Education Reform as a Healthy Ecosystem

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks reminisces about the good old days when the Republican Party was a fusion of two different types of conservatives. Brooks describes the first type as an “economic conservative:” “They spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty. They upheld freedom as their highest political value. They admired risk-takers. They worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace.”

But the GOP tent embraced a differently-minded conservative as well,  the “traditional conservative" who  “didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.”

In those halcyon days the Republican Party represented a robust and well-rounded set of values. Now, says Brooks, GOP leaders are composed only of economic conservatives, deriding the second “traditional” type for encouraging (inter)dependence.  That loss of perspective has reduced the GOP to a party that has nothing to say about social order, nothing to offer groups that value a more complex world, particularly those who place great importance on family (like Hispanics) or “the less educated half of this country.” Ergo, you get a presidential nominee like Mitt Romney, who stakes his platform on stripping down government services and slashing aid to those in need.

I love Brooks’ description of the archetypal conservative who is driven by the concept of society as “a harmonious ecosystem” nestled with the layers of personal and governmental support. In contrast,  the current Republican Party is monotonic, anorexic in perspective.
This is also a way of describing the argument between education traditionalists and education reformers.  Many traditionalists campaign for a singular and uniform public school system, all children served by one entity. But, say reform advocates, a mature and high-functioning public school ecosystem should comprise various interacting layers that integrate governmental oversight and support along with independently-minded alternatives, all bound together in service to student growth.

One good example of this would be school choice, which  has a particular resonance in New Jersey because of the rhetoric that characterizes non-traditional schools as a detriment to suburban districts. But if we follow along with Brooks, our  school system should offer a variety of elements – traditional schools, charter schools, blended online schools – all linked together in service to students. In this utopia there’s no “battle between government and private sector,” no anti-choicers shrieking about corrupt hedge fund managers or drained school funds or intrusive governmental oversight. Just a healthy, harmonious ecosystem that respects its various layers.