This post originally appeared here on the Rick Hess Straight Up blog on Education Week.
I’ve probably been to Washington, D.C., more times in the past six months than I have in the past six years, certainly more times than I ever wanted. After 20 years being headquartered in the American heartland of Indiana, with almost all our staff located there, we opened a Beltway office earlier this year. I hemmed and hawed over the decision because our founders, Milton and Rose Friedman, were no fans of the swamp on the Potomac. In fact, in their later years, it required a presidential invitation to even get them there.
The reason we’ve been out there more frequently is obvious: Last November, the nation voted a maverick New York businessman into the Oval Office. And, whatever anyone thinks about him—good or bad—the president supports educational choice and even nominated someone from the school-choice movement to head up the U.S. Department of Education. Like many, we were concerned about where things could go and so we offered some early advice for the new administration, and they seem to be paying attention to some of it.
But I wouldn’t be an old, cranky reformer if I pretended everything is coming up smelling like roses. It’s not. These are very tumultuous times in our movement, and for the country. Old friends have abandoned or modified their longtime beliefs because they’re politically frustrated and angry or because they now care more about other issues, many of which I care deeply about as well. Some of them can’t even bear to work with the administration at all and some have even chosen to side with longtime detractors instead of sticking to their principles. None of this, of course, is productive.
Ironically, educational choice is one of the few issues where Democrats and Republicans are aligned in their views, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t turned into a political football between Democrats and Republicans and reformers of all stripes.
And then there’s the issue of federal reform, an issue that’s long earned our skepticism because it carries the possibility of significant overreach and overregulation. Do we need a federal solution? Do we want it? How much will it mess up what we’ve been able to accomplish at the state level over the past quarter-century?
Our stance is clear: Federal education reform must meet three criteria to earn our support:
- Family-centered. Funds should go directly to all families and students, regardless of income, and should be delivered in a family-friendly manner.
- Unencumbered Educators. The federal government should respect the freedom and autonomy of schools and educators, especially in terms of admissions criteria, testing, curriculum, and learning methods.
- State-focused and state-directed. Excluding areas where the federal government has direct jurisdiction—such as Washington, D.C., the military, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs—it is critical that the federal government respect the existing efforts in states and not undermine the work that has been done in more than 30 states to advance choice.
When I’m asked about the likelihood that Congress will pass something that will meet our criteria and truly help K-12 students at the state level exercise educational choice, I have plenty of doubts, and some hope. I certainly wonder if they’ll even be able to bring a bill to the floor for debate, given how divided our political system and both parties appear to be right now. Moreover, this doesn’t even consider the fact that many reformers are rushing to advance their pet perspectives instead of truly working together to advance policies that help all parents, whether they are in public, private, or charter schools.
Which leads to a much bigger question: Is the school-choice movement in a holding pattern for a few years, or can we persevere through the turmoil without losing ground?
Can we all come back together despite defections and flaring tempers and hurt feelings to focus on what matters: giving kids the options they need to find the schooling type that works for them? Or do we splinter and fracture, the way so many movements do under pressure from forces beyond their control? Either way, what do things look like on the other side?
First off, and I may be out of my gourd here, but I think our family will be just fine. We’re having growing pains, for sure, and some of our holiday dinners and get-togethers are getting a little heated, but no one needs to call the authorities. We’ll work it out in our way. If my decades in this movement has taught me anything, it’s that this too shall pass.
Yet, if the school-choice movement is going to come out on the other side stronger, it is imperative to remember some key principles going forward, and to make some real promises to each other that will carry us into the future.
In the last two years, before the Friedman Foundation became EdChoice, we put a lot of thought into what we hoped the school-choice movement would look like in the next two decades and beyond.
I would like to share it with you. Let’s call it our new “bold, brand promise”: a list of things we are and aren’t—and, in the days ahead when things haven’t gone our way, let’s remind ourselves of these guideposts. They can be the rules of our ed-reform road, without which we may end up in an ever-repeating cycle of political winds and partisan politics.
Here they are:
- Intellectual honesty. Going forward, we must be intellectually honest. Educational choice is often an emotionally charged issue, but we should always strive for data-driven logic and levelheadedness, even if it challenges our core beliefs. Too often reformers use the imprimatur of science to advance preferred policy positions. We should seek to avoid this at all costs. To quote my friends, science must be a light not a sword.
- Humility. We should be humble and listen to each other. I don’t claim to have all the answers. None of us do, no matter how much we think we do. And just because we have seen something work in one area doesn’t mean it will automatically work everywhere. It is critical that we approach the future with humility and open ears.
- Non-partisan, not bi-partisan. We have to be nonpartisan, not simply bipartisan. Even though we come from all types of backgrounds, we all know that issues too often get divided along party lines. To be successful, we need to reach out and work with everyone to advance educational choice for all. Along the way, though, it is important to recall that the goal is educational freedom not merely bipartisanship. Our issue is truly nonpartisan.
- Enjoy the challenge. We shouldn’t be afraid of a challenge. Or a tough conversation. Or a thoughtful debate. For example, why do some reformers believe that private school choice programs should be means-tested, but that charter schools should be open to all? Ultimately, though, every person wants the best education for America’s children, and there are many ways to get there. Our view is that educational choice is the best pathway for all students to achieve successful lives, and for a stronger society.
- Focus on what matters most. We can’t lose sight of what matters most. Ever. We shouldn’t get caught up in the argument for argument’s sake. We know that our families and children, their future, and the success of our nation are what should guide our thoughts and actions. The main aim of education policy should be to empower and equip families with opportunities, information, and leverage.
- Families first. Finally, we must trust families first, not bureaucrats or reformers. We should focus on creating well-designed educational-choice policies that meet the desires and needs of parents. We have to trust parents to make the best decisions for their kids and believe that they should be empowered to access the information and resources necessary to choose the right educational option for their child.
These are some of the values that I hope drive us and what we do in the next 20 years. Don’t get me wrong: I’m deeply upset that people I once called close friends and fought with in the trenches are now backing away from educational choice—specifically private-school choice because they don’t like the guy in the White House. Trust me, I really get it, but it’s frustrating and hurtful, and I thought we were all more committed than that.
But a few years from now, I am optimistic that we will stop putting politics ahead of kids. What we’re doing is much bigger than presidential egos or the ugly words of partisan politics. We’re trying to build something that’s going to outlive us, and I believe we’re well on our way.
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