Ep 7: Where We Stand on Federal Education Reform Policy with Robert Enlow

June 21, 2017

Thank you for joining us for another episode of EdChoice Chats. In this episode, our Vice President of Communications Jennifer Wagner is joined by our guest EdChoice CEO and President Robert Enlow to discuss what’s going on in federal education reform policy and where EdChoice stands. Listen below to learn more.

Wagner: Before we get into the nitty gritty of all this, can you just give us an overview of what’s happening on the federal level, really in the last six months.

Enlow: What’s been happening in Fed Ed, as I call it. So in the last six months, you’ve seen some growth in school choice. The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program has been reauthorized by Congress. This is a good thing. The administration was able to get that through pretty quickly after it got in office. So we’re glad to see that program being reauthorized and not under threat, it looks like, for the forseeable future, so we’re really pleased about that.

The other thing we’re seeing is, after the November elections, is an elevation of and a dialogue about school choice. It certainly was a campaign plank for the current administration, and they haven’t stopped talking about it since day one. There is a strong core belief that parents should be free to choose and that the federal government should come alongside them and help them, whether that be through Title I expansion or through private school choice programs or through increasing charter schools. That said, the fact they have been talking about it and elevating the debate has created a lot of consternation. It is a very, very sad situation we’re in in some ways right now in the sense that this has become such a partisan dialogue, and it’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it, even from the early days.

And I don’t think the administration is only to blame for that. I don’t think that the reformers are only to blame for that. I think all of us are to blame for that in many ways, and what we’re missing here is this opportunity to have a real dialogue about what we should be doing and how we should be educating kids instead of having this blame game and partisan rhetoric being thrown around.

There are friends of mine in this movement who are ed reformers on the left who literally sent out emails saying you should never work with anyone in the administration. Frankly, that’s ridiculous, and I would never do that to anyone that they supported. And I frankly don’t think they should do that to anyone who is talking about school choice. That said, folks on the right have to actually be recognizing the difficulty and the challenges that some of the conversations that the rhetoric bring. So again, what I think is happening in the framework and the landscape in federal education reform is there’s a lot of talk about it, but a lot of people talking past each other and a lot of partisan dialogue that’s not really helpful.

Wagner: And that’s why we’re here talking today. EdChoice is a nonpartisan organization that’s been around for 21 years now, so one of the things EdChoice is known for is research and coming with structures and constructs to have debates like this one. So we can strip out that partisanship. And you were talking about and we’ve been talking about the three pillars of fed reform that EdChoice has come up with to kind of frame this national dialogue.

Enlow: Absolutely. I appreciate you saying that we’re nonpartisan. We spent a lot of time at EdChoice trying to make sure that we are the trusted experts and the honest brokers. We spend a lot of time doing that because we believe that our word is our bond. We don’t want to put out stuff that’s not able to be verified and validated across all sides of the aisle. That said, here are our principles of federal reform.

There are things that the federal government has direct control and responsibility for. Those are: military families, the Bureau of Indian Education, the DC scholarship program and Title I, just to name four. We believe that they should have every right and, in fact, should spend significant time growing and increasing choices for families within those programs.

-an effort for military ESAs

-Bureau of Indian Education ESAs or vouchers would be great

-increasing 529s for K–12 would be fantastic or converting Coverdell savings accounts to 529s would be fantastic

-increasing Title I support for all schools, whether they be public private or charter, and increasing the portability of those

Those are all well and good and within the realm of the federal government. So I want to say off the bat that we would support those kinds of things because the federal government is directly responsible for those. Now, what do you do when it comes to, “Should we have a national voucher program? Should we have a national tax-credit scholarship program?” What do we do about these other programs being offered? There is potential for EdChoice to be able to support some of those programs if and only if they, I think, meet our three principles of federal reform or, as you’re calling it, fed ed reform, which I like.

The first principle very clearly is that has to be state-directed and state-centric. The vast majority of money in K–12 education is at the state and local level. The vast minority of money is from the federal level. At the same time, we cannot have mandates coming in states. States are the laboratories of innovation and democracy. We should actually encourage that type of innovation. There should be differences between states when it comes to trying different programs. So any program that would say states are required to participate or states must do something would create a scenario where there’s a federal mandate, and we would probably oppose that.

Our second pillar of federal reform is also very simple. It has to be parent-friendly and parent-usable. So you can’t create a program where parents don’t understand it and can’t access it. That would be a travesty. We’ve seen too many federal programs that have become overly bureaucratic and make it very difficult for parents to choose and to be able to access choice, and that is not what we want. Whatever program that comes out has to be parent-friendly.

And third, we cannot have educators or schools being encumbered with a ton of regulations, right? My friend Lisa Keegan, who used to be the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Arizona, used to tell me she got 9 percent of her money from the federal government, but spent 50 percent of her staff time on federal bureaucracy. We cannot have a scenario where we layer more bureaucracy and more regulations on schools. We need to have less and more smart regulations as opposed to just more. And certainly anything that can be established from a federal level then applies to every school, again, now you’re breaking the laboratories of democracy up.

So our three principles are really straightforward. It needs to be state-centric and state-directed; it needs to be parent-friendly and parent-usable and easy for parents to use; and it needs to be free of unnecessary regulations.

Wagner: So really what I’m kind of hearing you say is you’d probably prefer the federal government stay out of this altogether, but obviously we have an administration that’s very choice-friendly, that wants to push something nationally. Talk about what role EdChoice is going to play in that debate—as, as you said, an honest broker, as a trusted resource.

Enlow: So let me step back on that one second. What the federal government could do considering our principles. Look, what they’re planning to do with charter schools and expanding that growth is fantastic. More and more facilities and efforts would be great. We would actually encourage them to increase the facilities funding to include private schools as well. So I think that’s a fantastic move. I think the expansion of Title I, adding $1 billion, is a good thing. Again, I don’t agree with everything in the budget, but there are certain things we agree with.

The third thing is: They could design a tax credit program that is state-opt-in, that is state-centric, that is parent-friendly and that isn’t full of regulations that I think we can get behind, as long as it’s simple and easy to use and states are the primary leaders of it. So I think they can do it, and I think, frankly, this administration would like to do that, and I think they are worrying about how to get there.

So what role does EdChoice play in that? What is the role of EdChoice in general? EdChoice and the federal reform world has three goals.

  1. We’ve got to show people in DC, who are often disconnected from the world, what the real world looks like with people who are using choice. We have to show them what’s happening in states and show them what parents are doing and how they’re using these programs in the 30 states around the country. So we have to show them what’s happening in their home states. I remember talking with Sen. Collins a long time ago—[she] didn’t even know there was a choice program in Vermont, and it’s the oldest one ever. So we need to show legislators in DC what’s happening in their own states.
  2. I think it’s really important we show the data. We just show what the research is saying. We know, on the whole, research is generally positive about school choice. We, of course, aren’t going to sugarcoat it when it’s not, but we believe the vast bulk of the data is positive. So we want to make sure they see that and have access to that information.
  3. We want to make sure we are one of the people there in DC that say: You don’t have to do everything from DC. You can actually trust people around the country. You can trust state legislators. You can trust parents. And so, we want to be a little bit of a watchdog in a meaningful way, to say maybe you don’t want to do it that way. Maybe you want the states to have the power and control there.

So those are the three functions that I see us having.

Wagner: One argument that we’ve heard made for a national program is that there are states where there is no choice right now and very likely couldn’t be because of that state’s constitution or that state’s history. So in a way, wouldn’t a federal school choice program be a tremendous benefit to the families in those states, or would you rather continue to work in those states and maybe overcome some of those legal roadblocks? Which would you prefer, and how do you answer the argument that these are parents that just don’t have any choice right now, so isn’t some choice, even federal choice, better for them?

Enlow: I’m going to be honest; that’s a conundrum. That’s a pretty good question. On one hand, my heart says, “Oh my god, any kids we can get choice for the better.” That’s where my heart is. That’s what I understand. But my fear—fear may be the wrong word—my experience and history in this movement has shown that if I get five people choice at the expense of everyone else, that does me no good and that does the movement no good.

So I’ve heard the secretary (Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos) say what will happen is New York can’t/doesn’t have choice and they never will, or Michigan because of their Blaine amendment never will. Well, if they had a tax credit program, and a bunch of donors start giving money to a bunch of folks in Indiana, my guess is, pretty quickly, Michigan might start having a conversation about this.

So you can put competitive pressures on states by allowing freedom for donors to deliver funds elsewhere. I think we have to be very careful. Milton Friedman used to have this thing that I loved very much. “If you put the government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in [five] years, [there’d be] a shortage of sand.” It’s one of my favorite quotes of all time because it really does show how we tend to allow our institutions to do things for us instead of us doing it for ourselves. And as a result, we tend to get to a point where we say we’ll accept so much regulation that we become less empowered. And the problem with government whether we like it or not is the only power it has it the power to coerce. And so I don’t know if I want the federal government coercing states in the name of some number of kids. That said, I want those kids to have an education. Heck, I’ll put together a fund to help them move to states that have choice. But the reality is I’m not sure we want the government to be in a position to coerce states.

Wagner: That makes sense, but don’t do that just yet. I think EdChoice needs you at the helm for a little bit longer given the current state of affairs. But I’m glad you brought up Dr. Friedman because my next question is—obviously he hasn’t been with us for a few years now—but what do you think he would think about the current debate and what’s happening now in Washington, which is a place he did not love? And not to coin the phrase, but what do you think Milton would do right now?

Enlow: I think Milton would be one of the loudest voices encouraging us to think about the impact of having a federal, national program. He would return to his old studies of the Interstate Commerce Commission. He would look at all the regulations that we’ve expanded and grown to the point where we don’t actually have, in his argument, a very free society. He would probably refer to all of the criminal justice problems that we’re having because of rules and regulations. He would refer you to the administrative state, which has become a quasi-government. I think Milton would be very very concerned about giving up and ceding more power to people who aren’t really accountable to the people that live near them.

Wagner: Not to venture too far from the topic of educational choice at the federal level, but you have a publication coming out later this year that reprises Dr. Friedman’s 1955 publication “The Role of Government in Education” that talks more about where we are but also what obstacles we have faced over the last almost 70 years in getting these programs passed even at the state level. So talk a little about that paper and what you hope to accomplish with it.

Enlow: We have not had a real conversation [about this] since we started this movement. Obviously it started in many ways with Dr. Friedman in 1955, and it grew and took off in 1996 onwards and particularly took off in 2010. People have forgotten what Dr. Friedman’s original essay was titled, which is “The Role of Government in Education.”

So I think it’s really about time that we start to rethink and revisit what the role of government in education is. Is it the role of government to coerce students to go to schools based on where they live? Is that the right role? Is it the role of government to fund schools at different levels and fund students with different amounts? Is that the right role of government? Who really is accountable? Is the government accountable, or are the people accountable? So there are lots of questions we should be asking about what the proper role of government is.

One of the things I think, however, that Dr. Friedman missed when he was writing in the ’50s and earlier, is that I don’t think he realized how entrenched the bureaucracy really was in education. But also, not just how entrenched the bureaucracy was, but how cultural the idea of public education had become, how ingrained into our culture it is because it’s been based on where we live.

And so, breaking the historical, cultural mores of “home = school” is something I don’t think he thought all the way through, and it’s certainly one of our obstacles that we have right now. What we’re trying to do is ask the seminal question again: What is the right role of government in the 21st century? What are the obstacles facing us in achieving the right role? And frankly, what should that role be?

Wagner: It’s interesting you mention the cultural fixation or affinity for public education back in the days of the red school house and when everybody went to the same place. Do you see this as a generational issue, and what does EdChoice’s research say about that?

Enlow: It’s definitely a generational issue. It’s funny because I’m now old, right? I’m still one of those people, that, “I walked to school every morning that eighth of a mile up the hill…

Wagner: Both ways in the snow, I hope.

Enlow: Well, you went uphill one way and uphill the other way, but I still walked to school because that’s how we did it, right? But that was in the ’70s, and it was from the ’70s onward where you saw this massive consolidation and massive centralization.

So I think the people who have been the most challenged by that centralization are the people who are now 25 and 30, as opposed to my age. I think what we’re finding is the generations after us see that they want something different, don’t have any concerns about options and choices, are more concerned about whether there’s fraud and more concerned about whether people are accessing choice rather than whether there is choice. So I think what you’re going to see is all these debates we’re having right now, all this partisan bickering, all this, “Do vouchers hurt, or do charter schools hurt?” I think these folks are going to say, “This is ridiculous. Give everyone choices and move on already.”

Wagner: I think in the research EdChoice has done one of the things that comes out, and I want you to talk a little bit about this box that sometimes reformers find themselves in, is that parents, as they are choosing or new generations of parents as they are coming online, they don’t care about test scores. You mentioned some other things that people look at when they choose schools, but one of the big things that came out in a recent survey, a recent report on the DC program, is that parents overwhelmingly found their private schools to be safer. So I guess the question here is: Have we been measuring the wrong things? And are we truly matching up the outcomes and the accountability to what the people who are using the system want?

Enlow: Absolutely not. This is ostensibly the conversation about accountability. What does accountability really mean. First of all, when I hear anyone use that word “accountability,” I literally want to throw my hands up in the air and say, “What do you really mean?” Because most of the time when you get beyond what they really mean, they don’t have a clue. Typically, they say it’s a test score. “We know the schools are accountable because of test scores.”

It’s two things: Either they’re taking a test or they’re doing what the public school is doing in terms of regulations. So they’re having public school board meetings, and they’re having state board of accounts. That’s their accountability. Either they’re being bureaucratic, or they’re taking a test.

This is the only time of any kind of movement of any kind of anything I’ve ever seen where the people who provide the service don’t ask the consumers anything about what they want. I am shocked to death by this in my 20 years of doing this. Not once have I seen a public school system, some charter schools and frankly even some private schools saying, “Hey, what do my parents really want? How can I serve them better?” And if they really did that, if they spent some time saying, “What do our parents want?” They would find that parents want safer schools. They want consistent values and morals, and they want to have that conversation.

One of my good friends says that one of our challenges in our traditional public school system is that they can tell you not to behave a certain way, but they can’t tell you why. So parents want their children to know why they shouldn’t behave a certain way or why they should behave a certain way. Parents want values when you talk to them. They want safety. They want the ability to choose smaller classes. They want teachers that are responsive to them. These are all things that they want. And they want good academics, but what we’re learning is they don’t always describe that as a test score. And they don’t always necessarily know exactly what that means.

But what we do know from the data is when they are there choosing for three years, after three years, they do know what it means. They want good academics. My friend Pat Wolf has done some research where he shows in the first year, their question is, “Do we have a good school?” And in the third year, their question is, “Why didn’t we have a better growth rate in scores.” And that’s because you’re helping educate and empower parents.

I think one of the biggest insults we’ve ever done in this movement—and this is an insult by reformers—and that is reformers don’t really trust parents in my opinion, the majority of them. They really think they know better than parents. There’s a national organization whose founder just came out and partnered with Randi Weingarten to oppose vouchers, saying he really supports choices, but not vouchers. The irony, of course, is that he went to private school most likely, and he doesn’t trust parents.

Wagner: And EdChoice’s own research shows that when parents are given the choice, and they could go to any school that they want to go to if means and resources were no object, they overwhelmingly choose private schools. And so, I sense a lot of frustration from you.

Enlow: I don’t think parents just overwhelmingly choose private schools. I think what parents are telling us is that they want a mix of options. All of our surveys ask that question: If money were no object, what would you choose? And we ask that in every state in which we do a poll. And the variations are interesting, but not huge. A lot of parents want to go to traditional schools. A lot of parents want to go to private schools. A lot of parents want to go to charter schools. It roughly ends up being 40 percent public, 40 percent private, 10 or 12 percent charter and the rest homeschool. What’s really interesting is that parents want a much more diverse set of options than we’re giving them, and no one’s thinking about that.

Wagner: In this issue, it’s interesting. You’re part of the movement and have been for 20 years.

Enlow: Don’t remind me.

Wagner: You don’t look a day over 30. A lot of times, it can feel like we’re talking to each other, but the reality is—there was a recent Associated Press poll—that showed that most Americans still have very low if any awareness of school choice, which in a lot of ways could be seen as a positive. It’s a blank canvas that we’re still able to paint on and persuade with. So my last question: Is the debate and the fact that we are having this issue make a lot more headlines than probably in the last 20 years combined as a result of the election and the administration and having that bully pulpit…is that debate good for the issue and good for the movement just because it’s raising awareness? Or is the debate, as you described it to me a little while ago which is sometimes very polarizing, is that unhelpful when it comes to letting people know about the issue and that they should be empowered to choose?

Enlow: You said you sense frustration. I actually think this is where we’re most hopeful. We do have a lot of people who don’t know anything about this issue, so that tells me two things. 1. We’ve done a very poor job of educating people about what this issue is, which means we have a real opportunity here which is the hope. As we look at the ed choice effort, as we look at this movement, we should spend a lot more money and time and effort, talent and treasure, on helping people understand just what choice is and what their options are.

Helping them understand that when they actually pick up their home and choose another place, that’s actually two things. Helping them understand that when they send their kid to their grandmother’s house to live, they’re doing so for schooling. That when they’re lying to to get into another school district, that that’s choosing. That there’s a full black market of school choice, but we want a legal market of school choice, which is charter schools and private school choice. This is what we want. We want to help them understand that magnet schools are ostensibly the same thing as private school. It’s choice; it’s options. So I think we have a real opportunity here.

You did ask about the administration and about whether the debate has been valuable. I think as a movement, we have been petulant teenagers in some ways. Thinking that people are listening to us more than they really are. So I think we need to be a little bit more humble about this conversation and realize that people don’t understand choice, and we have not done a great job explaining it. And that when people are explaining it and they’re coming out against us, that we don’t necessarily have the best way to answer that or best way to solve that. Certainly, it doesn’t mean that I should be the one to be out front.

We should be looking at how we put parents out front and how we put educators out front. Ultimately, this is about families and educators can educate our children to the betterment of our society. As I’ve always said, I don’t care if that’s in a traditional school, charter school, private school—I don’t care if it’s done on the moon—I just care that it gets done. So I think, as a movement, we need to be more humble and not think we know everything about everything and start really listening to the people who are in schools and who are educators and who are parents and serve them better, then listen to what the public at-large want in this issue.

I think over time this discussion about partisanship at the administration level, I think that’ll die down. I’ve seen … It’s fairly funny. I guess I’ve been there and done that so many times now. I’ve seen the debate that came up when Clinton was president. I’ve seen the debate that came up when George [W.] Bush was president. And I’ve seen the debate that came up in many states during many gubernatorial levels. These debates have been around for a long time. I think it’s incumbent upon us to learn that we need to be more humble and share our vision a little bit better.

Wagner: EdChoice has been around for last 20 years, so no reason to expect that it wouldn’t be around for the next 20. And that extends far beyond this administration and to many future administrations.

Enlow: That’s right. And another thing I’d say about is EdChoice has been very successful at getting new programs onboard and getting new organizations and new coalitions built. There’s been a ton of success in this movement. We’ve partnered with charter schools. There’s a lot of growth and a lot of dynamism. I think right now is the time we need to step back, though, and start saying, “How are we going to share this message with the world.”

Wagner: I’m hearing a lot of hope and change from you, Robert.

Enlow: There’s a lot of hope and change here believe it or not. I’m like my hope and change as long as I can keep my change in my pocket.

Wagner: Wow, you just took Obama to the next level. I love it.

Enlow: [laughs] I had to, I’m sorry.

Wagner: Robert, thank you so much for joining us today. Is there anything you’d like to add to this conversation about fed reform or anything else?

Enlow: Yes. I think if anyone’s out there and they’re part of this movement, I think what I would encourage them to start thinking about is how do we come together to get this done? How do we start working better? How do we stop playing ego-driven games? How do we stop thinking we have all the right answers? And how do we start trusting parents most? I’m going to end with Milton. He used to argue with some of his friends, and they would say, “Well, parents don’t know how to choose.” And he said, let me see if I can get this quote right, he said, “There are some who believe that parents don’t know how to choose.” He said, “This I believe is a gratuitous insult. History has shown us that parents and particularly low-income parents have chosen wisely and disinterestedly for their children.” I think there’s a presumption that some families don’t have that capability, and I think we have a lot more to learn, that families do. And as a movement, I would want to encourage anyone who’s listening to really put your faith into families, give them the power and the tools, and if you really believe they don’t understand, then do what I used to do. Become a social worker and train them.

Wagner: All right, thank you so much, Robert, for joining us today. We’ll look forward to hearing from you in the future on any number of issues that come up. Thank you for listening to this episode of EdChoice Chats, and be well.

Enlow: Be well!