School Choice in Pop Culture: Yes, Prime Minister
A brilliant satire meets our team’s real-world experience trying to pass school choice legislation in this episode of our School Choice in Pop Culture series
In today’s episode of EdChoice Chats, our President and CEO Robert Enlow and our Director of Policy Jason Bedrick discuss one iconic episode of the BBC’s Yes, Prime Minister which is about—as the show says—“the political will versus the administrative won’t.”
Bedrick and Enlow go beyond the messages in this hilarious episode of television, sharing “school choice war stories” from the states as well. We learned from this EdChoice Chat that the same key messages from opponents of school choice today seem to have been just as prevalent in the 1980s. Are we in for another four decades of the same? Or is there something we learn from it all?
Watch (or just listen) below to find out.
Our Interview Transcribed
Jason Bedrick: Welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. I’m Jason Bedrick, the director of policy here at EdChoice, and I am joined today with our President and CEO Robert Enlow.
Robert Enlow: Hi, Jason. How are you?
Jason Bedrick: Great. How are you?
Robert Enlow: Very well.
Jason Bedrick: Good. So, I’m excited. We’re doing another installment of our School Choice in Pop Culture series. Today we are going to be covering “Yes, Prime Minister,” which is sort of the sequel to “Yes, Minister,” which is a very popular series that ran on the BBC in Britain during the 1980s. You spent some time in England. Was this one of your shows that you watched?
Robert Enlow: I would watch this on BBC Two when I lived there, I was lucky enough to live there for seven years with my family. I did some time at Oxford and was a social worker in London and so, yes this was one of those Sunday afternoon, nothing’s on TV after the footie, as they say the soccer, and you’d watch this and it was … there’s nothing like British sarcasm and British humor and British poking fun at themselves, and this is the quintessential series to do that.
Jason Bedrick: Right. So it’s a satire about politics and government. It’s sort of like the British version of West Wing except more true to life.
Robert Enlow: More true to life and certainly more funny.
Jason Bedrick: Yes. Absolutely. And Margaret Thatcher’s favorite TV show, according to Wikipedia. That’s what I …
Robert Enlow: This would be funnier if we’re going to use proper grammar, by the way.
Jason Bedrick: Oh, there you go.
Robert Enlow: Certainly funnier.
Jason Bedrick: So let’s … for many of our listeners, given that we are in the United States, are probably not familiar with the program, so just to set it up, we’re going to be looking at an episode called The National Education Service, which aired in 1988. There are three main characters. One is originally a minister and then he was elevated to prime minister, and that’s Jim Hacker, and his …
Robert Enlow: Just his name was funny, right?
Jason Bedrick: Yes.
Robert Enlow: His name was a hack, right, he was Hacker, right.
Jason Bedrick: And then his … one of his permanent secretaries and in some sense chief antagonist, frenemy, if you will, is Sir Humphrey Appleby, and so he’s the man who is—he’s dedicated to preserving the status quo, he is the consummate civil servant. He loves the civil service and wants it to be exactly as it is and not have any reform whatsoever, and usually he’s very famous in these episodes, sort of at some point having some long speech that dazzles and confuses the people that he’s trying to manipulate.
Then there’s Bernard Woolley, who is the principal private secretary to the prime minister, and in this episode there are two of … not the main characters but recurring characters, so there’s the prime minister’s wife, who we’ll be seeing in a moment in the first clip, and then also Dorothy Wainwright, who is his chief political advisor. Now, in this scene, the prime minister has just done … elections are coming up so he’s doing a tour, he’s trying to visit the so-called marginal constituencies, and he does a tour of a private school and gets some media attention for that, and he’s very happy about how it went, but his wife was very impressed with the private school that he toured. It had a woodworking program, and some interesting things that were helping low income families, and so she would really like to see more kids have access to a private school.
Robert Enlow: So now let’s make it more confusing, because what you call a private school in America is really a public school in Britain, so you’re going to make it more confusing. No, it’s a state-run versus public, which public would be the private, so yes, they went and saw a public/private school, and it’s a funny story, basically, when he goes there it ends with a great joke, which I’m sure we’re going to see here shortly.
Jason Bedrick: That’s right.
PM’s Wife: I’m not interested in your paranoia. I was interested in that school.
Dorothy: Yes, parents queuing up to get their children into it.
PM’s Wife: What a pity they can’t all get in. More coffee.
Why can’t more parents send their children there?
Prime Minister: No room.
Dorothy: There is room, actually. School numbers are falling.
Prime Minister: Yeah, but that’d mean poaching in the other schools.
PM’s Wife: So what’s wrong with that?
Prime Minister: Well the other schools wouldn’t have enough pupils, they’d have to close.
PM’s Wife: Great! So St. Margaret’s could take over their buildings.
Prime Minister: Oh darling, you couldn’t do that, it wouldn’t be fair.
PM’s Wife: Who to?
Prime Minister: The teachers in the schools that had to close!
PM’s Wife: But the good teachers would be taken on by the popular schools, they’d be needed.
Prime Minister: What about the bad teachers? It wouldn’t be fair on them.
PM’s Wife: What about being fair on the children? Or are the bad teachers’ jobs more important?
Prime Minister: Darling, it’s no good, no … Who’s to say who are the bad teachers? It just wouldn’t work.
PM’s Wife: Why not?
Prime Minister: Well … it wouldn’t work.
Jason Bedrick: So, what I see in this clip, and you tell me what you see. What I see is the prime minister sort of representing status quo bias. This is the system that elected him; this is the system that he’s used to dealing with. When he hears an idea for reforming the system, his instinct is, well I’ve got to protect these various constituencies, because any change is just going to upset the apple cart, we can’t have that.
So his initial, knee-jerk instinct is … no. We can’t have reform. But his wife is looking at it from the point of view of a parent taking care of her child. And she says, well that’s a good school, why shouldn’t all kids have access to that school?
Robert Enlow: So it’s this unique interaction between someone who asks innocent questions, well why can’t they and why can’t St Margaret’s take over that building and why don’t parents have that chance and … Versus the gut reaction, well that wouldn’t be fair. There might be someone who gets hurt, right? And so it’s this … natural fight in many ways between what’s best for one versus what some people think is best for all. It’s a classic situational system conversation.
What I thought was really interesting is, is the political person in here also threw in a bunch of, well no, the numbers are going down. Right? The facts are in evidence that it might work. And at the end of the day, all he could come back to is, well it just wouldn’t work, right? And there are too many constituencies lined up against parents.
But what I think that shows is, the fact that the arguments against the simple question of why can’t parents choose, are ultimately bereft. Ultimately there’s no power to them.
Jason Bedrick: Right, and at a certain point the prime minister himself recognizes, oh I could do that. And she we’ll see in the next scene, now the prime minister is going to pitch this idea to his chief bureaucrats, Sir Humphrey Appleby and he’s brought again, his political advisor Dorothy Wainwright along. She said she wanted to be there, he asked why, so you could see the clash of the political will and the administrative will, and she says, “Oh I think it will be more the clash of the political will versus the administrative won’t.”
Robert Enlow: That’s right, that’s right. And what I love about the sort of arc of this conversation is it goes from him realizing, oh I could do this, to him learning that he can’t do it because of the status quo.
Jason Bedrick: Right. So let’s see the clip.
Prime Minister: Oh, Humphrey! Come in. Sit down. I just want to bounce an idea off you.
Humphrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Prime Minister: I’ve realized how to reform the education system.
Humphrey: Excellent, Prime Minister.
Prime Minister: I’m going to let parents take their children away from school, and move them to any school they want.
Humphrey: Well you mean, after application, scrutiny, tribunal hearing and appeals procedures …
Prime Minister: No, Humphrey, just move them. Whenever they want to.
Humphrey: I’m sorry, I don’t quite follow.
Dorothy: This government is going to let parents decide which schools to send their children to.
Humphrey: Prime Minister, you can’t be serious.
Jason Bedrick: Alright, so here is the classic technocratic mindset that Sir Humphrey represents. Which is … we experts need to be in charge. We can’t let other people just do whatever they’re going to do. If they’re going to make choices on their own; they might choose wrong. And so the only way we can let them out of the system is if we establish these tribunals and appeals procedures and all these various hoops that you need to jump through in order to escape the system.
Robert Enlow: So what I think is it’s even more casual than that, right? So let’s not even presume it’s like the technocrat saying, “I know better.” It’s just the way systems and governments work. Right? So he hears this idea and he gives this condescending clap, which by the way is hysterical, and then says, well hold on, the way the government works is applications, tribunals, the way that we … we have to have the machinery of government work because that’s the only way that it can work fairly for all families, is the way they think about it, right?
So I don’t necessarily think it’s merely someone saying parents don’t have the ability to do this, it’s just, well government has to work a certain way, and it was very interesting, Wainwright’s question is, “Why?” … Why can’t we do it that way? Why can’t we allow parents to be free …
Well, and I think he said, was it, that’s preposterous, right? And I think that’s a great statement to show the difference between what a system of government does, and what a system of choice does. It’s preposterous to think that individuals could be free to choose.
Jason Bedrick: Right? And so now we’re going to see he actually does go in and … attack this whole idea that parents should just have the freedom of choosing on their own.
Robert Enlow: Let’s go.
Humphrey: Well, you can’t expect parents to make these choices. I mean how on earth would parents know which schools are best?
Prime Minister: Which school did you go to Humphrey?
Prime Minister: Was it good?
Humphrey: Oh, excellent, of course.
Prime Minister: Who chose it?
Humphrey: My parents, naturally.
Now that’s different, Prime Minister. My parents were discerning people. You can’t expect ordinary people to know where to send their children.
Dorothy: Why not?
Humphrey: Well, how could they tell?
Dorothy: Well, they could tell if their kids could read, write and do sums, they could tell if their neighbors were happy with the school, and they could tell if the exam results were good.
Humphrey: Exam results aren’t everything, Prime Minister.
Dorothy: That’s true. And those parents who don’t want an academic education for their children can choose progressive schools.
Humphrey: But … parents have no qualifications to make these choices. I mean, teachers are the professionals. Parents are the worst people to bring up children.
They have no qualifications, no training. You don’t expect untrained teachers to teach. The same should apply to parents.
Jason Bedrick: So I mean, this is an argument that sadly we hear far too often, and you hear it shockingly out of the mouths of many politicians who are really talking about their own constituents saying … “They can’t choose. I mean certainly I can choose.” I mean you can go to Washington, D.C., and you see all of these people in congress who are sending their kids to local private schools, not to the district schools, and then voting against giving those other children choice. So you know, I can make good choices … Sir Humphrey’s parents, they certainly knew how to make a good choice, but those parents over there, they can’t choose.
Robert Enlow: And his parents were discerning.
Jason Bedrick: Yes.
Robert Enlow: Right? And what was good for me was not good for thee. I think that’s very, it was like … I also thought it was really interesting, you look back and he looks wistfully and thinks back to his time with the school he went to, in happiness. And part of it’s because his parents chose, and all of a sudden he realized, oh, what if that were available to everyone? And somehow he starts going back, not everyone can do that, parents don’t have this capability to choose.
And I think as you keep going down that clip, you realize the gratuitous insult that is to families. Right? And I think that that’s important for us to remember in this movement. So, anyone who says a parent can’t be free to choose, ultimately is someone who probably has a choice. Right? And I think the hypocrisy of Humphrey in that conversation is mind-boggling to me. That’s one of the ones that really struck me, his … he’s like, well, parents can … Wainwright again says, “Parents can do all sorts of different things, and have all sorts of different freedoms,” and he’s like oh no, you can’t do that.
Jason Bedrick: Yeah. There’s also this … atrophy, I think, when parents are not able to exercise a choice. So for example, Dr. Patrick Wolf has a book out from several years now, called The School Choice Journey, which was based on … after he had conducted some research on the effects of the Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship Program, he and some others did a series of interviews of these families that were actually participating in the program, and what he found was … You know, you hear this idea that the parents, especially low-income parents, they’re just, they’re not engaged.
Well one of the reasons that they’re not engaged in their district schools is because they have no power there.
Robert Enlow: That’s right.
Jason Bedrick: If they show up and they complain, they file it in the circular filing cabinet, right? The trash. Nothing changes. And so they are not as engaged.
Robert Enlow: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Bedrick: But that changes, he notes, once they’re able to exercise choice.
Robert Enlow: True.
Jason Bedrick: Once they’re able to choose the school, they’re invested in that school. And that school also knows that if they’re not meeting their needs, well, that family can take their money, take their voucher or scholarship, whatever it is they have, and they can go somewhere else with it. So the school is more responsive, and that elicits more engagement on the part of the parent, because when their voice actually matters, they’re willing to engage.
Robert Enlow: Yup. So I think this reminds me of a couple things. One, our research on how parents choose in Indiana and I think now in Florida, right? Once parents are choosing, they’re getting more involved in their kid’s school; they’re getting more involved with their kid’s education. They’re voting more; they’re getting different jobs. They’re really becoming better citizens. Ordinary people, to use the terminology from Humphrey.
And then that reminds me of Milton (Friedman)’s quote, right? He says, “There is nothing …” Well I think I’m going to mash it up, I apologize, but … “Nothing has been found to improve the lot of the ordinary person more than the ability to have free enterprising choice.” And so I think, one of the conversations that we should touch on here is, the class conversation.
Humphrey is certainly someone who had the ability to choose, someone who had the power to choose. But ordinary people—in British terms, that means poor people, right—don’t have that capacity. And I think you see the classism and the classist mentality there, which we see all the time here. Now, for us it’s … in America it’s certainly as with rich and poor, but it’s also people who live in what they consider suburban districts and people who live in urban districts, right? There’s all sorts of things that define us by class, and housing structure, and there’s a lot of people who are saying, oh they can’t really choose. They’re not qualified enough to choose. Only the professionals can choose.
And I just think that’s a gratuitous insult that we can never forget.
Jason Bedrick: Right.
Humphrey: And with respect, Prime Minister, I think that the DES will react with some caution to your rather novel proposal.
Prime Minister: You mean they’ll block it?
Humphrey: I mean they will give it the most serious and urgent consideration … and insist on a thorough and rigorous examination of all the proposals, allied to a detailed feasibility study, and budget analysis, before producing a consultative document for consideration by all interested bodies, and seeking comments and recommendations to be included in a brief, for a series of working parties, who will produce individual studies, which will provide the background for a more wide-ranging document, considering whether or not the proposal should be taken forward to the next stage.
Prime Minister: You mean they’ll block it?
Jason Bedrick: That’s great … I just get a kick out of that guy.
Robert Enlow: Yeah.
Jason Bedrick: Um …
Robert Enlow: So that’s probably, Jason, one of your favorite clips, right? Because it goes … all of the things which I know gets your juices going, which is government at its absolute worst. Well of course we can, we’re going to have a document, we’re going to have people look at it, we have multiple conversations about it … and we’ll basically get nothing done because that’s what we do.
Jason Bedrick: Right. It shows the tremendous power that bureaucracies have to stymie reform. To slow things down, to trip things up, and in the hopes that … All we need to do is block it for a few years, until this prime minister or whatever politician they’re dealing with, is gone, and then some new person’s going to come in with their cockamamie ideas and then we’ll find some way of blocking those too, and the government is just going to continue trucking along the way it goes.
And I mean, you’ve seen examples of this, in a variety of different states. I’m sure you’ve got some war stories, I’m sure.
Robert Enlow: Well, so in fact, I’ve got a story from Britain. So … when I was living there I was on a school board at Hill Mead Junior School. And they had started this process, you could actually contract out services to for-profit entities if you had buildings that you wanted fixed, or carpet or whatever. You could actually have a competitive bidding process, go figure. So this was novel back in the 90s, right.
So what ended up happening, of course, is the local education authority, the LEA at that point, would always undercut any private efforts, so we had to fix one of our buildings, and so we put it out to bidding and of course the government bureaucrats came back cheaper because, you know, they could undercut every bid. Which they did. And of course they did shoddy work. So they come in there, do shoddy work, and I’m very unhappy ’cause I’m … I think I was head of the finance committee, and so I’m like really unhappy, and I look at our finances and I see they’d already taken the money out for the project.
And so I call over and say, put my money back because I don’t agree with what you’ve done here and this is terrible workmanship and … “I’m sorry sir, we can’t, we’ve already taken the money out.” And that’s that sort of bureaucracy that’s the way that it actually has power, that people don’t understand the nature of that power. The power that I had to to competitively bid did not really give me power to own the process, it gave me power to choose someone that they really wanted me to choose which I had no power over paying for.
And that’s what happens, it was really awful because guess what? We had to pay twice to get it fixed.
Jason Bedrick: And they even have the power to … We do a lot of hard work getting grassroots coalitions mobilized, getting enough legislative support to pass a bill, getting it signed by the governor, right, that takes a tremendous amount of work. But then after that law has been passed, it doesn’t end there, because there are a whole bunch of things we’ve seen, for example … in Mississippi. They pass a program … an education savings account (ESA) program. Well, the bureaucracy decides, okay well we’re going to have this very narrow window when you can apply, and that’s one way they can limit the number of people that participate in the program. In Arizona, the state education department did a whole bunch of things that made it very difficult for families to exercise their ability to get an ESA, so for example, they decided that workbooks and flashcards are not going to be eligible expenditures unless they were required by a whole curriculum.
So you had to buy a whole curriculum, you couldn’t just buy a single math workbook, because that they said didn’t count. Now the law seemed to allow it, but the law is one thing, the rules that the bureaucracy comes up with is another thing. So here’s another thing, the law said you can’t … if you are an ESA parent, you can’t pay yourself for your services to your own child, so … that makes perfect sense, right? That’s a measure to avoid fraud. But how the department interpreted it was different. So let’s say you have a woman who’s a speech therapist. She helps hundreds of kids with speech therapy. Well, the department … again, this isn’t the law, but the department decided, if her own child was an ESA child, not only can she not serve her own child, but she can’t serve any other child with her speech therapy services, because her own child has an ESA.
It’s an absurd … interpretation of the law, but then you’ve got to then go to a court and spend all this money to try and get access to your ability to participate in the program.
Robert Enlow: My favorite Arizona story that– so you’re talking about after the bill has passed. My favorite Arizona story is just to show how bad the bureaucracy is and how we think the government is there to help us, but it’s so far back in the ‘70s and ‘60s and ‘50s and ‘40s, that it doesn’t even have the machinery to help. So when they passed the ESA bill and you had a time limit to get in your application, guess how the government in Arizona took applications?
Jason Bedrick: Fax machines.
Robert Enlow: A fax machine! And not only did they take it by fax machine, guess what happened over the weekend when everyone had to get their (application) in? They ran out of paper.
Jason Bedrick: Ink.
Robert Enlow: Ink and paper.
Jason Bedrick: They couldn’t just go down the street to Staples to buy it.
Robert Enlow: No, that’s right.
Jason Bedrick: No, you have to fill out a requisition form, and it took a long time, so by the time they actually got the ink for the printers, the application period had closed. So you’ve got all these families, now they have to fax in their application, it includes their IEP, so these … many of them are low-income, IEPs …
Robert Enlow: That’s correct. Yeah. IEPs are 25 to 30 pages long.
Jason Bedrick: Well actually some of them can exceed 100 pages. And so they’re faxing in all these things, and it’s getting back an error message, and so they try to call. So what do you think happens? Well there’s too many people calling the department, so the department shuts off the phones. This is during the last week of the application period.
Robert Enlow: This, of course, being an anglophile that I am, just reminds me of the theme song from Benny Hill. It’s just chaos and chaos all around, all the time, and it’s not even about the rules, it’s just about the mechanics of getting an application in the door. Now, some, surprisingly, Amazon doesn’t have this problem, Overstock does not have this problem, they seem to take literally millions. Overstock.com, just go on there and they can seemingly take care of you all day long.
Jason Bedrick: So I can tell you even in Florida, so Florida’s ESA is managed by a non-profit. Step Up For Students, that is also the scholarship organization that runs their tax-credit scholarship program. A few key differences between the Arizona program and the Florida program. Even though the Arizona program had a larger eligibility pool, there were more students participating in the Florida program. Why is that? Well, in Arizona, the government did the bare minimum to let parents know that this program was available. And this is something we see in a bunch of states. The lawmakers will say, you need to inform parents, and what they’ll do is in some 30-page document, on page 28 in small print, it will say, “By the way you have access to this program.” So they never find out about it. They would only do info sessions during bankers hours, they would not do it nights and weekends, so you’ve got a lot of low-income families that you have two working parents or maybe it’s a single mom … and they can’t go unless it’s nights or weekends. Well in Florida, it’s run by a non-profit. They were actually interested in getting the word out and helping these people, so they did it on nights and weekends.
Robert Enlow: You mean they didn’t do it from 9:30 to 3:30 every day with a half hour for lunch?
Jason Bedrick: And they would have somebody there in Spanish. They would have materials in Spanish.
Robert Enlow: That’s right.
Jason Bedrick: Arizona Department of Education did not. At least at first, until there were lots of complaints and outside pressure and then they started providing things in Spanish.
Robert Enlow: Yup. And this goes back to the sort of “Yes, Minister,” “Yes, Prime Minister” stuff, so like, I remember those letters they used to send out under No Child Left Behind. You probably saw some of these, right? So No Child Left Behind required, if you were not at school making adequate yearly progress, to inform all the families that they could use supplemental services, right?
I mean they could get tutoring or go somewhere else to get some help. So the school districts would be required to inform their parents if they were not making adequate yearly progress, and the letters would start off like something like this, “Dear parent, school district X is one of the best in the state. We are always thinking about you, your choices, your opportunities, what we can do for you. Blah blah blah … P.S. by the way, we’re not making adequate yearly progress, you can choose to go to a supplemental services.” And this is the way the machinery works, right? It works to thwart and stymie, whereas someone like Step Up and a lot of other groups, they actually put the customer in the front, the parent in the front.
Jason Bedrick: Right. So now in this scene, you have Sir Humphrey again, the consummate civil servant, going for advice to a more senior and more experienced civil servant, for some tactics for how to block his own minister’s reforms.
Robert Enlow: So let’s set this clip up a little bit more. So the prime minister has gotten a report from his political person, saying the schools are failing. He’s gone to visit this school, which is an amazing school for families and parents and all this incredible stuff, met with his wife and said, why can’t we do something different? Finally had an epiphany, said sure, we can offer choices. And has had the meeting with his civil servant Humphrey, who’s like, well no no, we can’t do that because of bureaucrats are needing to have their pound of flesh. And now, so we’ve gotten to this point, and the prime minister’s still serious about it, and so how, the next bit is what happens after all of that.
So you’ve gone from I realize a choice is a good idea; we’re going to try to make it happen; I’ve heard all my internal arguments with my cabinet, now let’s see what happens to it.
Humphrey: But it’s hard to get the Prime Minister to see that it’s a bad idea.
Civil Servant: Of course. It’s actually a very good idea, it just mustn’t happen.
Humphrey: I wonder whether we oughtn’t to play along with it. In the interests of the nation’s children.
Civil Servant: Nevermind the nation’s children. What about our colleagues at the Department of Education?
Humphrey: Yes of course. Sorry.
Civil Servant: Humphrey, let’s be clear about this. The only people who will like this idea are the parents and the children. Everyone who counts will be against it.
Humphrey: Teacher’s unions …
Civil Servant: The local authorities …
Humphrey: Educational press …
Civil Servant: And of course, the DES. So … what’s the strategy?
Humphrey: Well the unions can be counted on to disrupt the schools …
Civil Servant: And go on television saying it’s the government who are causing the disruption.
Humphrey: Good, yes … And the local councils will threaten to turn the constituency parties against the government.
Civil Servant: Fine … or the Department of Education will delay every stage of the process, and leak anything that embarrasses the government.
Jason Bedrick: Right, so we saw something very similar to this just happen in Arizona and actually a number of other states, right? So we’ve got this, what’ called Red for Ed movement, teachers are striking, and they’re asking for higher wages.
And in some of those cases by the way—I live in Arizona, teachers are relative to the national average, even after adjusting for cost of living … are, I think, underpaid. And so we do want to have a proper investment in the teachers.
The problem is that these groups that were mobilizing them … they were using school choice as a boogeyman. They were saying oh, the reason that you guys don’t have access to the funding, it’s not because of misspending, it’s not because we’re not doing a good enough job of making sure that the money actually flows to you, it’s that the money is being siphoned out by these school choice programs. And they were pointing particularly at the ESA, even though fewer than 1 percent of total K–12 spending goes to the ESA.
But that didn’t matter.
Robert Enlow: Because facts don’t matter, right?
Jason Bedrick: Well you needed an enemy, and so they used that as a very convenient enemy.
Robert Enlow: And they’re going to blame the government, so facts don’t matter. So in my home state of Indiana; spending has gone up the last seven years; teacher salaries have gone down; student enrollments remain a little bit– gone up a little bit; and the hiring of non-teachers has gone up dramatically. Now why is that? Is that a state function so everyone gets mad about that and blames the state? Well actually it’s the local districts who can be counted on to blame the state, right? Everyone in the entire movement for school reform should watch this clip, because this clip is the quintessential way of how to stop any real reform from happening, and it literally gives you a playbook, right? Blame someone else, facts don’t matter, cause disruption … I mean these are classic standard thing.
Jason Bedrick: Cause disruption and then blame your political opponents for the disruption.
Robert Enlow: That’s right.
Jason Bedrick: And the press usually likes to go along, because you have created a narrative where you’re the underdog and you’re fighting against this oppressive system, and the press usually loves that, and you have an enemy, and the enemy is those people over there that are trying to that are trying to siphon money out of the system.
Robert Enlow: Siphon money, and I love the comment that goes, “Well it’s actually quite a good idea,” he said, right? And it is, it’s actually quite a good idea, but of course we can’t let it happen, right. And this is a perfect example. If you ask people in America, based on all the surveys we do with US teachers, US principals, they all understand the importance of having choice for themselves. And they’ll say that to you. So the vast majority of Americans understand that it’s a good idea, but there’s the people who actually benefit from the system don’t.
Humphrey: What’s our argument?
Civil Servant: Well obviously that this new proposal will destroy our educational system.
Humphrey: Well everybody knows it’s destroyed already.
Civil Servant: Well, we will say … sorry, the press will say, that it’s government interference in the department of education that destroyed it, and that this new plan will make things even worse.
Humphrey: Will that do the trick?
Civil Servant: It always has in the past.
Jason Bedrick: Okay, so this clip is from a show that aired in Britain in 1988, but this is still the strongest argument against school reform. It’s a scare-mongering tactic that is still used today, even the national teachers’ unions admit that this … or advise their advocates that this is the strongest argument that they should be using.
Well, most kids are going to public schools, these other programs are siphoning money out of the public schools, it’s going to destroy the system, and … things are bad now but this is going to make it way worse and so … really, don’t go that way, just give us more money and we’ll fix it.
Robert Enlow: You know, it’s sometimes depressing that the same argument from the ‘80s is still the same argument. And it is, it’s their most powerful argument. You’re destroying education, and I think back to the earlier clips where it’s just, the answer’s got to be why? Why? Just ask this conversation about why why why, because the facts don’t hold up, and you know that they’re going to talk about siphoning money, you know they’re going to talk about destroying education as we know it, you know we’re going to hear about how it’s going to not have the system, there’s this whole sense of fear, and the fear of the unknown, and the fear of the unknown is a powerful, powerful tonic, right? And so we need to be recognizing that, as we look at this in states, and everyone that we’re talking to needs to continue to put the idea of parents first, right, and themselves first as they think this process through.
Jason Bedrick: And I think one major difference between 1988 and today is … that today we actually have empirical data to test this question. So … the concern actually makes sense as a concern, right? Alright, so you’ve got this existing system, and now we’re going to introduce choice. Well what might happen?
Well, the parents who are most invested in education, who are going to have the students that are the best and brightest, they’re going to leave the system, the money’s going to follow them out of the system, and that might be great for those kids, but what happens to all the kids who are “left behind” in the system? You’re going to have the hardest to teach kids and they’re going to have less money to teach them, and it’s just a recipe for disaster.
I understand that as a concern, but now we’ve got a few decades of experience with school choice programs. We’re at the point where there’s 29 states plus Washington, D.C., that have some form of school choice. Many of them are relatively small, but you’ve got a number of states, Indiana, Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, that have a sizeable number of students that are participating in these programs. Well what has actually happened? We’ve got more than two dozen studies by reputable universities looking at what happens to the district school system after the introduction of a school choice program.
All but, I think one, at this point … actually, it’s two. All found a small positive impact, one found no statistically significant difference, one found a slight negative impact, but it’s an outlier. The vast majority find that after the introduction of a school choice program, the district school system improves. It’s not a panacea, it doesn’t solve all of the problems, but they actually get better in terms of test scores and things like that. Why? Well, once you introduce choice to the system, once parents can say, okay, if you’re not meeting our needs I’m going to go somewhere else, well that district school now has to be more responsive to the needs of parents and students than they ever had to before.
So what we actually find is once you do introduce choice and competition into the system, it creates a system-wide improvement. It’s the rising tide that lifts all boats.
Robert Enlow: That’s right, and so the other thing that’s hopeful and positive, right, so we not only have data, we actually have experience. And by that I mean, in America if you believe the data coming from Pat Wolf, which he does, he did a study for us showing this, 40 percent of the people in America are already choosing schools outside of their ZIP Code assignment schools.
So this idea of choice is here and it’s much more broad than merely the private school choice. It’s great that we have over half a million kids using public funds to access non-public schools. That’s fantastic. We have over 3 million kids using money to go to charter schools, we have 3 million kids in home schools, we have … excuse me, 6 million schools in charter schools, I’m not sure, I can’t remember.
But the fact is that we have … in our state of Indiana, right, so where I live, we’ve gone from a situation where public to public transfers, charters, home school, and our private scholarship program, now is … we’ve taken it from 91 to 83 percent of people going to just traditional schools.
So the fact is that parents are choosing, right? And it’s happening. Dr. Freeman used to say, you know you’re ready for a massive disruption in a marketplace when there’s a vibrant black market already happening. And you look at the tech sector, you look at what’s happening in Brooklyn. Like Brooklyn right now, you go to these message boards in areas of Brooklyn and say, they have these micro-schools all over the place, right?
And so, it’s happening. And so … what ends up happening is, to quote I think a British poet, “The center cannot hold forever.” And I think we’re to the point where maybe 30, 40 years on from that argument, we’re getting to the point where the center of that argument can’t hold because we have data and we have experience.
Jason Bedrick: That’s right, and who’s benefiting the most? It’s the families that had the least access to choice before. So to address that creaming argument, right. Look at Florida. Florida has the largest private school choice program in the country. There are more than 100,000 students participating in the program. The average family income is only 25,000 dollars. So these are among the most disadvantaged families, 70 percent of them are Hispanic or black, and … the Florida State University conducts an annual study. It’s a longitudinal study where they look at the students who are participating in the program, and what they find is that the year they enter the program, they have lower test scores before entering than their demographically similar peers.
In other words, it’s not the best and the brightest that are fleeing the system, it’s the kids that are not doing well in the existing system. And so it’s, the parents that are saying hey, this system’s not working for my kid, I need something else, and they go put their child in a different school that’s the right fit.
Robert Enlow: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Bedrick: And then what do we find? Well after a few years of participating in the program, these students from, again, the most disadvantaged population in the country, are performing at the national average, far outperforming their demographically similar peers. And so it’s important that they’re actually finding the right fit.
And that also could explain part of the change in the district school performance. You’re taking some of the lowest performing students, moving them out into schools where they can perform better, and that means that just, without changing anything, you’ve already improved the average level of performance in the district schools.
Robert Enlow: That’s right. This is … what’s happening in Florida, what’s happening in Arizona, what’s happening in places like Indiana and to a lesser extent in Ohio and other places, is truly transforming our education system as we know it. And I just want to sort of take a step here and challenge … So we know the bureaucracy is problematic. Right, we know it has a … as you’ve watched these clips you’ve seen, here are the arguments against internally, here’s the way to block it, here’s the messaging, right? So this is the whole sort of great playbook for anti-choice arguments. One of the things I think has happened in our movement, unlike what’s happening here, is … fellow reformers start questioning each other.
So you mentioned to me $25,000 in Florida is the average salary. I’ve heard people who are supporters of charter schools say, well those aren’t really the poor people, those are good poor people. I mean we have a real problem in this movement, and I think we should take this on at some point. When we have people in one sector saying the other sector’s not good enough. That is actually regulatory capture at its worst. When you actually start having people who want to reform the system, saying well I like my kind of reform more than your kind of reform. Like somehow they’re smarter and better and wiser than everyone else.
And so I think we have to … one of the disheartening things that’s happened since the 1980s, right, has been, we have a growing movement, and that growing movement does what all movements do. They ossified regulatory capture, and so one of our jobs is to always continue to renew this argument, renew the focus on what our unifying principle is, and that unifying principle has to be, every parent should be free to choose every school with the money set aside for them because you would expect nothing less for your children.
Jason Bedrick: Absolutely. Now, the sad thing is, at least in this episode of this fictional British world, the bureaucrats do succeed in blocking any reform, and they get the prime minister to back down, and so there is no reform. But what sort of lessons can we take from this episode? And I’ve got a few. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on this as well …
Robert Enlow: Well, so having lived through this, sorry to interrupt, having lived through this … the extent, what happened after this, right? So Thatcher comes in and does a whole bunch of voucher programs and a whole bunch of choice stuff. Blair comes in and does grant maintain schools, which are extensively like charter schools. There has been a ton of effort in Britain to change and allow parents more freedom and more access to freedom, and in fact, as you know, public money already finds its way, tax funds in Britain already find its way to all sorts of schools.
And so, after that showing in 1988, there has been and will be, and continuing … a huge effort to reform the system in Britain.
Jason Bedrick: So some fictional defeats but some real life successes …
Robert Enlow: Some actual victories, yeah.
Jason Bedrick: … which is great. So some of the lessons I take from this. First, whenever you’re trying to reform something, you’re going to go up against status quo bias. Right? People have a hard time, especially most people in this country went to a public school, they’re used to this system. The idea that you’re going to have a very different system is foreign and it takes a lot of educating, it takes showing people, like look, this is actually working in some places. Look what’s going on in Indiana and Arizona and Florida. These things, people are actually exercising choice, they’re using these programs, the system’s not collapsing, actually it’s improving. So that’s one thing.
Second, there is going … Just passing the bill, first of all it’s very hard to get the bill passed, and you’re going to run up against all those sorts of arguments that they talked about in those coalitions, and reformers have to be prepared for that. They have to have the data; they have to have the facts; and they have to have the arguments.
But even after you get your bill passed, the work is not done. Now you have to deal with whichever bureaucracy is in charge, so first of all you should do a good job as a … designing the bill, make sure that the department that’s running the program is the appropriate department. In many cases it’s not actually the Department of Education. You’ll often have more success with the program if you put it in the Department of the Treasury. Some department that does not have, let’s say, an ideological ax to grind against the program, because the Department of Ed usually sees their mission as … They’ve confused public education with a public school system.
Robert Enlow: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Bedrick: And so they see any alternatives to that as a threat. And so putting it in the Treasury or Department of Revenue, you generally have very highly competent people, these are like the green visor types, they just want to make sure that the money is moving to where it’s supposed to be and is being allocated for the appropriate uses, but otherwise they don’t have the ideological ax to grind, so … reform can’t stop at the legislature. It has to continue with the implementation.
Robert Enlow: So I’ll relay the story from Gov. Daniels. So Gov. Mitch Daniels, when the bill was passed in Indiana in 2011, the nation’s largest single voucher bill at that point, amazing. And I’ll never forget Gov. Daniels, we were looking after the victory and we were sitting and we were talking, he goes alright Robert, have a good night tonight, because tomorrow you’ve got to implement it well.
And so I think that’s really important to remember that they’re just passing laws and I think you got to implement it very well.
The other two lessons I would take, one of the main lessons I would take from these clips, and I think we should all take … is I think it’s the importance of two questions. Why and why not? We should always be asking why and why not. And someone will say, why? Why can’t we do this? And why not? Because when you actually continue to ask those questions, you drive people to the point as you drove the prime minister to the point of, well, it just won’t work.
You drive away the actual real arguments, or you get into the naked politics that’s behind it. And I think that becomes clear to parents if that’s not the way they want to go.
Jason Bedrick: That’s an excellent point, Robert, and I think it’s a good place to leave things. Thank you for tuning in to another episode of EdChoice Chats. If you have some new pop culture ideas, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and also you can subscribe on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher, and you can follow us on social media @edchoice or sign up for our email at our website, www.edchoice.org. Thank you, and we’ll see you next time.
Robert Enlow: See you next time.