The purpose of public education is to shape citizens of the republic to be capable of the heavy task of self-government. This country’s first real education “expert,” Noah Webster, summarized the purpose of universal public schooling even more directly: “Begin with the infant in his cradle; let the first word he lisps be Washington.”

Our current public education system, however, is so far removed from this basic purpose that even stating it in nearly any education-related forum seems positively reactionary and, at best, tangential to the quasi-scientific “profession” that now swallows $800 billion from the public annually. In fact, given the clashes now happening with increasing frequency all over the country over critical race theory, gender ideology, anti-American activism, and more, its purpose could fairly be described today as alienating students from their country and setting them on a course to hate it and one other.

The radical content of public education today, which many parents were surprised to find emanating from their kitchen tables during forced virtual “learning” over the course of the pandemic, is the end result of a Long March from the cultural Left decades in the making.

However, it may at least equally be laid at the feet of conservative and Republican reformers who for too long failed to prioritize the content and cultural transformation of the public school system, choosing instead to focus on issues such as tax cuts and regulation while largely leaving the shaping of the future cultural landscape to their opponents. In the generational breakdowns over such concepts as the fundamental goodness of America, recognition of biological sex, and the belief that America’s sins are not just existent but exceptional in the history of the world, we can see the predictable result of that failure. Millennials, and Generation Z in even greater numbers, are simultaneously more ignorant of basic facts about the country and have a more hostile attitude toward it. Among those under 40 years old, for example, more than 60% believe the United States is racist.

Even at this late hour, many on the Right, while thankfully starting to realize the political importance of parents’ concerns, still imagine the problem can be solved with a whack-a-mole tactic, targeting particular pieces of objectionable curriculum. This is the approach that has generated anti-critical race theory bills in a number of states, along with restrictions on age-inappropriate gender-bending material, such as the Florida law derisively and inaccurately labeled by the media as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

These laws, while laudable and a step in the right direction, are difficult to enforce and don’t address the genuinely systemic nature of the ideological problem in schools. Wokeness is embedded everywhere, from schools of education and teacher trainings to certification requirements, the available textbooks, and the district bureaucracies that often make the decisions many imagine are made by elected school boards. Content-specific reforms are like grabbing a tiger by the ears and trying to wrest it in the right direction: It turns out tigers largely do what they want.

The prerequisite for any attempt to seriously change the direction of the education system is, as it so often is in the rest of the world, real leverage to produce consequences. Absent leverage, many of these reforms will flounder on the complex shores of the system. Objectionable content will be renamed, reshuffled, replaced, and stuck in somewhere else. The doggedness of parent groups such as Parents Defending Education and Moms for Liberty is admirable and important, but their foe is a vast bureaucracy paid on a full-time basis to fight them every step of the way.

At the end of the day, the only way parents’ concerns will get any respect is if they’re attached to real penalties. School choice is the only reform that finally connects parental discontent with the only thing the people running large, well-funded systems actually care about: a diminished paycheck.