How Do You Build a School Choice Coalition?

In today’s episode, EdChoice’s President and CEO Robert Enlow moderates a conversation with two of our team’s long-time coalition builders, Vice President of Training and Outreach Keri Hunter and Senior Director of State Relations Michael Chartier. The three talk about their past experiences in coalition building and which states have strong school choice coalitions today. Listen to the podcast for their tips or read the full transcript below.



Our Podcast Transcribed

Robert Enlow: Hello, and welcome to another version of EdChoice Chats. We’re here today with Michael Chartier, our senior director of state relations, and Keri Hunter, our vice president of training and outreach, and today’s topic is coalitions. It’s a word we hear a lot about, but it’s not a word we discuss very often, or it’s not an idea we discuss very often. We often talk about coalitions, we often talk about building them and how they work, and if they’re fragile or not fragile, and what makes them successful, and what makes them not work. We hear a lot of people in communities at the local level say, “Stop doing things to us, do things with us.” So when we talk about coalitions, I think it’s a good time for us to, as we enter the new year, as we enter the new legislative sessions, start talking about what it really means to have meaningful partnerships and meaningful coalitions.

I’m happy to be joined here with are my two colleagues from EdChoice, and we’re going to have a robust conversation about coalitions. And so let me first start with Michael, and then we’ll go to Keri. So Michael, in your mind, what’s EdChoice’s philosophy on coalition building and expanding school choice for families?

Michael Chartier: It’s pretty simple. EdChoice likes to go in, live among the people, work among the people, and help them do the work themselves. I mean, it really only works when coalitions are locally led and locally driven. That’s EdChoice’s overarching philosophy.

Robert Enlow: So why does that matter so much?

Michael Chartier: I think that because the locals are the ones that live in those locations, and they were there long before we were there, and they will be there long after we are gone. So anything that’s not locally led and locally driven isn’t sustainable in the long term.

Robert Enlow: I think that’s a great way to say it. I think the fact is, is we’re a national organization, and we try to empower local groups. And we have to make sure we’re sensitive to what’s going on in their localities and their states, because they’re going to be there, as you said, long after we’re gone. In fact, they should be there long after we’re gone, because we don’t live there.

Keri, in your mind, what makes a good coalition?

Keri Hunter: I think one thing that starts a good coalition will be clear expectations. So, you get a bunch of people that care about the mission, and you get them together, and you make sure that they all understand the reason that they are together. What is the joint mission of a coalition, what are the objectives, making sure those are clearly delineated so that folks can work around a solid core.

Michael Chartier: I agree with Keri there. And sometimes those necessitate a tough conversation, don’t you think, Keri? I mean, sometimes there are people that aren’t bought in to all those things and you have to try to figure out ways to bring them into the fold. I mean, what do you think?

Keri Hunter: That’s right. I think if you pull people in and you’re using a bait and switch mentality, it’s only going to hurt your coalition in the long run. So, clearly outlined expectations: why we’re meeting, why this coalition is necessary, those are the types of things you need to talk about. And as you’re onboarding and offboarding coalition members, it’s good to revisit that mission and the objectives often.

Robert Enlow: So a common vision’s really important clearly, and common expectations, to having a good coalition. But before we get in and do a little bit more of success stories and where good coalitions have existed, let’s start with a little bit of the challenges and the difficulties. What are some of the hallmarks of a bad coalition and give me some examples, Keri.

Keri Hunter:I think some bad examples would be when you have partners who don’t understand what is happening, where the coalition is helping to move forward. When you have partners who show up but don’t really know what their place in the coalition is, what it will be. I think those are some things that can lead to a bad coalition.

Robert Enlow: I think that’s right. Michael?

Michael Chartier: I think, to Keri’s point, not having that shared vision I think is one of the biggest issues, competing visions. I remember I walked into … One of my good friends at that time was Lieutenant Governor Eric Holcomb, and he had one thing on his desk and it said, “It’s amazing what we can accomplish when we don’t worry about who gets credit for what.” And I think that’s one of the bigger things that helps break down coalitions, when everyone’s worried about, “Well, who gets credit for this? Who’s going to say nice things about this person? How are we going to be perceived in the media?” If we all sit down and do the work that we need to do and don’t worry about who gets credit, I think all that goes a long way to help create and maintain good coalitions.

Robert Enlow: So I’m hearing the importance of a common vision, the importance of not having competing interests and competing visions, the importance of working together on a unified plan, without seeking to take credit. Talk a little bit about trust, and how important trust is in a coalition.

Michael Chartier: It’s vital. I mean, I kind of jotted down some notes here and I’ve got trust at least written down five times here on this sheet. So trust is the most important thing, and it takes a long time to build that trust sometimes, I mean, that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s about showing up and being true to your word, saying you’re going to do something and following through with that, and always being honest with your members. And once that breaks down, that’s the end of the coalition. Once you realize you can’t sit around a shared table and talk about ideas, and have tough conversations? It’s over, you can’t rebuild from that. So if that happens, you got to start back from scratch and figure out a way to rebuild that trust.

Robert Enlow: Keri?

Keri Hunter: Yes, trust is very important. I would also say that … I’m thinking back to the college days. Have you ever participated in a group project and you had to have all these meetings, and then it turns out that one or two people are really stepping in and doing the heavy lifting while others glide by, and they still all get the same grade. I feel like coalition work is very similar. So it’s nice in your coalitions to divide up, have some committees that are within the coalition. Make sure that if a few months of the year it’s a busier time for coalition members, that they can back off. Being sensitive to everyone’s workload and knowing what the different partners in the coalition can take on, I think is a very important aspect. You don’t want someone to feel that they are using too much energy and then others are slacking by and getting that A+ grade for you.

Michael Chartier: I think that’s one of the hard things too that you mentioned Keri, about the college class you had when everyone did the work and some people got the same grade for doing less work. It’s hard to sometimes come up with that division of labor because everyone thinks that they are great and amazing, and just doing that blocking and tackling is sometimes difficult. And it’s hard sometimes to be that air-traffic controller, I mean, those are some hard things to talk about.

Robert Enlow: You know, division of labor’s a huge issue and sometimes every group thinks, “We’re the best at coalition building,” or, “We’re the best at research,” or, “We’re the best at grassroots.” And there’s a lot of conversations about how we work together on dividing labor. And I think, Keri, you brought up a point that I think is really important, about being sensitive with everyone, because that leads me to the idea of humility.

So one of the things that I keep seeing over and over again in coalitions is when we’re not humble enough to accept that we may be wrong, or we may not have the right answer, or our organization isn’t necessarily the best. One of the things I find challenging in coalitions, in my experience, has been you have to be able to sit around a table, have a trust conversation, have an honest conversation, that might end with you saying, “Well heck EdChoice screwed up there,” or, “We’re not the right person to that.” And that takes a unique type of organization, and a unique type of person, and a unique type of atmosphere, and I think those are often hard to build.

So, we have built some of those, right? So why don’t we give an example now of what’s been going on that’s been good, or you’ve seen some good, positive coalitions and what they’ve been doing.

Michael Chartier: I would say that I think the two that jump out immediately … I want to say three that jump immediately to mind actually. Indiana and Iowa have some of the strongest coalitions that I’ve ever seen, and I would say Mississippi right now has one of the strongest coalitions in the country. I mean, we’ve got some good examples. And they all came and approached their coalition building from different ways, I think.

Indiana has sort of the whole playbook. They’ve got the education and research side; they’ve got the grassroots advocacy and lobbying side, as well as the PAC and doing the political work. So they’ve got a really broad and robust area for that blocking and tackling. And Iowa’s a little bit different. They are really a c(3) coalition that does a little lobbying, a little grassroots organization on the side, but they’re really built to be that c(3) educational arm. And I think they both accomplish the same things but in very, very different ways.

Robert Enlow: I would add to that. I think North Carolina’s a great coalition, I think that’s been going on for a long time, if you see what’s been happening there. And I think that’s one of the hallmarks of a great coalition, is it’s been there for a long time. I remember when I first started in this movement in 1996, had an argument with someone who said, “You could create grassroots,” and I said, “No, they have to be built over time.” And he’s like, “You could create grassroots,” and I said, “No, they have to be built over time.” And I’ve come to the conclusion, yes, you can create immediate grassroots but it’s not sustainable.

It’s the growth over time that actually truly is sustainable, and I’ve seen that in Iowa, in Indiana, in North Carolina, in Mississippi, and in other states to a bigger or lesser degree. Every state’s different, Wisconsin is different than Florida. Florida has a great coalition as well, but it’s very different.

Keri, what would you say, in your mind, are some of the ways to build a good coalition and avoid creating a bad one?

Keri Hunter: I think that all good coalitions still have room to improve. I think sometimes we leave out groups who may want to be involved, that we forget to invite. One thing that I’ve learned over the years with EdChoice, is that businesses and business associations really want to know what’s going on with education policy, they care deeply about the workforce. So I think one thing to do if you’re working in a coalition right now, step back, look around, and ask, “Who are we missing? Who’s missing from the table?” Make sure that you’re looking out for those business entities that could be bringing a lot of expertise to your coalition. And also word of mouth, they can help spread the message of EdChoice policy to their constituent groups.

Robert Enlow: I like that. Not only who’s missing from your coalition, but sort of what assets are missing, and what capabilities are missing. That takes it from a different level saying, “I can do everything as a leader,” or “I can do everything as a part of the coalition,” to, “Hey, what are we missing?” And it really does focus on a bigger issue and a bigger mission.

In your mind, what will create the death of a coalition the fastest? What’s the worst thing that can happen to a coalition?

Michael Chartier: Loss of trust. I mean, I think that kills anything, more than coalitions. But I think lack of trust, once you have that it’s all over.

Robert Enlow: It’s over.

Keri Hunter: I think egos can get in the way sometimes, we’ve even had coalitions break down over whose logo would be bigger on the agenda or on the signage. So you have to let that stuff go when you step in and say, “Yes, I am going to be a part of this coalition.” Back to the whole who gets credit for what thing, making sure that people understand this is a coalition, it’s group effort.

Robert Enlow: I couldn’t agree more and, heck, I’ve been in this movement 21 years, I know my ego gets in the way sometimes.

Talk about the importance of communications. I remember when I was doing state-based work, I think I lived on the telephone. So talk about the importance of communications of coalitions.

Keri Hunter: Well, you have to balance it out. You don’t want to clog up someone’s inbox with a million emails and these chain emails, or group texts, those kind of get bothersome. So, that’s part of the expectation building in the beginning of your coalition. How many times are we going to meet, is it monthly, is it quarterly? How many times are we going to communicate? What are your expectations for people replying and giving feedback? I think those are very important things. If you can streamline some of your efforts by using some of the new technologies that exist, I think that will be very helpful for coalition work.

Robert Enlow: I think that’s right. Michael?

Michael Chartier: Yeah, I was going to say that regular communication, and Keri says, not clogging up someone’s inbox or telephone line, but that regular communication does certainly help when it comes to the trust issue. If you find out something’s awry and you have that quick, direct line of communication. And most of the time it’s a misunderstanding and that communication solves that problem, and everyone goes back to the trusting relationship that we all had beforehand. But if you don’t have that, then that leads to other problems. So I mean, if you don’t have those simple lines of communication, even just a text message saying, “Hey, what’s going on, how are things?” That goes a long way to help building those lines of communication and building and maintaining that trust level.

Robert Enlow: So it’s almost like being a good coalition member is like being a good person. I think it’s actually really interesting when you think about it that way.

Keri Hunter: I think one thing, back to our days in Indiana, Robert, one thing that we realized early on in our coalition is that we had so many groups involved and some needed to be more of silent partners. They couldn’t risk putting it out there that they were involved in the movement. And so we learned pretty quickly that we needed to name our coalition and we needed an umbrella group, and we needed to go out and be able to work under the name of our coalition. So we formed School Choice Indiana very early on and designed a logo, and then all of the members were part of School Choice Indiana as an umbrella coalition. And I think those simple things helped us move forward in Indiana.

Michael Chartier: I have somewhat of a question I guess, to ask both of you. And I realize Robert, I’m kind of taking your job as the moderator here. But from what Keri just said, there are people sometimes in your coalition that are better silent partners, or can help in other ways rather than being out front. How does a coalition member be introspective to figure out where they fit in that overarching umbrella? How does a coalition member be good at figuring out where they are and where they should be?

Robert Enlow: So, I think it’s a couple of things. One, the first thing every member of a coalition does and should do, and every actual organization should do it, is take a cold, hard look at the actual assets that you have on the ground. Right, so how many people do you communicate with, and if you communicate with let’s say 1000 people, how many of those thousands actually do something? What relationships do you have with people in the press, what relationship do you have with donors? So what truly is your sphere of influence and your sphere of activity. If you don’t have a truly cold, hard assessment of that, then you’re never going to be effective in a coalition. So that’s number one. And doing it in a way where you can say, “Okay, this is where I’m good, this is where I’m not,” and being very honest and open about that.

I think the second thing is literally just being honest and open with each other, right? So you have to be in a position to say, “I’m not good at that, someone else is better at that.” And one of the things I like about Indiana’s coalition early on, was when School Choice Indiana was built, it wasn’t built to say it’s a new entity coming in to do the work, it was built because the board was made up of the groups that were already working. So that was very different from around the country, a lot of these groups get started and they’re a new organization coming into the state, as opposed to built with the groups already there. I think Iowa’s a little bit different, Iowa’s a little bit like that. North Carolina’s a little bit like that. I think now South Carolina’s a little bit like that; it wasn’t for a while. So I think there’s some interesting points to be made about how an organization is put together to build a coalition.

Keri Hunter: Yes, and we have a new state looking into starting a coalition and I’ve had lots of phone calls with a wonderful parent leader there. And she asked me, “Okay, I’m going to have my first call-out meeting,” and first thing on her list, “Who do I invite? Who do I leave off the list?” And I told her, “Go broad. Go broad, invite the groups, be very honest and upfront about what you expect from the coalition and don’t apologize. Do not be apologetic for the mission of the coalition, and people will self-select in. And they may need to come to two to three meetings before they decide that they’re bought in to this coalition and will move forward.” And I think that’s step one for any new state out there looking to start this work.

Robert Enlow: So I think that’s right and it makes me think of three words, authenticity, reliability, and openness. If you don’t have those three things in a coalition, you’re not going to be around for very long.

So last question, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing coalitions out there right now?

Michael Chartier: I would say the point of the coalition is for a group of people from diverse backgrounds to come together around a singular issue. And I think a lot of the times now what’s happening is that those other issues that people may not agree on are getting in the way of the central focus. And I think that’s the biggest thing now, is that all these other things are coming in and muddying the waters, I guess is probably a better way to describe it, and not letting that coalition really gel together.

Robert Enlow: I think that’s right. I remember as kid, Courtney in Milwaukee used to say when we would go on bus tours, she would say, “Look I’m standing next to Robert Enlow here and he and I only agree on school choice.” And that’s sort of gone. There’s a lot more challenging issues, and that’s only to be expected 22 years into a real long effort. But it is something that could certainly hurt us.

So with that, I think we have two people here that are experts in building coalitions, experts in working with coalitions. Michael and Keri, thank you very much. We look forward to future work together.