Stay The Course: We Have To Be “We Bes” To Make Change

By Jennifer Wagner

EdChoice is the oldest group in the nation solely dedicated to advancing school choice. Dr. Friedman and his wife, Rose, founded the organization in 1996. We’ll be a quarter-century old next year.

That means we’ve endured six — soon to be seven — presidential elections and dozens at the state and local level. Power has shifted from one party to another and back again, all the while we’ve been chipping away at the notion that you have to go to school based on where your child is located, not what your child needs.

The current political landscape, cast against the backdrop of a global pandemic that upended K-12 education, has some advocates pining for big, sudden change.

I’d argue the opposite — this is our time to shine as “we bes,” a term that might be unfamiliar to you if you’ve never clocked hours inside the Beltway.

It wasn’t long after I went to work as a political appointee in the Obama Administration that a career civil servant explained the “we bes” to me.

The federal government is a big, complicated beast that employs more than 2 million people who fall into a number of different employment buckets.

I worked for a sub-agency within the U.S. Department of Energy, which has more than 90,000 contractors and around 14,000 civilian employees. I fell into a category within the latter category.

There’s a small group of political appointees in each agency who are hired as Schedule C — Sked C, for short — employees. They are excepted from competitive service because they help shape policy and need to have close, confidential relationships with the agency head or another appointed official.

Sked Cs come and go with each administration.

And if you spend time talking with career civil servants, they will tell you that some Sked Cs come in with lots of hubris and go without much fanfare. They treat the job like a calling from on high, and they aren’t always the nicest to folks who’ve been working there a long time.

Which brings us to an unofficial slogan among career civil servants: “We be here before you, and we be here after you.”

There is a bit of an implicit threat in the phrase, but only if you’re the kind of person who thinks political appointees deserve to have the red carpet rolled out for them because, OMG, the President put them in that job. Remember, while Sked Cs serve alongside career employees, career folks have no moral obligation to tell Sked Cs how to procure a nicer desk chair or where the closest bathroom is located.

But there’s a deeper, more important purpose to the way the “we be” system works: continuity of services and mission.

Without the “we bes,” an endless four- or eight-year cycle of political types with differing priorities and viewpoints on governing itself would be in charge of the entire federal system. There would be no steady hand from one administration to the next.

Our founder Milton Friedman might cringe at using the federal government as a metaphor for long-term success in the advocacy world, but as someone who devoted his career not just to economics, but to the way it can be applied over time to solve real-world problems and advance freedom, perhaps he would appreciate a clarion call for consistency in a tumultuous world.

It doesn’t take a Nobel-winning economist to discern a school choice movement in flux.

Earlier this year, a spiky little virus forced almost every family in America to embrace the realities of schooling from home for a few months, opening up a much-needed conversation about where and how learning can take place while laying bare the gap between the haves and have-nots in our K-12 system.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has created any number of partisan rifts when it comes to schools reopening, how much emergency funding they receive and how to enforce safety protocol once students return.

According to our monthly tracking survey, powered by Morning Consult, parents have a lot on their mind:

The good news is that families are choosing more than ever before. Today, more than half a million students are using a private school choice program to access educational options that previously might have been out of reach.

Over the past decade, charter school enrollment has swelled to more than 3 million students:

These trend lines are headed in the right direction — and they clearly indicate that you can’t put the choice genie back in a bottle. Once families are empowered to choose, they choose, and we know there’s still a lot of growth potential between what they’re getting and what they want:

This doesn’t mean we should be sitting around doing nothing. Quite the opposite. As a group that puts a lot of emphasis on coalition-building and outreach to new audiences, we should be redoubling our efforts to help parent advocates find their voices, provide top-quality research and polling on the ever-changing K-12 landscape; and make sure policymakers have what they need to make decisions about the future of education.

We can do all that with our “we be” blinders on so we don’t get distracted by shiny political objects. (Because we’re a 501(c)(3) — and only a 501(c)(3) — we actually can’t engage in campaigns and politics in our work, but that doesn’t mean the distractions don’t exist.)

We must always push ourselves to new limits, but we must not abandon effective tactics that might feel “stale” to us. If we are doing things that we have always done, there is a reason: Those things work. There’s a fine line between “stale” and “stable.”

The partisan campaigns will be over soon enough, but the hard work of making our education system more equitable is sadly still in its early stages. We’re committed to that work today, and we’ll be here until the job is done — and every family in America has the ability to find a schooling option that works for their kiddo.

Jennifer Wagner is a mom, a recovering political hack and the Vice President of Communications for EdChoice, a national nonprofit that supports and promotes universal school choice.

Stay The Course: We Have To Be “We Bes” To Make Change was originally published in EdChoice on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.