A casual observer of education policy might well have scanned headlines over the last few years and concluded that America’s schools had been swept up in this era’s political polarization. The most covered stories—COVID recriminations, student debt cancellation, attempts to ban critical race theory, renaming schools—seem to come straight from today’s culture wars.
It is not uncommon for a few hot-button issues to dominate the education conversation at any given moment. Think of past battles over Common Core, school-funding litigation, teacher strikes, tenure reform, and selective-admissions public schools.
While those storms raged, however, more consensus-oriented reforms slowly but surely reshaped schooling. For example, the 20-year standards-and-accountability movement raised expectations about student learning, measured performance, and publicized results. The early 1990s creation of charters led to thousands of new and different choice-based public schools that now educate millions, including about half of students in some U.S. cities.
So do our leaders’ positions on education issues today fall along partisan lines, thereby contributing to the divides in American politics? Or are there quieter, more broadly supported ideas that have the potential to bring us together?