inevitably refashion traditional job descriptions and eventually alter the shape of the education workforce. All of this will, of course, challenge the teachers' unions to evolve as their members occupy an increasing variety of circumstances and situations. Such a development would be enormously healthy for the profession and the education sector as a whole.
But as our expectations of teachers change, the teacher-licensure racket needs to change too. Of all the professions, one might expect teaching to be among the most open to embracing a diverse array of responsible community members. After all, education experts routinely remind us that teaching is very much a question of relationships, empathy, and understanding. Perversely, however, those same experts defend byzantine licensure systems that do not take into account those qualities, while ensuring that public schools are staffed solely by the graduates of teacher-education programs.
Licensure systems require would-be educators to earn credentials through programs that typically consist of courses at education schools and student-teaching under the supervision of education-school faculty. These prerequisites narrow the pool of potential teachers, saddle educators with onerous costs, and deter career switchers and non-traditional candidates from pursuing teaching careers.
The costs of this approach take the form of both money and time. Analyst Chad Aldeman, a former Obama administration official, has estimated that licensure requirements mean that it costs about $25,000 and requires 1,500 hours to train the average teacher — more hours than the typical teacher works each year. The requirements bar a host of seemingly qualified, promising candidates from applying for teaching positions and are especially burdensome for professionals seeking new careers. The results can be ludicrous. The conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra would not be eligible to teach band in a local junior-high school. CalTech's doctoral students would not be able to take part-time jobs teaching Advanced Placement calculus in a local high school.
Teacher-licensure proponents make analogies to professions like law and medicine, arguing that being an effective professional requires certain knowledge and skills. They have it partly right; those fields do require licenses, but there is no presumption that licensing ensures that someone is a "good" lawyer or physician, much less an empathetic one. It ensures only that a licensee has acquired a basic grasp of certain knowledge and skills. Advocates of education-licensure themselves also routinely suggest that the process should not really be about knowledge, but about whether teachers have the right sorts of dispositions. That may be a reasonable hiring criterion, but it is something that licensure is ill-suited to identify or cultivate in hundreds of thousands of candidates each year.
Indeed, teaching is more akin to fields like journalism or business management, where excellence is an alchemy of interpersonal gifts, natural talents, and acquired skills. In those fields, formal training can be useful and frequently offers a leg-up in landing a job. But one need not possess a license to obtain employment as a journalist; employers are free to evaluate a given credential as they see fit. Yet in education, aspiring teachers are forced to take courses and meet requirements of often-dubious quality before employers can consider hiring them.
It is time for a vision of teaching that is more inviting to career switchers and others with prized expertise — a vision that judges new hires based on skills and aptitude rather than credentials of suspect value. With this ideal in mind, policymakers should reform state licensure systems via statutes and directives issued in state departments of education. Aspiring educators should be able to apply to work in schools if they possess a degree from a recognized college or an appropriate alternative credential, pass a rigorous criminal background check, and demonstrate competency in relevant essential knowledge or skills. (What counts as relevant and essential will vary depending on the role in question, and that is wholly appropriate.)
Rather than requiring school leaders to focus narrowly on candidates who can meet century-old licensure restrictions, licensing reform will enable leaders to ask how they might recruit and best employ career switchers, military veterans, or even local seniors. It will allow students to benefit from the rich experiences and skills of those within their communities. And it will empower schools to forge or strengthen neighborly ties.
Today, teacher preparation imposes nearly all of the costs of preparation on candidates, and when those individuals start working, they are typically treated from day one as independent, fully-formed teachers. This approach makes a certain sense, since these individuals — who pay out of pocket for all upfront costs — expect to be paid accordingly once they are hired. But it is widely recognized as a deeply flawed model, one that is fair to neither first-year teachers nor their students. Allowing potential teachers to forgo investing all that time and money to obtain a license would create win-win possibilities: Schools could start those teachers in apprenticeship roles; provide rigorous, applied-training and mentorship programs for apprentice-teachers; and use the money they save on those apprentice-level roles to boost pay for talented, seasoned mentors. Such an approach would also nicely complement efforts to rethink teacher pay.
These reforms would represent a dramatic change for America's 1,400 teacher-preparation programs. It would not "blow up" teacher education, but it would subject these programs to the same healthy market pressures that business and journalism schools face on a daily basis. Absent a licensure requirement, the question will be whether programs are equipping graduates with essential skills and knowledge. If so, programs will prosper; if not, they will not.
Finally, those who admire the agility and flexibility of charter schools should seek to offer courageous district leaders the same opportunity for a fresh start. Too many school systems find themselves struggling under burdensome commitments made long ago by long-gone leaders. The result is that too few dollars actually make their way into classrooms, while too many go to support unwise benefit plans, vendor agreements, and the like. Los Angeles Unified School District, to take one example, estimates that by the 2031-32 academic year, half of its annual budget ($7.5 billion in 2018) will be devoted to health-care and pensions. School systems across the land face similarly daunting math.
Many state laws and district contracts also contain "evergreen" provisions stipulating that contract terms for public employees remain in effect in perpetuity unless and until both parties agree to alter them. This means that an entirely new school board can be elected and an old contract might have lapsed, but the new board still cannot alter the agreement without union acquiescence. Needless to say, such acquiescence is rare.
In the private sector, when legacy decisions leave ventures struggling with inflated costs, bad contracts, or rigid business models, firms have a chance to reinvent themselves through bankruptcy. Chapter 11 bankruptcy has given countless corporations legal sanction to downsize costly operations, revisit contracts, and modify long-established but anachronistic practices.
That same option is not widely available to school systems. There are many reasons for this state of affairs, but a significant one comes from mid-1990s revisions to the bankruptcy code, which made it possible for states to block municipalities from filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy — the kind of bankruptcy available to school districts. Currently, fewer than half of states allow school districts or other municipalities to file for bankruptcy. Between that restriction and their general aversion to risk, the nation's 14,000 school districts simply do not avail themselves of Chapter 9 bankruptcy, no matter how grim the circumstances become.
So while private businesses can fail and thereby leave room for new entrants to the market, school districts are functionally immortal. This means that bad contracts, regrettable vendor agreements, and ill-conceived school-board policies never disappear.
Experts in bankruptcy law note there exists substantial opportunity to restructure school systems through Chapter 9 should they choose to act. The first step, of course, would be for more states to authorize school districts to file for bankruptcy. There is also a place for more expansive federal action. After all, the U.S. Constitution vests Congress with the authority to set a uniform bankruptcy code precisely because providing individuals, businesses, and communities with the opportunity for a fresh start is integral to maintaining the national fabric.
Federal officials should also explore creating a new bankruptcy-like mechanism specifically designed to allow school districts receiving federal Title I funds — virtually every district in the nation — to petition for relief from contractual, benefit, and vendor obligations that constrain their ability to improve schools or otherwise spend funds in alignment with their students' interests. A school district that files such a petition would propose a plan to re-organize debt, restructure agreements, and alter operations, with the filing considered and reviewed by a Title I bankruptcy judge through an appropriate adjudicatory process.
Critics of charter schools frequently argue that they have an unfair advantage over traditional schools because charter schools have the leeway to sidestep so many financial and institutional constraints that hamper traditional schools. This kind of clean-slate proposal addresses such complaints by leveling the playing field and giving traditional districts a shot at a fresh start. Reform-minded mayors and school boards should have this opportunity to take bold action — and policymakers, philanthropists, and advocates should work to provide them with the knowledge, resources, and legal authority they need to do so.
Even a few instances of school districts seizing the opportunity could have a salutary effect on the way employee groups, vendors, and other parties approach their dealings with districts. Indeed, the absence of a bankruptcy threat makes it far easier for local employee unions to eschew even sensible compromises on issues like health-care or pension costs. A viable bankruptcy mechanism just might encourage some to think more strategically about revisiting benefit commitments, concluding that doing so is prudent if it will forestall the possibility of bankruptcy. This solution could also provide some far-sighted union leaders with an opening to recalibrate the balance of spending between benefits and salary, between retirees and practicing educators, and between more-senior and less-senior teachers.
Higher education can do much to promote economic opportunity and social mobility. But 2019 also cast a harsh spotlight on the admissions process, as the FBI's Varsity Blues sting led to the charging of dozens of parents with committing fraud to get their children admitted to elite institutions — and several middlemen for assisting their efforts.
Remarkably, amid these prosecutions, the campus mandarins were given a pass despite their routinized efforts to hustle potential donors. Court records brought to light during the investigation revealed how the University of Southern California, for instance, tracks and squeezes affluent parents. Investigators uncovered intricate, color-coded spreadsheets littered with comments like "1 mil pledge," "previously donated $25k to Heritage Hall," and "father is surgeon." A lawsuit challenging Harvard University's affirmative-action policy brought the same routinized shakedowns to the surface, prompting even the Harvard Crimson to note drily, "The public has long suspected that Harvard favors those who fund it. But...the promised building, the ‘conceivable' art collection, the ‘red carpet' treatment — rarely if ever become public knowledge."
If colleges and universities are reserving some admissions slots and selling them to wealthy targets — and there is little doubt they are — then it is safe to say many contributions are anything but altruistic. Today, donors can write massive checks to colleges in order to help secure admission for their children or relatives — and then deduct the giving as "charitable" and stick taxpayers with much of the tab. These practices are widespread, if cloaked in ambiguity — the University of North Carolina, for example, promises that donors of $5 million or more can "find great joy in sharing special campus access" with "their children and grandchildren." How widespread is all of this? In 2017, the top 20 fundraising institutions alone collected $11 billion in donations.
Given the murky status of this "wink-wink" self-dealing, the question is what might be done to put an end to the abuse of this tax loophole — and to discourage colleges from undermining equal opportunity by selling to wealthy donors taxpayer-subsidized "fast passes" to professional success.
There is a straightforward solution. Universities should be given a choice: They can opt to continue with business as usual with a single change — the stipulation that donations from the parents or relatives of past, current, or prospective students are no longer tax-exempt. Alternatively, if institutions put a premium on the freedom to vacuum up funds from all donors without interruption, they can continue to collect tax-exempt donations from everyone — as long as they shift to lottery admissions of the kind that the nation's K-12 charter schools use. This latter option takes the ability to influence admissions out of college officials' hands, thus ending their opportunity to sell access to the institution.
Here is how the former option would work: If a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, or cousin of a donor has attended an institution in the past decade, or is currently attending it, contributions that the donor makes to that institution will not be tax-exempt. If an institution accepts a tax-exempt contribution from someone and a relative attends the institution in the ensuing decade, the college itself will be responsible for the full tax-penalty. This is consistent with how the tax law treats other, similar outlays. The IRS notes that donors who give to a charity and receive a concert ticket in return for that donation have "made a quid pro quo contribution" and therefore cannot deduct for tax purposes the money paid for the ticket. Colleges and universities — the gatekeepers of educational and economic opportunity — should be held to a standard at least as rigorous.
Some inevitably enjoy educational opportunities that others do not. Some parents are better able to afford tutors, for instance, yet there is little appetite for banning tutors. There are limits on what is considered appropriate, for reasons both prudent and practical. In this case, while hiring a tutor is deemed an acceptable way for parents to help boost a child's grade, bribing the teacher to give the child an A is not. Students with affluent parents will have advantages when it comes to college admissions, but there is a profound difference between acknowledging this and tolerating bribery or influence-peddling.
These solutions are not targeted toward limiting philanthropic giving. Under either scenario, would-be donors could continue to give freely to any college they wish and receive the exact same tax breaks they currently enjoy. The only restriction is that taxpayers cannot be required to help cover the tab when donors are being wooed by institutions where largesse will double as influence-peddling.
Admittedly, this proposal would inconvenience wealthy parents hoping to buy an Ivy League admission and discomfit development offices accustomed to using shakedowns to underwrite campus projects. It might even weaken the balance sheet at some of the nation's most prestigious institutions. But most Americans would likely regard this angst with good cheer, welcoming the sign that they won't be tasked with subsidizing this self-dealing anymore — and that it will no longer be cheerily accepted with a wink and a nod.
But it is not only through the admissions process that today's higher-education practices can stand in the way of fair and equal opportunity. Obstacles to employment stifle economic opportunity and impede social mobility. That is why 35 states now ban public employers from inquiring about applicants' criminal history for fear of deterring or turning away capable job candidates. In the occupational-licensing realm, reformers have taken on costly, unnecessary barriers that restrict entry to quotidian positions including masseuse, nail technician, and florist.
Unchallenged, however, has been the most significant barrier to employment in American life: the use of the college degree as a default hiring device. Even as employers express skepticism that colleges are preparing graduates for work, degree requirements are ubiquitous. Indeed, researchers at Harvard Business School reported in 2017 that nearly two-thirds of employers admit to rejecting applicants simply for lacking a college degree — even when the applicant is otherwise qualified for the job.
Moreover, employers increasingly require new hires to have bachelor's degrees for positions in which current workers do not have one and where the requisite skills have not changed. Employers do this even though, as Burning Glass Technologies reported in 2014, college graduates filling middle-skill positions cost more to employ, have higher turnover rates, tend to be less engaged, and are no more productive than high-school graduates performing the same job.
This behavior by employers is, in large measure, an unintended consequence of federal anti-discrimination law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against job applicants on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It does, however, allow the use of "professionally developed" ability or employment tests, so long as they are not "designed, intended or used" to discriminate based on a protected category.
In Griggs v. Duke Power Company in 1971, the Supreme Court unanimously interpreted this language to mean that, when a selection process disproportionately affects minority groups, employers must show that any requirements imposed are directly job-related and serve as accurate predictors of job performance. This standard, which Congress codified into law in 1991, applies to any employment test or selection procedure, including educational requirements. Meeting that legal criterion can make hiring tests perilous for employers. But while courts have scrupulously applied it to non-educational employment tests, they have not done so to college degrees — despite huge disparities in the rates at which protected classes earn those degrees.
For employers, then, college-degree requirements offer an easy, risk-free way to screen applicants while sidestepping legal culpability. Colleges and universities, for their part, reap outsized benefits from acting as the gatekeepers to employment. The losers in this deal are workers and would-be workers; after all, only a third of American adults have a four-year college degree. Degree requirements summarily disqualify non-credentialed workers with relevant qualifications and experience from the applicant pool. They force others to invest substantial time and money in purchasing a piece of paper that may convey little in terms of relevant skills or knowledge.
In short, Washington has distorted the labor market, making college degrees an all-purpose, legally safe proxy for employability and leaving employers nervous about pursuing alternative mechanisms. This result has, in turn, stymied the market for reliable alternative credentials and employment assessments.
What might be done? For starters, we should acknowledge that degrees hold value because of the skills and knowledge they represent, not because colleges have hit upon a scheme that enables employers to engage in discriminatory hiring. With this in mind, employers should treat college degrees as neither better nor worse than other credentials and professionally devised employment tests in signaling an applicant's suitability for hire. Meanwhile, government actors in all three branches should make it more difficult for employers to casually use college degrees as an all-purpose screen and safer for them to use more informative, rigorous, and job-relevant screening tools.
The courts, for their part, should demand employers justify their use of college degrees in the same way they would any other employment test. The president can strike a meaningful and symbolically significant step in this regard by ordering the Office of Personnel Management to rewrite its rules regarding requirements for a college degree for the federal government's 2 million employees. He should direct the OPM to modify existing guidelines that allow agencies to routinely require a bachelor's degree for entry-level positions. New OPM guidance should stipulate that a degree may only be required when it is "job-related" and provides a "reasonable measure of job performance." That provision should extend to the classification- and qualification-standards governing the hiring of 4 million federal contractors.
At the state level, governors should pursue a similar tack. The states collectively employ 5 million workers, meaning such measures by executive actors nationwide could affect upwards of 11 million government jobs. Opening millions of positions to a broader pool of applicants would not only make a powerful symbolic statement, it could catalyze the marketplace for alternative credentials and hiring tools.
Congress, for its part, should adopt legislation making federal student aid available to students pursuing alternative credentials through avenues such as apprenticeships, non-degree programs, and training partnerships. In the meantime, since sponsoring institutions and accreditors decide whether programs are eligible for federal aid, governors and state boards of higher education should direct traditional public institutions to extend their eligibility umbrellas to select non-traditional providers.
Finally, the Institute for Justice and its ilk — which have successfully challenged an array of once-uncontroversial licensure requirements — would do well to tackle college-diploma requirements with that same verve. Other reformers should work with employer groups to develop an alternative set of legally sanctioned policies and practices that employers can rely on when evaluating potential hires.
Upending the college degree's role as a one-size-fits-all ticket to employment would require higher-education institutions to make the case that they are worth the investment in time and money. That is all to the good. That college can be very beneficial to students and society is not the issue; the point is that an inconsistent judicial standard, excessive regard for employer convenience, and a well-fed college cartel ought not oblige Americans to pay a ransom in order to seek remunerative employment and achieve professional success.
WHAT CONSERVATIVES HAVE TO OFFER
For more than a decade, I have hosted regular dinners of leading conservatives who work in education policy. This group of passionate, knowledgeable reformers has arrived time after time, on topic after topic, at a familiar lament: Other than "more choice" and "less Washington," what are conservatives for? Put another way, what are we proposing that will improve the lives of Americans and their communities, cultivate our shared values, and extend opportunity? The answers have, too often, been hard to find.
The ideas above are intended only as a rough first sketch of some possibilities. Conservatives can champion these proposals in ways that will feel credible and principled. After all, one of the right's great advantages in the education realm is that it is not so heavily constrained by its status as the party of professors, unions, and the institutional education lobby as the left. This reality allows conservatives to take on sacred cows that even the most committed progressive reformer may be loath to confront.
When the education debate hinges on the question of who will funnel more dollars into subsidizing 20th-century bureaucracies, conservatives are destined to lose. Heck, who wants to win that argument? But the advantages that progressives enjoy when education becomes a bidding-war quickly turn into weaknesses when the question is who is able and willing to redesign institutions that no longer work for families, students, or taxpayers. Conservatives are uniquely positioned to do more than subsidize the status quo, to instead provide new opportunities and bust the self-serving trusts that have come to dominate the education landscape.
This handful of ideas is far from exhaustive. I am not certain that these proposals are the right ones in all cases or that they are optimally configured. The larger point, though, of which I am quite certain, is that it is past time for conservatives to broaden an opportunity agenda that has too often suffered for being pinched, narrow, and ultimately unpersuasive.