On the Maine Wire Podcast, conservative legal activist Leonard Leo discussed his thoughts on the state of education, both on the K-12 and university levels.
In terms of K-12 education, Leo focused on the need for transparency and maintaining the proper role of the family when it comes to educating children about controversial subjects.
Leo also discussed the ACLU’s apparent philosophical shift in recent years as it has begun to actively advocate against parental rights.
Regarding the state of higher education, Leo argued that it is “absolutely, positively horrible.” He warned that universities who create a “hostile environment” for free and open discussion will likely see their enrollment numbers suffer in the coming years.
When asked about the Supreme Court’s recent decision concerning the unconstitutionality of affirmative action, Leo predicted that it will take a while before compliance is realized in spite of both the clarity of the Court’s ruling and the widespread disapproval of the practice among members of the American public.
The discussion with Leo on K-12 education focused primarily on issues related to controversial curricular content and parental rights.
“Speaking as someone who is both a conservative and a Catholic, I have always felt that the most important governing unit in a society is the family,” Leo said.
Leo suggested that when lawmakers, administrators, and educators are considering “what rules and regulations and standards” to “impose or promote,” they ought to ask themselves: “Is this something that the individual or the family can handle on their own? That doesn’t require state intervention? Is this something that’s most appropriately handled by the family?”
“I think there is definitely a growing effort to diminish parental rights,” Leo said.
“I think it cuts across a lot of different areas, he said. “I think it affects education – the way in which school boards and towns develop curricula, the extent to which they encourage parental input into what they’re doing, the extent to which they are transparent about what those curricula are. I think it does relate to issues of sex and gender.”
“How much transparency do you want to have in terms of what schools are saying to the kids?” he asked. “What counseling they’re giving them? What conversations ought to be off the table, and off limits for a school, and properly be left to a family?”
During the conversation, Leo was also asked about the ACLU’s apparent philosophical shift in recent years, notably evidenced by their support for legislation geared toward further diminishing parental rights.
Leo argued that the ACLU’s “mantra” of “we will defend anybody’s freedom of speech” is “complicated in a world where your constituency, which is largely left, no longer really believes in freedom of speech.”
Although he agreed that sticking to their principles was “one option” for the ACLU under these circumstances, “the other option is to adapt to the changing culture of the left and to kind of slowly move away from that dogged defense of freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and to just go take up other battles.”
When asked specifically about the ACLU’s recent push-back against parental rights, Leo said that he was “surprised,” since “parental rights” are, “at the heart,” of “freedom of expression.”
“Family is an institution that has at its core a set of thoughts, beliefs, predispositions, and when…a family decides that it’s going to express certain content, allow or disallow certain content, structure a conversation about sensitive issues in a certain way or at a certain age, that’s really the family asserting its expressive rights…as a human institution. And the ACLU is not really defending that,” he said, “which is curious.”
The ACLU of Maine: Further Context
It is worth noting here that this past legislative session, the ACLU of Maine offered testimony on a number of bills that consistently reflected the kind of staunch opposition to parental rights that Leo addresses.
For example, they testified against bills introduced in the Maine State Legislature that, among other things, would have instituted an age-rating system for public school library books, ensured curriculum transparency, and allowed parents to opt their students out of controversial portions of public school curricula. They also testified against a bill that would have required school administrators to obtain parental consent before staff could refer to a child using pronouns other than those listed on their enrollment form.
At the same time, the ACLU of Maine also testified in support of legislation aimed at reducing parental rights, including a measure, that has since been signed into law, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to receive “gender affirming” hormone therapy without parental consent.
After talking about the ACLU, the conversation shifted toward a discussion of the current state of higher education in America.
“The state of higher-ed is horrible. Absolutely, positively horrible,” Leo said.
Leo then went on to opine on the reasons why one would choose to attend college in the first place.
“Obviously, to some extent, it’s to build various skills,” he said.
“As Thomas Jefferson thought,” Leo continued, “the other reason to send someone to college, particularly liberal arts education, was basically to cultivate a citizen who was going to appreciate democracy. That was his view…Teach people how to be free.”
With these purposes in mind, Leo argued that today, students are paying “a lot of money for garbage.”
Leo then suggested that should colleges continue down this path, their enrollment will begin to suffer in the coming years as a result.
“The market works,” he said.
“And what all of these education institutions are about to face – it’s going to happen in the next couple of years – is what…people in the education world call the ‘demographic cliff.’ There’s going to be a precipitous decline in the number of college-age kids. And there is going to be a huge decline in the number of college applications because there just aren’t as many children as it used to be of college-age.”
“And, you know, the bottom line is, there are going to be a decent number of schools that go out of business,” Leo said. “And I’ll make a bet that if you’re a school that creates a hostile environment, if you’re a school that doesn’t have a reputation for really sharpening your kids minds in a way that’s open and civil, if you’re an institution that doesn’t place a premium on real skills, you might be in trouble.”
“The people who were still having kids are relatively more mainstream and conservative,” he argued.
“And so if you want to be a successful institution of higher education over the next five-to-seven years, my bet would be on those that say: ‘You know what, we’re in the business of educating people to think freely and rigorously. We’re not in the business of coddling college kids to not think freely and rigorously. And we’re in the business of giving them sharp analytical skills and other skills they need to be successful in life. We’re not in the business of indoctrinating them.’ Those are the schools that are going to thrive and flourish. And those that don’t do that are going to be in distress, thankfully,” Leo stated.
The Affirmative Action Decision
Leo was then asked about his thoughts on the Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the unconstitutionality of affirmative action.
“I think the safe bet is to assume that there are going to be a lot of institutions of higher learning that are going to try to skirt around the issue and find a way to do what they were doing before,” he said.
Leo also pointed out that, according to polling data, the vast majority of Americans do not support “race conscious admissions” or “race conscious hiring” policies.
“Now, this is an interesting issue, right? Because here polling data is pretty clear,” he said. “70-plus percent of Americans do not like race conscious admissions. They do not like race conscious hiring.”
Consequently, Leo argued that “litigation is a much more successful strategy” for those who wish to continue pursuing such policies, given that the “court of public opinion” is largely not on their side.
Returning to the Supreme Court’s decision, Leo stated that “this [discussion] starts as a pure legal question, and a pretty clear one.”
“I’m glad the court has finally had the opportunity to clarify it,” he said.
Leo then argued that while there is certainly room for a normative debate about race conscious admissions and hiring, the unconstitutionality of such practices has now been made abundantly clear.
“First and foremost, what people need to understand is, like it or not, our Constitution, our law, says that we are a colorblind society,” he said. “You either accept the rule of law or you don’t.”
“We can still have a debate about whether our country should have a different legal standard,” Leo said. “But that will require changing our Constitution because our Constitution is, like it or not, a colorblind constitution. Period.”