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In today’s episode of EdChoice Chats, our President and CEO Robert Enlow and VP of Communications Jennifer Wagner discuss education policy in House of Cards. They unpack the accuracy and effectiveness of policymaking.
Robert Enlow: Hi, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats, School Choice and Pop Culture. We’ve been doing this for a little while now. We’ve been doing it with Harry Potter. I loved that when I got to do that one. That was exciting. I’ve also done it with West Wing and Yes, Prime Minister, which I also got to do, which I loved.
Now, we’re going to do it with the American version of Yes, Minister called House of Cards, and so we’re really excited about that, and I’m joined to today with myself, Robert Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice, and Jennifer Wagner, our vice president of communications, who lives and breathes House of Cards all day long.
So, we’re excited to do this, and so I’ll turn this over to you, Jen, to start us off.
Jennifer Wagner: All right. Well, thank you, Robert. I don’t live and breathe the most recent seasons, but I was hooked on these first few seasons, and the first season focuses around education and K–12 education, and passing an omnibus bill that would include charters and some performance metrics for teachers, and so that’s what we’re going to get into today, and how that … Those couple of first episodes where they’re passing the bill reflect real life, and how policy gets passed, and how politics and education are intertwined, sometimes often at the expense of kids.
So, let’s dive into our first clip here. We’re watching Kevin Spacey’s character, Frank Underwood, who is the majority whip, talk to Donald Blythe, who is this longstanding education guru, liberal lion, who’s going to get this bill written and passed. So, here we go.
Donald Blythe: What are you… Frank Underwood: The bill is garbage, Donald. Tax increases, ban on vouchers, federal oversight. How do you expect me to get that through a committee? Donald Blythe: When Linda told me to write it she promised that… Frank Underwood: I’m sure she said any number of things. Forget what they promised you, Donald. They want your name because it carries weight. Donald Blythe: Well, my name comes with my ideas. Frank Underwood: I understand, but you’ve got to be reasonable. This isn’t the great debate. It’s about passing meaningful reform… Maybe not everything you would have hoped. Help me help you. Donald Blythe: That’s going to take time. Those ideas, I’ve been developing for… Frank Underwood: If it’s time you need I will buy you time, but you’ve got to promise me you’re next at bat is going to give me something I can work with. Donald Blythe: OK, Frank. I’ll see what I can do. Frank Underwood: Good. And Donald, don’t let this get you down. Together we’re going to do more than you’ve been able to do in 25 years.
Jennifer Wagner: Well, obviously, this is maybe a little bit overly dramatic about how things happen on Capitol Hill, but Robert, what are your thoughts? How does a bill become a law? Let’s get Schoolhouse Rock style.
Robert Enlow: I’d like to say I’ve never seen somebody look at a bill and literally throw it in the trashcan, but I have seen that before.
Jennifer Wagner: Have you been that person?
Robert Enlow: I have not…
Jennifer Wagner: OK.
Robert Enlow: I have thrown my own in the trashcan, but not with the legislature present. But what’s interesting about this clip, and what sets it up very uniquely for the episodes to come or the clips to come is that basically they’re starting immediately not from the policy, but from the politics, from the process and not what the right principles are.
And so, the argument is not whether I like what Representative Blythe likes at all, whether a ban on vouchers, tax increases. Of course I don’t like those things really, certainly the ban on vouchers. But I think what’s interesting is they’re not even at the front having a conversation about the policy or the principles are. They’re merely saying, “I’ve got to get something passed. We got to get the right process. Help me to help you.”
Jennifer Wagner: Help me help you, and Donald, we don’t really need you. We just need your name, man. We just need to put your name on this bill so everybody knows it’s got the informator of K–12 education on it, and that’s … I wish that it wasn’t that way. I wish that this was not how things worked.
I will say this is obviously a series, a season set in Washington, D.C., with Congress, which is not a place that we often go to and turn to for education solutions. Perhaps because this is how Congress works.
Robert Enlow: Perhaps. As I was watching the clip again it struck me how it reminded me of Ted Kennedy in No Child Left Behind because it was immediately Ted Kennedy’s name had to be on the No Child Left Behind bill, otherwise it never would have passed, and what were the compromises going to be, and what were the policies were going to be out there. I’m sure they didn’t even talk about that.
When I talked to one of his staffers one time they said it was all about the money. Making sure the money was right. So, I think this is an interesting set up, and it should remind us all as we look into politics, whether it’s in DC or anywhere about how process work.
Jennifer Wagner: Absolutely. Well, let’s get into our second clip.
Frank Underwood: A complete overhaul. Donald Blythe: That would usually take months. Frank Underwood: Well, we only have days, not months. Donald Blythe: But think about the process. I mean, we can’t… Frank Underwood: When I asked my colleagues, your bosses, who are the smartest minds in education, out of hundreds we arrived at you. The six of you in this room. Now, I realize it is a difficult task, but we have the opportunity to make history here, and I want all of us to make it together. So, good luck. We’re counting on you. Doug Stamper: Page one. These bullet points reflect the key planks at the center of our bill. Get comfy. This is your home until we have a presentable first draft.
Robert Enlow: The determination of youth, right, who are getting in there for the good cause to try and do the right policy, even though they recognize that this process is being subverted. Again, like the No Child Left Behind reference earlier, this clip is interesting to me because I’d like to say I’ve never been on the end of one of those calls where it says, “Hey, who’s the smartest person in teacher evaluation, Robert,” and “Who do you know that’s really good about testing and standardized tests?”
It’s interesting how we always look for the smart people to get in a room and figure things out, which is not necessarily always a bad thing, but it should remind us to be humble as we look about policy and think about policy, right.
So, it’s great we have all these ideas, but what you find in the later clips is this the only time they actually talk about policy and the rest is done.
Jennifer Wagner: That is definitely true, and this clip I think especially strikes me because I lived in D.C. for a couple years, and I have a lot of … I am not myself a very smart person who went to a very fancy school, but I have a lot of friends who are, and they were all in rooms like this at some point drafting maybe education policy, maybe defense policy, maybe environmental policy, and they all had great ideas, right.
They came to the table with everything they read in college, and everything they studied in policy briefs from this think tank or that think tank, but at the end of the day they didn’t actually have real life knowledge of the thing that they were making policy.
To your point, sometimes that’s fine. A lot of times we’re going to rely on data and metrics, but I’m guessing, judging by looking at the age of these folks, that many of them are probably not parents. And we get into this with the later clips as well, but nowhere in any of this podcast will you, except for a couple of times, see any reference to parents or students.
And again, not that really smart people can’t make really good policy, but Washington in particular is kind of a place where the end user gets pushed way to the back burner.
Robert Enlow: See, I would argue that’s on both sides, on both the end user and the parents and the child on one side, and the teachers on the other side, right, as you’ll see in later clips, and this is also reminding me of something that’s fresh on my mind.
With a lot of states doing their ESSA, Every Student Succeeds Act plans, I came to learn yesterday that a lot of states have differing goals and benchmarks for differing races, not just my home state of Indiana where my superintendent thinks that it’s OK to expect something different from a child of color.
I think that’s across the country, and reasonably you can see the policy arguments behind that, but how do you say that to a parent. “Hey, because you live here. Because you look like that, maybe we’re just going to expect a little bit less from your son.”
I think this is what happens when you get smart people in a room. It’s the lack of humility that we’ve got to be careful about, that we’ve got always remember because it’s always in the real world where these policies get implemented.
Jennifer Wagner: I will say, though, Washington, D.C., not good at maybe K–12 education policy. Really good at acronyms, though. Super good at that.
Robert Enlow: That’s right.
Jennifer Wagner: ESSA, we’ve got all kinds of different acronyms in K–12 and every agency. So, really, good job Washington, D.C.
Robert Enlow: If you like about it it’s ESEA went to NCLB went to RTT went to ESSA.
Jennifer Wagner: I forgot about RTT.
Robert Enlow: RTT, Race to the Top.
Jennifer Wagner: RIP RTT.
Robert Enlow: I know.
Jennifer Wagner: All right. We’re going to move on to our next clip.
Speaker 1: Page 54 section seven. We’d like some clarification. Speaker 2: Section seven has to do with the evaluative measures… Marty Spinella: Evaluative measures. We’re talking about here a performance standards, plain and simple. Speaker 3: We can’t have that. We open that can of worms… Marty Spinella: Got to take it out. Frank Underwood: The administration wants it in. Speaker 3: Then we’re all wasting our time. Frank Underwood: Look, I can cut down the frequency of testing, but it’s it got to… Speaker 3: That’s the thin edge of a two-ton wedge, no way. Non debatable. Marty Spinella: Hold on. There’s no harm in hearing him out, right? Frank, what do you have in mind? Frank Underwood: We adjust article four. Hand me article four. We go every three years instead of two. Marty Spinella: For us to even consider testing… Speaker 1: Marty, we can’t negotiate time intervals here. Marty Spinella: If, I’m just saying if, the frequency could never be more than five years. Frank Underwood: Look, five is a little high, but if you could bend on that… Speaker 3: Marty. Marty Spinella: And it’s not just frequency. Veteran teachers would have to be exempt, if they have a proven record of excellence with the students. Frank Underwood: Well, excuse me for a moment, Corey, will you take the reins on this? Corey Phillips: Right. So, article four in terms of…
Jennifer Wagner: That’s how a good idea becomes a less good policy.
Robert Enlow: So, what’s really interesting is as I was re looking at that, the minute it gets into a policy conversation Frank Underwood is gone, right? He actually leaves. So, it’s veteran teachers because I’m sitting there going veteran teachers with a track record of good classes should be exempt.
Actually, that’s a reasonable idea. If you had a good teacher, proven good teacher that test scores have been great. The classroom management’s been great. The parent satisfaction is great, I’d exempt the heck out of them from a lot of stuff, right, because give them a lot of teacher freedom. We need more of that, but the idea of evaluating teachers is an important thing because we have to do it.
What you do with that evaluation is a whole other question. So, I thought that was very interesting they started getting their policy, and it was also interesting, they have an idea, and now they’ve got to start shopping it to the people that can help or hurt them. In this case, it’s the union.
Jennifer Wagner: Right. And so two things, one about our movement in particular, is that this very conversation, right, so teacher evaluations. It was something, and Mike McShane, our colleague, just wrote about this in one of his reports about where do we maybe go off the rails when it came to evaluating and regulating.
Well, teachers is one of them. So, we decided, I don’t know, not we, a lot of people in the movement.
Robert Enlow: A lot of really smart people in D.C.
Jennifer Wagner: Yes. They decided maybe 10-15 years ago that what we really needed to do was we needed to hold these teachers accountable, right, which to your point, sounds great, right. Obviously, nobody wants to have under-performing teachers in their kids or any kids classroom, but man, did we kind of let it get off the rails.
We’re kind of like now we’ve got different accountability systems, and we can do performance pay. We can exempt these teachers, and we can include those teachers, and here’s how long a teacher can stay if they’re on probation, and all of a sudden now it looks like we don’t like teachers, when nothing could be further from the truth.
They are in the classroom everyday doing the hard work of teaching our kids, but we didn’t have a good solution to that everyday classroom experience and how they were feeling when it comes to the issue of teacher accountability.
Robert Enlow: And it’s a perfect example of how you have a great idea on paper, and it doesn’t work out in principle, and it’s also a really important point to talk about systemic reform versus piecemeal reform. So, “Hey, let’s have teacher evaluations,” but hold on, let’s not include parents in that process. Let’s not include satisfaction of parents. Let’s not include principals in that process. Let’s make it only about a test score and only about a growth of test scores.
So, when we think about accountability, the title of the piece that Mike McShane did was Do-Over or Double Down. It was actually by Mike McShane and Paul DiPerna, and there was a response from the groups that we brought together were very simple.
Well, it’s OK that we’ve done testing. Well, maybe we took that a step too far, and it’s interesting how we do need to learn from failure, but sometimes we got to… We have a lot of risk, and this movement has got to be thoughtful about that.
Jennifer Wagner: Well, and that I think is the other big takeaway from this clip is you’ve… You mentioned this. So, as soon as the policy hits the table, you’ve got the debate, and then you’ve got to go out and sell it, and so everybody goes out to their constituency groups, and we make a mistake in that process of assuming that a teacher’s union represents all teachers, or that a member of Congress represents all of the members of that person’s party, and we make these broad-based assumptions.
We also operate on fear. “Oh, we can’t put that in there because so and so will be mad, or we have to include this or it’s a no go.” And again, missing from this clip—the common theme throughout this podcast—missing from this clip are parents. There’s nobody there saying, “You know what, let’s go and convene a round table or a blue ribbon panel or whatever group of parents to see what they think about teacher accountability, or what they think about performance pay?”
And so again, that’s something that has been missing a lot in this debate in real life, and is certainly missing from this clip.
Robert Enlow: That’s right. Agree.
Jennifer Wagner: All right. Moving on. All right. What’s next up? I believe we get into the thick of teacher strikes and bricks being thrown through windows.
Robert Enlow: So, what’s interesting about this. So, the first clip was about OK, so the president has an idea. He campaigned on it, right. So, you got to do it.
Jennifer Wagner: Got to make it real.
Robert Enlow: Got to make it real. Second one is about OK, the original idea stinks. I got a better group of people who’s a better group of smart people who can build a better widget, and the third one is well, we’ve built a better widget. Now, we’ve got to negotiate our way through the process, and now this the clips where it starts to see where the negotiations get real and meaningful.
Jennifer Wagner: And hopefully, hopefully, not all of this is what happens in real life. So, stay tuned here. We’re going to roll our next clip.
President Garrett Walker: Frank. Frank Underwood: Mr. President. Linda. President Garrett Walker: Let’s strike the anti-collective bargaining provision from the bill. Linda and I have talked it over, and I think she’s right on this. Linda Vasquez: Tell Bob he can come by tomorrow afternoon. Frank Underwood: Sir, respectfully, I do not think you should give him the satisfaction. President Garrett Walker: Give me a reason. Frank Underwood: Makes us appear weak. This is an opportunity for you to establish your supremacy. We should seize it. Linda Vasquez: But without Birch’s cooperation we’re fighting an uphill battle before we even get the bill to the floor. Frank, we discussed this. Frank Underwood: Sir, if you give in now, Birch will walk all over you for the next four years. I can get this bill on the House floor as is, I promise you. President Garrett Walker: All right, Frank. Show me what you can do. Frank Underwood: Thank you, Mr. President.
That was her trying to take credit for my idea, advice she wouldn’t take from me, unacceptable. I will not allow her to sell my goods when she cuts me out of the profits. [jump] Frank Underwood: Put Fickner in the leaning yes column. Doug Stamper: Don’t you think he’s a neutral? Frank Underwood: He hates Birch. Doug Stamper: Yeah. But he has Birch for the Ways and Means appointment. Frank Underwood: Put him in neutral. Who else? Doug Stamper: They’re a neutral. Frank Underwood: Oh, this list is so shaky. Any one of them leaks it to Bob. No, what we need is one name, one person who can deliver 12. Doug Stamper: Black Caucus. Frank Underwood: Womack. Doug Stamper: What can we offer him? Frank Underwood: What does he need? Doug Stamper: Let me pull up his file. Here we go. McCudden Air Force Base employs 3,000 people in his district. It’s on the DOD’s chopping block this year. Frank Underwood: Who do we know in the Brac Commission? Doug Stamper: That’s dangerous. If a trail leads back to us trying to influence the DOD or the Brac. Frank Underwood: No, no, no. What we do is we close another base. We leave enough money in the DOD’s budget to keep Womack’s base off the list. What we need is someone we own. [jump] Terry Womack: Bill on board with this? Frank Underwood: It was his idea. Terry Womack: Then why isn’t he here? Frank Underwood: Well, we have to be careful until it’s a done deal. Terry Womack: I don’t know, Frank. Frank Underwood: Think about it, Terry. You could become the first African-American majority leader in the United States Congress. Let’s make some history. Terry Womack: You don’t care about history. You just wanted me because I can round up the votes. Frank Underwood: I need the votes, and I do care about history, but most importantly, Terry, you know how to lead. You’re the head of the Black Caucus for a reason. Terry Womack: So, David becomes speaker. I become majority lead… Frank Underwood: And I stay on as whip. Terry Womack: Why don’t you want majority leader for yourself? Frank Underwood: I’m satisfied where I am. Maybe one day when you become speaker you’ll bump me up. Terry Womack: This is the sort of thing that there’s no turning back. Frank Underwood: I can throw a cherry on top. McCudden stays open. Terry Womack: How? Frank Underwood: You don’t want to know how. You just want the headline when you keep 3,000 jobs in your district. Terry Womack: 12 votes? Frank Underwood: 12 votes. Terry Womack: I can get you 10 probably 11. Frank Underwood: It’s so refreshing to work with someone who will throw a saddle on a gift horse rather than look it in the mouth. [jump] Frank Underwood: Terry, let me call you right back. David Rasmussen: Terry Womack? Frank Underwood: Possibly. David Rasmussen: I’ve had three members of the Black Caucus tell me they’re backing my plea for the speakership. Frank Underwood: Interesting. David Rasmussen: I have a sense you’ve been disseminating some misinformation. Frank Underwood: No, I’m afraid it’s you who are misinformed, David. You don’t have three members backing you. You have ten. David Rasmussen: I made it very clear I didn’t want any part of this. Frank Underwood: Yes. You made it crystal clear. David Rasmussen: Then why are you telling people? Frank Underwood: Because they don’t know you made it crystal clear. David Rasmussen: I have to go to Bob with this. Frank Underwood: He’ll think you organized a coup, got cold feet, and are making me the scapegoat. David, if I pick up this phone right now and leak this story, Bob will have no choice but to drop you, even if he believes your version of events. Do you want to take a seat? Bob Birch: Frank… Frank Underwood: I’ll make it short. Bob Birch: The president? Frank Underwood: No. The speakership. David’s making a play. Bob Birch: What? Frank Underwood: He came to me for support. My first thought was to tell you right away, but then my second thought was to ignore my first thought because we have the votes, Bob. Bob Birch: If there had been a party revolt I would have known about it. Frank Underwood: We don’t need the whole party to revolt. We need 13. 13 Democrats plus the other side of the aisle. Bob Birch: Are you out of your mind? Frank Underwood: People have been asking me that a lot lately. I’m inclined to start saying yes. Bob Birch: Who are they, the 13? Frank Underwood: David and I are two. Terry Womack and ten members of the Black Caucus make another 11. Bob Birch: Is the president behind this? Frank Underwood: No. He doesn’t have a clue. This was David’s plan executed by me, but there is an out for you, Bob. I can sway Womack either way as long as you make him the next majority leader, and… Bob Birch: The education bill. Frank Underwood: Now we’re on the same page. Bob Birch: I can’t do that. You know I can’t. Frank Underwood: You’re the speaker, Bob. You can do anything you’d like, and I have to say, appointing the first African-American majority leader, why, that isn’t a bad legacy to have. [jump] Bob Birch: You want to say Womack is the right man to fill your shoes. He won’t make waves. He won’t do interviews, and suck it up and be a team player. David Rasmussen: This was Frank’s idea. Frank Underwood: I told you he was going to try to blame on it. David Rasmussen: Ask around, talk to Womack. Bob Birch: I did. He said you came to him. David Rasmussen: He’s lying, Bob. I would never… Bob Birch: Shut up, David. Do you understand how you’re to behave when we make the announcement? David Rasmussen: And if I don’t play along? Frank Underwood: Then the D triple C will pour everything it’s got into your primary opponent’s campaign next cycle. We’ll cleave you from the herd, and watch you die in the wilderness. Bob Birch: Tell us now, David. David Rasmussen: If you think it’s best, Robert. Frank Underwood: And just think, he could have been a wolf.
Jennifer Wagner: Oh, I hope that’s not how politics really works. Robert, tell me it’s not.
Robert Enlow: So, I thought we were talking about education, not about creating a new speaker, playing a whole new policy game or DOD, and fortunately that is the way the real world of politics works, and it’s about power. It’s about how power is maintained and gotten and achieved and used and utilized, and I think that this clip shows very clearly that if you want to get something done.
Now, the one thing it did show I thought was really interesting is when you’re negotiating it’s never a good tactic to start from your weakest point. So, while I have some distaste in politics this clip just sort of makes me feel like I’m going to take a shower, but at the end of the day, I’ve seen that in our movement far too many times in the idea of school choice and charter schools and regular public school choice.
We’re going to start with a negotiation tactic which says, yeah, this is the max I want which is the minimum I’m going to take, right. Instead of actually pushing hard, and playing the right way to get a victory, right. Look, we know for example, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that parents and the public want universal choice.
It’s what our public schools are. It’s what are charter schools are, and when we talk about private school choice somehow this child is worth less because they earn a little more as a family, but any old billionaire can get a public school education, right.
And so one of the things we’ve got to be careful about is are we about a systemic reform that’s for all kids? Are we about a negotiation for some kids, and I think that’s the one lesson I take away from the original conversation, even though the whole thing just sort of made me feel a little bit itchy and scratchy.
Jennifer Wagner: That’s because your background’s not in politics, and mine is, and it makes me… That’s why I love this entire show because while the real world is not quite like this, at least not the parts that I’ve been part of. Granted, Indiana politics, we might be a little nicer here than in other places, but the thing that speaks to me about this clip as it relates to the K–12 ed reform or school choice movement is that it’s all transactional.
So, Frank Underwood is talking to Terry. So, he needs those votes. He needs the Black Caucus votes. He needs the votes to make sure that the speaker falls in line, and then Terry gets to become the majority leader, and it’s all horse trading, and I actually think we’re pretty good at that.
We get bills passed. We expand school choice options, but sometimes—and I don’t think actually we do this, which is why I work here because I love that we don’t do this—that as a movement we burn through people.
Robert Enlow: Yeah.
Jennifer Wagner: We use them to get what we want, and then we forget to either say thank you, or to sustain that relationship.
Robert Enlow: Yep.
Jennifer Wagner: And sometimes when programs go into place, we get really excited, and then two cycles later, or two sessions later, a whole different group of people come back. They don’t know us. They don’t know school choice. They don’t know ed reform. They don’t know K–12 education even. Well, somebody told me this was a bad idea. Let’s repeal it, and because we don’t sustain those relationships, not necessarily just legislatively.
And this is true in all issues, not just in school choice, that something’s happening. It’s either really bad, or it’s really good, and we need a whole bunch of people to go and testify, right, and so we call 20 parents and they show up, and they do amazing, right.
They tell their stories, and they go back home, and it either passes or fails, and if it passes that’s great. They have no reason to come back. If it fails, that’s really disheartening, and maybe they don’t come back again because maybe we don’t keep in touch with them, and there’s no building toward the greater future.
That’s kind of cliché, but that’s something I think we do really well here at EdChoice that maybe some other organizations haven’t, and that has led us to the state we are in right now where it’s become a little tougher to sell our idea.
Robert Enlow: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more, and I was going to say “preach.” Because that’s exactly right. I mean, and I’m willing as an organization. We are willing as an organization to say, “It’s OK to look about sustainable relationships, not relationships just to be spontaneous to get something done,” and while that’s important… I had one of my first arguments in this movement in 1996 with someone who’s really wealthy. Who’s like, “No, you can create grassroots,” and I’m like, “No. You have to build grassroots over time.” “No. You can great it.” No. You can build it.”
And the reality is you probably do a little bit of both, but we haven’t been doing any of the building for a long time, right. We’re just getting there, and this sustainable building of relationships is something our movement has to do a lot more if we even want to call it a movement, otherwise we won’t be able to, and I think that’s it really important we think about these are everyday people’s lives that we’re talking about.
And so again, that humility, working in the grassroots with genuine respect is something that we need to think more of, and politics doesn’t often work that way.
Jennifer Wagner: No. And in D.C., I mean, you can go to a coffee shop in D.C. they can probably tell you who the House speaker and the Senate leader are, and maybe, maybe if you went to a coffee shop here in Indiana or out in Des Moines or down in Texas, they could name you one or two of those folks, but the reality is most people don’t care about the inside baseball.
Robert Enlow: That’s right.
Jennifer Wagner: They don’t care about what we see in this clip, all the horse trading. All the backroom dealing and wheeling and wheeling and dealing because they only care about what’s happening at their kitchen table. So, onward to our next clip where things get really interesting.
Robert Enlow: Yes.
Marty Spinella: You [expletive] lied, Frank? No, no, no. You lied to my [expletive] face. Frank Underwood: Marty, I did not lie. Marty Spinella: You did not? We spent the whole weekend in that room pouring over this bill line by line, and nowhere did it say anything about collective bargaining. Frank Underwood: Let’s calm down and sit down, and we will discuss this. I will explain everything that’s going on, and we will talk it out no matter how long it takes. Marty Spinella: No more. This is going to be a very short meeting because only one of two things are going to happen. Either you assure me right now that amendment is out, or I am walking out that door, and I am going to start launching missiles. Frank Underwood: The amendment was never intended to stay in the bill. It’s just there for leverage. That’s all. Marty Spinella: You threatened to cut federal funding from union school districts. That’s not a poker chip, Frank. That’s a [expletive] dirty pawn. Frank Underwood: Look, the amendment is not staying in the bill. I just need you to work with me on performance standards. Marty Spinella: Performance standards? Are you [expletive] kidding me? You agreed that they were already out. You can’t just put them back in there, Frank. Look, I have a reputation to uphold. I am the one that made the union reps stay here for you while your— Frank Underwood: Marty. Marty Spinella: You tell me right now: is that amendment in or out? Frank Underwood: There is a middle ground here, Marty. We just have to find it. Marty Spinella: I take that as a no. OK. Frank Underwood: Marty, do not start a war you know you’re going to lose. Marty Spinella: You [expletive] me? I [expletive] back. Frank Underwood: Stamper! Marty and I have a good working relationship or used to. You can see he has a temper, but I can usually cut through that and reason with him, but I may have pushed him too far, which is worrisome. Friends make the worst enemies.
I’ve got to go. Doug Stamper: What’s going on? Frank Underwood: The hotel for tonight’s gala has refused to let Claire into the ballroom because they’re employees are a union. Doug Stamper: Spinella. Frank Underwood: Yeah. He can go after me all he wants, but to go after my life, no class. Meet me at the causeway. Doug Stamper: You got it. [jump] Frank Underwood: Why can’t we just move it to another place? Claire Underwood: I looked into that. Everything’s booked. You have to reserve these things weeks in advance. Frank Underwood: I’ve got Stamper online looking for another venue somewhere. Claire Underwood: Francis, the delivery trucks are already at the Coatsworth. I can’t have people showing up at a different place in case they don’t get the email. Frank Underwood: This is my fault. I feel awful. Claire Underwood: There’s a half a million on the line here. Frank Underwood: I realize that. Claire Underwood: And I can’t keep having my work take these hits on behalf of yours. It’s more than just an inconvenience. Frank Underwood: I know. We’ll solve it. Claire Underwood: I know what we’re going to do. Honey, they’re going to let us have it inside. We’re going to have it right here, on their front steps, picnic style. Frank Underwood: What do you need from me? Claire Underwood: I need your manpower. [jump] Speaker 4: What do you want me to do? I can’t lock the gates, and they’ve got the police on their side. Marty Spinella: Unbelievable, hold on. Santra, I need 200 teachers at the Cotesworth Hotel right now. I need a full picket. Santra: 200. I don’t know if we can get that… Marty Spinella: I don’t want to hear it. Just get it done, all right. I don’t give a [expletive] if they’re teachers or not, frankly. Just get me 200 bodies. Call the teamsters, maybe they’ll help us. We’ll give them glasses if we have to. Tell the guys to look smart. Charlie, get off the phone. I need signs right now. At least 100. You know what, let them set it up. It’s actually better for us that way. This way they can’t hide from us. Speaker 4: He’s putting me in a terrible situation. [jump] Newscaster: What does a clean water gala have to do with teachers unions? Marty Spinella: Well, we have over 50 members of Congress gathered in one place, but the fact that these members of Congress are promoting pouring money out of the country while neglecting their teachers at home is precisely the problem. Newscaster: But this is private money, not public tax dollars. Marty Spinella: But we’re not protesting the cause. We’re protesting the congressmen and women themselves. Newscaster: Are these even teachers picketing? Marty Spinella: Sure, some of them, and some of them are people in… Newscaster: Excuse me. Marty Spinella: Frank. Don’t take the food. We’ll feel you later. Frank Underwood: Marty, Marty, you know that old saying. The most dangerous bat in the world is to come to join the teamster and free food. Marty Spinella: Don’t take the food. We’re feeding you later. Newscaster: I’ll take it. Frank Underwood: She’ll take it. Who else is hungry? I know you all have been out here for hours. Claire Underwood: Marty, come on. You said your piece. You got on the news. Come in and enjoy yourself. Marty Spinella: I respect you, Claire, you know I can’t do that. Frank Underwood: Doesn’t matter what side you’re on. Everybody’s got to eat. Claire Underwood: You can have a plate of ribs. Yes, you can. Marty Spinella: Thank you, Claire, but I cannot. Claire Underwood: You can do it. Come on, Marty, come on. Marty Spinella: I can’t. Thank you. Thank you.
Robert Enlow: So, this clip goes on in the end to sort of show the importance of messaging, and how you use events to message well, but I’m, struck by this clip. It reminds me of the Milton Friedman quote, right, “Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned,” right. So, this is clearly the stage where the union guy feeling like he is not going to back down.
And so you get people into corners, and again, the further we get into these clips, the further away we get from real people and real policy and real impact and real families and real teachers. It now all becomes a game, right, and I get that, and the process that’s politics is important, but it’s interesting the further and further you get into this, the less and less it’s about real people.
Jennifer Wagner: Yes. Absolutely. It’s about politics. It’s about power. It’s about, you know, we’ll see the teachers showing up, and they’re striking, but at one point we talk… They talk about I just need bodies, right. I just need bodies to show up. They don’t even have to be teachers. It’s all about—and maybe I’m a little susceptible to this because I work in the field of public relations and public perception—but it’s all about crafting that perfect image, that perfect narrative in the he said she said, and upping the ante, right.
So, this starts out with talking about collective bargaining and performance pay, and it very quickly escalates. Things get really, really dicey because then you’ve got not just Frank Underwood and Marty fighting each other, but you’ve got a bunch teachers dragged into it.
You’ve got Frank Underwood’s wife, Claire Underwood’s event in jeopardy because…
Robert Enlow: About clean energy.
Jennifer Wagner: And it has nothing to do with education, but all of a sudden she can’t hold her event because Marty called the hotel and got her event shut down because it’s a union operated hotel, and all the wait staff don’t want to be part of it, and it’s amazing to your point, that nowhere in here we’re actually talking about…
Well, I guess we did talk about for a hot second see what they do, and there’s a whole bunch of school kids running around the streets of Washington, D.C., but that’s using kids as pawns.
Robert Enlow: That’s exactly right. The kids and the teachers are being used as pawns in both those scenarios, right, and that’s again, one of the reasons why I think we’ve got to be real careful as a movement and focus on long-term relationships, although I thought at the end of this clip, which is great, where they’re forced to have that event outside.
Robert Enlow: They brought in teachers or pseudo teachers.
Jennifer Wagner: Maybe not teachers.
Robert Enlow: Or whoever they were to protest, but real life can actually intervene, and real life is people are hungry.
Jennifer Wagner: Yeah. They’re bringing the food.
Robert Enlow: We’ve got ribs and beer, and he goes we can always … What was his line. He says, “We always can disagree, but everyone needs to be fed.”
Jennifer Wagner: Everyone needs to eat.
Robert Enlow: Everyone needs to eat.
Jennifer Wagner: And that’s true because that is where Washington politics end and real life begins, and that is obviously a theme in an upcoming clip here. Well, the thing that should end the strike, and the thing that does end the strike are not the same, but I think most people in America would agree that the thing that should end the strike is far more compelling than the thing that does.
Robert Enlow: That’s correct.
Jennifer Wagner: So, let’s get into our next clip.
Various Newscasters: We’re almost a month into this strike, and we’ve got million of kids stuck home from school.
You blame the White House or Congress.
I personally have very little sympathy for the teachers.
We’re over three weeks into this strike. It’s costing the country billions of dollars, and instead of offering solutions.
There’s a big difference between taking a stand and sitting on your hands.
I don’t know whether to call it…
And and the problem is that each don’t sound concerned about…
The only smart thing he’s done is lift his platform from the Republican platform. Frank Underwood: I admit it, Linda, this got away from me, but we can’t turn back time. We have to hold our ground. Linda Vasquez: While our approval ratings continue to nosedive. Frank Underwood: Spinella and I worked together for years on dozens of labor related bills. I thought he’d be reasonable. Linda Vasquez: Well, you were wrong about that. Frank Underwood: Well, I didn’t think he’d be insane enough to go on strike, and I didn’t think the strike would last this long. Linda Vasquez: So, you’ve been wrong twice about this. Why should I believe you’re right about holding out? Frank Underwood: We threatened collective bargaining in order to get performance standards and charter funding. That’s the deal that we made. We took that stand. We lay down now, we lose it all. They’re will be no reform. Just an empty bill. Linda Vasquez: I understand the logic, Frank, but we’re in damage control now. Frank Underwood: But we can’t close one wound by opening another. Linda Vasquez: But we’re the Democrats. We’re the ones who are supposed to be defending the teachers. Frank Underwood: But you can’t have it both ways, Linda. You can’t have the reform you want and keep the teachers happy at the same time. You knew that when we started. Linda Vasquez: Then if we have to choose we chose to keep the teachers happy. Frank Underwood: That is a mistake, Linda. We’ve already crossed the Rubicon. Linda Vasquez: I’m telling you this. The president wants to change the bill. We should have done it three weeks ago. We didn’t. So, you have to do it now. Frank Underwood: Give me more time, Linda, please. If I can break this strike and get everything we want in this bill, can we agree that’s preferable to folding? Linda Vasquez: Of course. If we can count on that. Frank Underwood: Then count on me for just one more week. If the strike isn’t over by then I’ll change the bill. Linda Vasquez: Frank… Frank Underwood: No. One more week, that’s all.
This is the worst possible position to be in. If I water down the bill the president will still see me as a failure. If the strike doesn’t end in a week I force myself into a corner, only total victory will put me back in his good graces. The alternative is exile, which will mean the last five months were for nothing. I cannot abide falling back to square one. [jump] Doug Stamper: What about more schoolbooks, less bricks. Frank Underwood: No. It’s too broad. We need a better soundbite. Something specific. Something that points the finger directly at Spinella. Doug Stamper: He’ll deny any involvement. Frank Underwood: Well, of course he will. So, how do we get around that? Doug Stamper: We’ll say he can’t control his troops. Frank Underwood: There’s no evidence it was a teacher. Doug Stamper: Who else could it be? Frank Underwood: He’s going to shift blame for the strike back on Congress. No. We need something clear. Something clean. Something that sticks in your head. Doug Stamper: Teachers need a lesson in self-restraint. Frank Underwood: No. You’re not hearing me. People like teachers. No, we need something that makes Spinella the villain. His lack of control. His inability. Claire Underwood: Disorganized labor. Newscaster: It’s a disorganized labor, plain and simple. When you’ve got angry teachers throwing bricks through congressman’s windows you’ve got to blame the union leadership. Bob Birch: We’ll be beefing up security for the entire leadership, and I strongly encourage Marty Spinella to keep his people in line. This is starting to look like disorganized labor. Newcaster: Do you really think Marty Spinella is to blame? Terry Womack: Whether Mr. Spinella’s behind this or not, he might want to tone down the rhetoric before disorganized labor turns into organized crime.
Robert Enlow: Disorganized labor. That should tell you the importance of simple, good, positive messaging.
Jennifer Wagner: I love Claire Underwood. She always comes in and saves him until later, spoiler alert. She doesn’t later on in the show, obviously. No. It was so simple, right. Doug Stamper and Frank Underwood sitting there like, “Oh, I don’t know. Let’s put more words, not fewer. Let’s really try to crystallize what we’re thinking in our very smart heads,” and Claire comes in. Disorganized labor.
Robert Enlow: So, it’s really interesting now that we’re looking at this clip. I mean, obviously, we know that there’s been a lot of unrest in teachers around the country. Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of missing conversation about policies, but there has been a lot of unrest, but we’re sort of just seeing right now is fiction mirroring reality as opposed to reality mirroring fiction, but what’s interesting about that is as it gets worse and worse.
And so a brick is supposedly thrown through the window of Frank Underwood’s house, and so it turns into a he said she said violence, and that’s how they came up with disorganized labor.
Look, at the end of the day this is just one step further away from real people, real life, and real issues. Instead of saying, “Hey, we need to talk about teacher evaluations and how they work best for kids,” or “Hey, we need to figure out how funding is done so it’s not just about more money. It’s about how we make sure money goes to teachers,” right.
So, in most states, as you know, we hire more non-teachers than teachers. This is a real question, right, and we also know that in every single state it’s not the state that does the collective bargaining, it’s the district.
So, teachers, like they found in our poll understand that. Now, the public doesn’t, but teachers do, and they’re mad at their districts for negotiating in bad faith in some ways, and so this whole clip is again now we’re getting to near the crescendo. Near the end. We’ve started off, if you remember, with an idea that the president has, and I campaigned on it.
We got some smart people in a room. Come up with a bill. Now we’ve brought it to the unions, but we sort of at the end of the day pushed them a little too far, and now they’ve started to strike and become mean. That’s just further and further away.
Jennifer Wagner: Did they or didn’t they throw the brick? Who knows. But that’s what we’re talking about here. The headlines, the clips from cable news are… They’re about the strike, but then they’re also about disorganized labor, and “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe we’ve gotten to the point where we might even have a teacher throwing a brick through a congressman’s window.” And we are so far away from the actual issue of the fact that in Washington, D.C., presumably there are a whole bunch of kids out of school, maybe wandering around, not getting the education that they need, while the grownups literally and physically fight each other.
Robert Enlow: Yeah.
Jennifer Wagner: And this has a very interesting turn to it in our next clip that we get to where we learn that yes, in fact, grownups are not only sometimes obtuse but very devious and sometimes very bad. Looking at you Frank Underwood. So, let’s role that one.
Frank Underwood: Thank you. Marty Spinella: Frank. So, you said you wanted to talk. You said you wanted to work out a compromise. Frank Underwood: I lied. Marty Spinella: Excuse me? Frank Underwood: I have no intention of working out a compromise. Marty Spinella: So, then why the [expletive] are we here, Frank? What the hell’s the matter with you? You think this is some kind of a game? Frank Underwood: No. Marty Spinella: These are real people with families to feed. Would you please stop that? Frank Underwood: Stop what? Marty Spinella: In five seconds I’m out of here. Frank Underwood: One, two, three, four. Marty Spinella: Goodbye, Frank. Frank Underwood: You know the difference between you and me, Marty? Marty Spinella: What? Frank Underwood: I’m a white-trash cracker from a white-trash town that no one would even bother to piss on, but here’s the difference: I made something of myself. I have the keys to the capital. People respect me, but you, you’re still nothing. You’re just an uppity dago in expensive suit turning tricks for the unions. Nobody respects the unions anymore, Marty. They’re dying. And no one respects you. The most of you’ll ever make of yourself is [expletive] men like me. Men with real power. Yes, I can smell the [expletive] on your breath from here. Marty Spinella: You think you can get under my skin? Frank Underwood: I know I can. Marty Spinella: Kiss my [expletive], Frank. Frank Underwood: You can’t afford to walk out. Marty Spinella: Watch me. Frank Underwood: I’ve got a dead, underprivileged kid in my pocket. What do you have? Marty Spinella: I have two million honorable teachers. Frank Underwood: Fair enough, but I’ve got something even better. Go ahead. Open it. Marty Spinella: OK. I’ll play your game. You’re an idiot. Frank Underwood: Stamper threw it. Marty Spinella: You’re full of shit. Frank Underwood: Oh, no. Stamper threw the brick, and I made sure Claire distracted my security. Marty Spinella: Are you kidding me? Frank Underwood: And to think you wanted me to apologize to my wife. Marty Spinella: You would do something that low, Frank? Frank Underwood: I arranged the brick, Marty, just like I arranged this meeting this afternoon. Marty Spinella: Back off, Frank. Frank Underwood: Why don’t you just get down on your knees where you really belong? Marty Spinella: Back off, Frank. Frank Underwood: Because the only thing you’re going to get from me is… Speaker 5: Is everything okay in there? Marty Spinella: Look, I’ll tell them you provoked me. I’ll tell them that you threw the brick yourself. Frank Underwood: And who’s going to believe you? You just assaulted a United States Congressman, which is a felony. But I’m not going to press charges, Marty, because the strike ends now.
Robert Enlow: So, that’s a very powerful scene, all right, and it’s a scene where you’re seeing one adult provoke another adult to get power, to win, ultimately, and the line where he’s like, “I’ve got one underprivileged, dead child versus two million honorable teachers,” that just, again, makes me shiver with disgust. I’m sure that’s never happened in politics, but I think what I take away from this is the end of the day we’re now to the scene where we’re so far away from what the right policy is that we’re talking about children teachers as mere functionaries of a battle of power.
Jennifer Wagner: Yeah. And there’s nothing in this scene that has anything to do with the actual bill. You use the right word, powerful, in the literal definition. There’s nothing about power in this room, and somebody has to come out the winner. When Marty goes to open that briefcase you kind of … You wonder what’s in there, right?
Jennifer Wagner: Not steal from another Kevin Spacey movie, but the movie Seven, right? “What’s in the box? I don’t know what’s in the box?”
Robert Enlow: I thought money was in the box first, right.
Jennifer Wagner: I thought money, too. The first time I saw it I was like, “oh, they’re going to buy Marty out.” Nope, it’s a brick, and that’s … and you find out that people will stoop to remarkably low levels to get what they want, and they forget all about the reason why, or the reason why they’re supposed to want it, and I actually also get chills when I watch this scene because it’s so base and awful and what you don’t want politics to be about.
Robert Enlow: I’d say it’s the perfect example of do the ends really justify the means? In this case, this is the most literal vision of that I’ve had in a long time.
Jennifer Wagner: Yeah.
Robert Enlow: The ends justify any means whatsoever in Frank Underwood’s mind.
Jennifer Wagner: I mean, he’s a terrible human being. So, let’s be real clear. Most of the people I know who are in Congress, not terrible human beings. Not like Frank Underwood at all. This should not be taken as a literal representation of our legislative branch in Washington.
Robert Enlow: Sadly it’s what people think, though.
Jennifer Wagner: It is what people think.
Robert Enlow: And people think this. Maybe they’ve seen it so much, but that’s what they think of their congressman.
Jennifer Wagner: Yeah. I don’t think I’ve heard of any of the people I’ve known who’ve run for or served in Congress…
Robert Enlow: I’d agree with that.
Jennifer Wagner: … act like or talk like Frank Underwood, but then again, this is Hollywood. It’s supposed to be a little bit much.
Robert Enlow: It certainly is a lot.
Jennifer Wagner: And that’s the thing. Does the end in this case justify the means as we find out in our last clip.
Robert Enlow: That’s correct.
Jennifer Wagner: This works, and Frank Underwood gets what he wants. The president gets what he wants. Marty, we don’t know what happens to Marty, but he obviously didn’t get what he wanted, and it’s one last thing about this clip before we go to our last clip is that this is … We talked earlier about fear and anger, right. Fear and anger are tremendous motivators in politics. It is so much easier to scare someone then it is to educate them about an issue or to educate them on the issue of education.
Robert Enlow: That’s right.
Jennifer Wagner: It’s easier to say, “Those vouchers. Just stealing your money.”
Robert Enlow: They hurt us. Don’t take this. That’s right.
Jennifer Wagner: Those religious schools just teaching crazy values, and this scene is the literal representation of anger getting the best of people.
Robert Enlow: Marty’s probably in the same place and working with the same guy that ran in the Tobacco Institute. Thank You For Smoking—that was a great movie if you ever saw that movie, out of a job.
Jennifer Wagner: Yeah. Out of a job. Bye, Marty.
Robert Enlow: Yeah.
Jennifer Wagner: All right. Our last clip. Is it success or is it failure?
Speaker 6: The President of the United States. President Garrett Walker: Good morning. The Education Reform and Achievement Act that I sign into law today will affect every child and parent in the United States, will ensure a better educated workforce for decades to come, and will reinforce America’s preeminence as an intellectual superpower.
I’d like to thank one man in particular who never lost sight of the larger mission. Who spearheaded this bill from the beginning, and that’s Congressman Frank Underwood. Speaker 6: Invited guests, please join us in the East Room for refreshments. Media, we will convene immediately in the briefing room for our conference. Frank Underwood: Linda, thank you so much for all the help you gave us in getting this bill passed. Linda Vasquez: No. Thank you, Frank. This was your baby from the beginning. President Garrett Walker: I appreciate you standing your ground on this one, Frank. I’m smart enough to admit when I was wrong. I was just telling Frank we should set up a weekly so he can keep us up to date on what’s going on in the House. Linda Vasquez: That sounds like a great idea. President Garrett Walker: Congratulations.
Robert Enlow: Let me ask you a question.
Jennifer Wagner: OK.
Robert Enlow: You ended the last segment before we went to the clip saying we going to see if it’s a success or failure. What’s your answer to that question?
Jennifer Wagner: Well, if I’m Frank Underwood it’s a raging success. Not only did I get the bill through difficult situations that I navigated with not particularly good behavior, but I wind up looking like the winner with the president. I’m going to get a weekly meeting with the president. My power, my status goes up.
I actually have no idea what was in the final bill, do you?
Robert Enlow: No.
Jennifer Wagner: No. They never really talk about that because…
Robert Enlow: But it will make America the intellectual superpower.
Jennifer Wagner: It’s going to be amazing, right. The teleprompter said it’s going to be amazing, and obviously the teleprompter does not lie. This is where we end the whole series of clips is we end it with OK, the bill is passed. The president signs it. He hands a couple pens to kids. Hey, look kids did make it into this podcast after all. Have a pen.
Robert Enlow: Have a pen.
Jennifer Wagner: Congratulations. I signed one letter of my name, and… So, I guess that’s positive, but yeah, I don’t know. What would you say? Success or failure?
Robert Enlow: So, let’s walk through it. Clearly Frank Underwood is a winner, right, in the way he wanted to find his view of winning. The president had his success and got a bill passed. The kids had a success in the fact that they got a pen, right, at the White House, if that’s what you determine success to be.
And I think ultimately it’s a massive failure because in its very inception it started from the wrong place, and so if you’re going to build your house on sand you’re ultimately going to get washed away.
So, this whole series of clips is how we build policy on a house of sand and not on a house that’s a firm foundation. So, a firm foundation means involving and including parents and teachers from the very beginning. Being genuine in the policy goals. Not agreeing on everything, right, but also not walking away from the table when you don’t get everything, right.
So, why we understand power, power can’t be the end, and that’s ultimately what this whole thing is about. So, ultimately it seems to me we can’t call this a success, for kids at least and for families and for teachers. We can only call it success for politics and power.
Jennifer Wagner: That’s true. Would you even go so far as to say your house of sand, house of cards? Oh, I don’t know.
Robert Enlow: Did I mean that?
Jennifer Wagner: Did you mean to do that?
Robert Enlow: That was a bit punny of me.
Jennifer Wagner: No. It was very punny. All right. Well, I think you’ve summed it up beautifully there. Politics and power, and when you start from that as your premise—lots of “p” words here today—that’s your premise, then you’re always going to wind up building a house that is not sustainable long term, and I think that’s one of the things, I’m obviously self-serving in saying this, but that we do really well here is that we try very very hard.
We know it’s slow going. We’re know we’re not going to get school choice in every state to the standard that we really want to see, which is universality and eligibility for every child. We’re not going to get there overnight, but when you try to get there overnight, when you try to cut deals, cut corners, cut throats in some parts of this show, that is not sustainable in the long term.
So, I think there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from House of Cards. Most of them are not lessons on how you actually want to live your life, or how you want your government to function, but I think great series of clips, great discussion. Thank you so much, Robert, for being here, for joining us for this addition of the Pop Culture podcast, and we’ll be back at you real soon.
Robert Enlow: Thanks. It’s going to be fun. Look forward to the next time.
Jennifer serves as Vice President of Communications for EdChoice. She is a former newspaper reporter who has worked in numerous communications roles over the past 15 years, including positions within state and federal government.
Before joining EdChoice in 2016, Jennifer spent four years running Mass Ave PR, a public relations consulting firm in Downtown Indianapolis, serving a number of public, private and nonprofit clients. She also worked for several years as spokesperson for the Indiana Democratic Party and has experience on a number of issue-based and political campaigns.
Robert C. Enlow
President and CEO, EdChoice
Robert C. Enlow is the president and CEO of EdChoice. He has been an integral part of the foundation since its founding in 1996. Under his leadership, EdChoice has become one of the nation’s leading advocates for school choice.