Q&A with Neal McCluskey

February 2018


The Line is proud to have an exceptionally talented group of education leaders serve as advisors to the publication. We have brought together some of the brightest superintendents from across the country, experts in leadership, management and education policy, think-tank scholars and non-profit and former union leaders – all educators at heart. Each brings a unique voice to The Line, shaped by personal and professional experience, expertise, ideological leanings and passion. But all are united in their dedication to finding common ground that advances the future of public education.

I believe in the mission: Civil discourse is vitally important.

Q: Why did you agree to serve on The Line’s editorial advisory board?

A: I believe in the mission: Civil discourse is vitally important, but seems increasingly marginalized in and out of education policy debates. Certainly if asked, it would be the rare person who’d say civil discourse is not important, but we also know — I sure do from spending too much time on Twitter — how easy it is to descend into obnoxious exchanges driven not by a desire to reach solutions or common ground, but to win points in briskly escalating snark contests. I have also reached the conclusion that those with whom I disagree are almost certainly well-intentioned — I can’t imagine many people could live with themselves if they thought they were pursuing evil or hurtful ends — and the right thing to do is to treat them that way, just as I hope they’ll treat me. Finally, I am a bit of a student of contact and social capital theory, and I know it is crucial to see the common humanity in all people if we are to bridge divides. The Line, I believe, is grounded in those same convictions.

Q: Do you believe The Line can be a catalyst for civil engagement among education community leaders and other stakeholders?

A: I do. The key is having truly diverse viewpoints represented all the time, not pitted against each other in invective matches but governed by assumptions of good faith and good intentions on all sides. The Line has done an excellent job of that. I’m excited to be a part of it.

Q: Tell us about your work at the Cato Institute.

A: I’m the director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom. Our primary focus is K-12 education, and within that private school choice. We also examine college costs and outcomes, federalism in education and early childhood education.

The issues I gravitate toward most concern the impact of education systems on social cohesion and equality under the law, hence my interest in contact theory, social capital and civil exchanges.

The key is having truly diverse viewpoints represented all the time…

Q: What do you believe is the value of education?

A: That sounds like an easy question. But there is major disagreement about what education is and should be for. That’s a fundamental reason I support choice: educators and families need to have the freedom to seek and provide education that embraces diverse visions. For myself, I think education should provide bedrock skills — literacy, numeracy, the ability to write — but ultimately should be an experience that enables people to conceive of what constitutes a rich and good life and provides guidance and information valuable for pursuing such lives.

Q: The spring issue of The Line, dubbed the liberty issue, tackles how education leaders balance the needs and rights of individual students with those of the collective. Do we need to do a better job of educating both teachers and students about their rights?

A: I’m not sure we even have widespread agreement on what rights are, so teaching about them is tough. We have the Bill of Rights. And there is good evidence that too few students are aware of what that contains. But I suspect that even fewer students know that there is a fundamental debate about whether we have positive rights — basically, rights to get things that put an obligation on others to provide them — or just negative rights, basically the right to not have things imposed on us. The Bill of Rights is actually intended to secure the latter against government, while we have ongoing debates about whether people have a right to health care, or housing, or, of course, education.

Q: Tell us about Cato’s Public School Battle Map and why you believe it’s important to track these conflicts. What do you hope to achieve with the map?

A: Public schooling is based on a very laudable premise: common schools will be places where people of all different backgrounds — diverse races, religions, classes — become one. On the flip side, there is understandable worry that a system based in school choice would balkanize; split Americans into sundry isolated and maybe even warring groups. I believe this gets things somewhat backwards. Requiring diverse people to pay for a single system of government schools fosters divisive conflicts that could be avoided with choice, most painfully over fundamental values or identities, such as religion or race, which are the conflicts on which the map focuses.

The map’s primary, original purpose was to illustrate that these sorts of conflicts are real and common, in contrast with the idealized vision of public schooling as proven unifier, which I often saw presented in ways I thought glossed over such conflicts. Since I started the map it has also occurred to me that it reveals the impossibility of public schools treating all people equally, which is a basic tenet of just government and public schools are government institutions. The most famous — or infamous — illustrations are our century-long battles over evolution and creationism. A school simply cannot teach both as true. Finally, I think it could be a useful tool for people in districts experiencing these kinds of conflicts to see where they have been experienced before, and maybe find examples for how they might be resolved.

Q: Have you noticed an uptick since you’ve been tracking?

A: Unfortunately, maintaining the map has been just a one — or two — person job. I haven’t always been able to update it with the regularity I would have liked, so my sense of changing intensity may be a little off. That said, our methods of collecting the stories has not changed much. I go through those sources every day. The map, though, is also at the mercy of the media; if coverage of education, or certain types of stories in education decrease, or there is an uptick of conflicts disproportionately in areas without good media coverage, the map won’t capture everything.

As for upticks, I started tracking battles in 2005 for a paper published in 2007 and didn’t decide for sure to keep tracking them — and posting them on an interactive map — until 2009 or 2010. The Map didn’t launch until 2013. Conservatively using 2013 as a “safe” start year to assume the most consistency in collecting and posting stories, from 2013 to 2015 we tracked about 180 conflicts per year. In 2016 that increased to 190, and in 2017 we hit 207. That uptick is likely a symptom of the increased polarization we saw in politics broadly during that time, though it could also be a function of greater media attention to education battles.

… that there is a publication and organization seeking to foster civil discussions in education also makes me very hopeful.

Q: Can we succeed if we always think of education issues in terms of winners and losers?

A: I hope we don’t succeed if we are really thinking in terms of winners and losers. We should never believe we succeeded if we know some people are losing in the system. For my focus, winning and losing is often literal: some people win debates over whose values or histories will be taught and some will — some must — lose. Unequal outcomes is a tougher nut to crack, because it is not always clear what role the education system plays in those outcomes. But we should never be satisfied until we know that people can access the educational options that work best for them.

Q: What is your approach for engaging others with whom you disagree?

A: I try to be pleasant, assume good intentions on their part and to think about how good people could believe what they believe. I also try to reach out to people with whom I disagree to participate in Cato education events. That requires treating others decently if I hope to be able to land a good forum of panelists. And no, I don’t try to have dissenting voices at Cato events because I’m unusually enlightened. Frankly, forums can be pretty boring when everyone agrees. I want people to watch and be engaged with our events.

Q: What makes you hopeful about the future of education?

A: I have watched school choice — and an assumption that families should have choices — grow for decades. And I think that’s great. I also think it is a horse that won’t be put back in the barn. Of course, that there is a publication and organization seeking to foster civil discussions in education also makes me very hopeful.

A Publication of the
Frontline Research & Learning Institute

On Civil Discourse

The Line’s purpose is to offer new ideas and insight and encourage civil discourse on the most significant K-12 issues we face.


E editor@thelinek12.com

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