Ep 13: Parties and School Choice with Leslie Hiner & Jen Wagner

September 5, 2017

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, Jennifer Wagner, our vice president of Communications, gets together with Leslie Hiner, our vice president of Programs, to talk about political grassroots coalition building and how it can be helpful to our movement, to passing school choice programs and, ultimately, to helping children.

Jennifer Wagner: Hello and welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jennifer Wagner, our vice president of Communications here at EdChoice. I’m joined today by Leslie Hiner, our vice president of Programs. We’re going to talk a little bit today about political grassroots coalition building and how it can be helpful to our movement and to passing school choice programs. Thank you for joining us today, Leslie.

Leslie Hiner: Thank you.

Jennifer Wagner: Before we get started, it is worth noting that we are a nonprofit. We are nonpartisan here at EdChoice, but we come from a lot of different backgrounds. Leslie, you and I are a great example of that. I spent six years as the spokesperson for the state Democratic Party here in Indiana. Talk a little about your background.

Leslie Hiner: Yeah, so before joining EdChoice here, I was chief of staff to the Speaker of the House in the Indiana House of Representatives. I had also some years prior been counsel to the state Senate. I had a political life before here at EdChoice. What I find so interesting to your point is that we were on opposites sides of just about everything prior to now when we’re working together. For me, any time you said something in the press about anything that we were doing at the House in particular, I had to read it as quickly as possible because I knew it was going to be tough, it was going to be hard hitting, and there was going to be parts in there that were probably accurate.

But now we’re working together on the same issue, and it’s just fantastic.

Jennifer Wagner: It is fantastic. It’s the nice thing about issue advocacy is that you can all get together and come from different backgrounds and really truly believe in what you’re fighting for. In this case, K–12 educational choice, which to be perfectly honest, right now in this environment feels like we’re at a little bit of a political crossroads. There are a lot of folks within our movement, outside of our movement, who are …

Our CEO, Robert Enlow, said in a recent podcast, “Maybe putting politics ahead of the kids.” I would love to hear, as we’re in this environment, some examples from you of times when it’s worked right, when everybody has come together like we do here every day at EdChoice to do the right thing for kids and families.

Leslie Hiner: I would love to share my favorite example because this happened just shortly after I joined EdChoice. I first joined here in June of 2008. I think it was later that summer that I went out to New Jersey. In New Jersey, I had heard that they had this incredibly diverse coalition of people who would come together.

Well, so I kind of listened to that with one ear and not the other, thinking it sounded like it was kind of a gross exaggeration because the people that they talked about were so incredibly different. I couldn’t really see them coming together even in the same room, let alone agreeing on anything. But lo and behold, this coalition was for real. You had, for example, people who were hardcore right-to-work people and also hardcore union people who really liked each other when they started talking about school choice.

Then the most incredible thing happened. I learned that there was a Republican legislator who was a leader in the caucus who was chief advocate for school choice in New Jersey and a Democrat legislator, a key leader in his caucus, who was the other co-champion of school choice in New Jersey. They couldn’t have been more aligned. They were absolutely 100 percent aligned. Then after they spoke, then people relaxed a little bit and were just talking informally.

I was sitting with them. Then a couple other people came over who I learned later were lobbyists in New Jersey. At some point during the conversation, one of them said, “So, what do you think the position of the legislature’s going to be on this labor issue this next session?” Instantly, and I do mean instantly, both of those legislator champions jumped to their feet, looked at each other and said, “We’ll talk later.” Then went literally in opposite directions.

They knew that they didn’t agree on anything except the right of parents and families to be able to access education that’s right for their own children, that that should come to New Jersey. They agreed on that 100 percent. But on every other issue, they disagreed. For them, it was so important to them, they valued this educational freedom so much that they absolutely refused to allow any of their other issues or their other work to come between them. That was a very important lesson.

Jennifer Wagner: Well, that’s an excellent story. I think we’ve had a lot of discussion recently. I don’t want to make you talk about a negative situation, but we’ve talked a lot about Nevada recently. That was something that our folks here at EdChoice spent two and a half years working on. You were out there. We’ve described that failure in Nevada. We had a great program that passed, but the failure to fund it for the 10,000 Nevada families who are on the waitlist for an education savings account we’ve described as a bipartisan failure. Can you talk a little bit about how that happened and how that kind of a situation happens? When what happened in New Jersey doesn’t actually play out.

Leslie Hiner: Well, yes, you had to bring up a painful topic. Nevada is painful to talk about because there are over 10,000 families in Nevada who believed, wholeheartedly believed, that their legislators would step up and fund that very excellent education savings account program in Nevada. At the end of the day when they didn’t do that, it was those families who were the most surprised and the most disappointed and left struggling to figure out what to do next.

Yes, it is a very painful topic. But like most painful topics, there’s a lesson to be learned there. The lesson from Nevada, I think is simply this: That you should never assume that a political party or a group will all agree with you, even if a group takes a position on an issue. It says, “Yes, I’m part of this group and this is an issue we support.” Doesn’t mean that every person in that group will actually act on that appropriately and support the group’s position. Essentially, that’s what happened in Nevada, where we had Republican support, but there were just a couple whose support went away for no good reason as far as I could see. But it did. That was unfortunate.

It was also unfortunate that we didn’t have Democrat legislators who we knew were supportive of this. We didn’t have them step up. I think part of that though is an issue regarding leadership. It’s very important in state legislative bodies that the leaders stand up to do the right thing, and then their caucus members then can be part of that. But that just didn’t happen in Nevada. So the lesson from that is don’t ever assume too much. It’s very important to speak to individuals as individuals, not just as representative groups.

Jennifer Wagner: I think that brings up a really interesting point. We were actually talking earlier today about coalition building for another project we’re working on here. You had mentioned that the importance of listening to people and where they come to this issue, or quite honestly to any issue from. For example, I know that I come at this issue from a different vantage point than you do or others in our office do. But we’re all here together. Can you talk a little bit about not just how you listen, but then how you use what you hear to build that coalition so that it doesn’t fracture in the final days when it really matters?

Leslie Hiner:  I like to tell people, and I do. I say this a lot that the most important thing that anyone can do who is working in the school choice movement is to always, and I mean 100 percent of the time, keep in the very front of your mind that child who desperately needs help. You keep these children right at the front of everything that you’re doing. Then you won’t go wrong.

Now, it’s not as easy as it sounds. I made it sound baby easy at this point. But in the heat of battle, when people are starting to fray around the edges or just tired or maybe some of the differences between people start to come up, again I think for every action, the question should be, “The action that I’m about to take, does this advance the opportunity for any child to get the education that that child needs? Yes or no?” If the answer is, “Yes,” then you move forward. If the answer is, “No,” then back off.

I think with coalitions or with just anyone who’s working on this issue, it’s important that we each be very honest with ourselves for each action that we’re taking. Just because it feels good to us or may promote us or whatever, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be good toward advancing that opportunity for any child. That’s the only reason why anyone should be involved in advancing school choice. That is for the benefit of these children who so desperately need this help.

Jennifer Wagner: As we move forward taking that as our core mission, how do we replicate the successes that we’ve seen in places like in Indiana, in Arizona, in other states where we’ve seen success? But also in places like quite frankly New Jersey or Minnesota or states that might not on their surface seem open to educational choice programs because of the political dynamic. How do we take our successes and grow them from here?

Leslie Hiner: Well, that’s the million-dollar question. That’s the hardest question there is, I think. The first is to recognize that each community within these various states, we’re all just a little bit different. It’s possible that what might be really great for Minnesota might not be so great for Indiana. What might be a great program for West Virginia may not work so well in Colorado. The first thing is to recognize that it’s really important to pay attention to the communities and how people feel about education and what it is that people will be willing to really work and support.

I also think that it’s important to, as you said, we want to take our successes across the country to other states to help other people. But it’s not just the successes. I think we should also take our failures with us. Because embedded in those failures, there are the stories, much like a couple that I’m telling here today, that are really important for people to recognize. That there’s not one clear path toward achieving educational choice. I don’t think there’s a path at all actually. This is more like a life journey and a mission. Of course, as we all know, along life’s journey, things could change along the way, people change, our attitudes change. That’s all okay as long as people are willing to have faith in each other and to trust each other and to not break that faith with each other as we travel along this journey that sometimes will be really great and other times may be rocky.

Whatever comes our way, again with those children and their needs right in front of us all the time. That vision can overcome any of the rough spots along the way.

Jennifer Wagner: That’s definitely a lesson that I’ve learned in the last year and a half being here. I’ve learned from you. I’ve learned that we’re both lawyers by training, which I think maybe makes us a little more likely to be able to fight in battle and then go out and have a glass of wine afterward. But I think there’s something to be said for laying down your weapons and realizing that there is something greater than just fighting each other for the sake of partisanship. Not making assumptions about each other that so-and-so must believe this because he or she has a D or an R or an I or an L after his or her name. I wish everyone could experience the EdChoice experience of all coming together for this greater mission. I know I’m grateful now to be in the trenches with you instead of on the opposite side firing at each other, Leslie.

Is there anything else you want to add as we wrap up this podcast?

Leslie Hiner: Yeah, I’m really glad we’re on the same side. That’s for sure. It’s much better together.

Jennifer Wagner: There’s no friendly fire. We’re just over here fighting the good fight.

Leslie Hiner: That’s true. I would say this, that one of the quickest ways for people to come together or to find out if they can come together, is first to have just a friendly one-on-one conversation. Invite somebody you don’t know or you think who is against you to just sit down and have a cup of coffee and talk about things. Because here’s a little phenomena that gets repeated all the time. When two people who think that they are on opposing sides of this issue, when they do sit down and have that cup of coffee, then if they start talking about, “Well, this is how I see it,” or “This is how I define the issue,” or “This is what I’m thinking about,” oftentimes it will happen that the person on the other side will say, “Oh, well I didn’t know that’s what you really meant.”

Sometimes the definition of terms can be really skewed. It gets skewed in the press. It gets skewed by rumor. It gets skewed by political campaigns. When people are talking directly to each other and clearly defining exactly what they’re talking about, then this is where the coming together happens. It can overcome all of the noise of our lives and really make a difference.

Jennifer Wagner: On that note, I want to thank you for joining us today and sharing your experience as you’ve been a part of this mission to expand educational choice at the state level. Thank you for everything that you’ve done on behalf of kids. We’ll tune in the next time for our next edition of EdChoice Chats. Thank you all for joining us today.