Ep 12: Race, Segregation and School Choice with Robert Enlow

August 29, 2017

In our latest podcast, our Vice President of Communications Jennifer Wagner joins EdChoice President and CEO Robert Enlow in a frank dialogue about issues of race and segregation in K–12 education, how school choice fits into the puzzle and whether your personal politics should matter more than your personal philosophies. Listen now by hitting the play button below.

Jennifer Wagner: Hello and welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats. Today we will be tackling a somewhat tough issue. I’m your host Jennifer Wagner, our VP of Communications here at EdChoice. I’m joined by our President and CEO Robert Enlow for a frank conversation about race and segregation in America and in K–12 education. Robert, thank you for joining us today.

Robert Enlow: Glad to be here.

Jennifer Wagner: Well, let’s just dive right in. There’s a lot going on right now in our society, in our nation. A lot of people are talking about the issue of race and segregation, so I want to start out by asking you: Is this the worst it’s ever been, historically? And how do you see things unfolding right now?

Robert Enlow: Well that’s a great question. Let me first start by saying I’m lucky. Right? I got born into a certain family, born a certain color, able to access certain educational options. So in many, many ways, I have no understanding of how difficult it is. And I think we need to recognize that as a society. We often talk about these things, but really have no understanding. So I want to preface any comments I make with that kind of clarity, that I’m coming at it from a perspective that doesn’t have the same experiences as many people who have been oppressed.

That said, in my opinion, is it worse than it’s ever been? It’s pretty doggone bad right now. I can remember some angst when I was growing up in the early ‘80s when Reagan was coming to power. I remember a lot of folks—at that point I was on the left side of the aisle—saying, “This is the worst thing ever.” There was lots of problems going on in society. I vaguely remember some of the income issues during Carter’s time, but not really.

So frankly to be honest with you, I think this is a much more heightened time than it’s ever been. That’s unfortunate and there are lots of reasons for it.

Jennifer Wagner: Well let’s talk specifically about the issue of educational choice, which has been in the news recently. There have been some heated debates about race and segregation and integration in our K–12 system. There have been some accusations that vouchers or other educational choice programs are, I think … What? “Kissing cousins of racism and segregation.” Talk a little bit about the actual facts when it comes to K–12 education in this time when we are 60-plus years after Brown v. Board was supposed to fix all this.

Robert Enlow: Well, so the irony of this is that ed choice is probably one of the only things out there that is trying to bridge this gap between races—because it understands the nature of how we need to make sure that all children are educated to their highest potential regardless of their income or regardless of their color or regardless of where they live. So, this connection of this discussion of race with educational choice is really, really tragic.

And I think it’s being perpetrated by some folks in the teachers’ unions who have an axe to grind, who actually want to make political points, as opposed to have a real honest conversation about this. There’s a lot of other issues about race and social justice that we should be talking about, but educational choice is actually one of the things helping to make things better.

We have a situation where we have majority-minority districts on either side of the income gap, and this is just growing and growing and growing. So we have a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots.

You know, Dr. Friedman’s original concept of choice was that we would change the stratification of society by allowing families the freedom to choose. We literally have made home prices in this country a de-facto segregation now. That’s unacceptable, and EdChoice seeks to change that.

We know from the data as well that when you’re having children in ed choice programs or in voucher programs or tax-credit scholarship programs or ESA (education savings account) programs, they are literally making a positive impact. They’re becoming more integrated. In fact, the studies are clear on this. If you’re in a school choice program, you are actually integrating schools in a better way than you’ve ever integrated them before.

So, while there are many issues we should be dealing with with race and education, educational choice is one of the ones that we should be holding up as a thing that can help people.

Jennifer Wagner: Do you think that’s why in a lot of the polling that we’ve seen, you have a high level of support for school choice and school choice programs specifically from African American communities?

Robert Enlow: Yeah. Let’s be very clear about this. If you look at the latest EdNext polling I was looking at the other day, the 2017 poll on vouchers and charters and tax credits, all of it, right?—the support for African Americans and Hispanics is there. The people who support it the least are white educated people.

Now why is that? That’s because they’re able to move to a district and get what they want. That’s their self-interest, and I don’t begrudge anyone their self-interest. But we have created a system in which people can only get their self-interest fulfilled if they have money to do so. That’s where ed choice comes and tries to upend that nature of power, and we really have seen some changes because of that.

We know that in places like (Santa Ana), where you have a good, high-quality charter school, that you end up creating a much more diverse local area where people are moving back into that area. This is a positive thing. We’ve seen this here in Indianapolis too with the Oaks Academy, with Herron Charter School. You have a much more vibrant environment of mixing of cultures and races when you have high-quality education. So, we have got to break free from this concept that your house price determines the quality of your school.

Jennifer Wagner: I couldn’t agree more. My kids are both in private school, and it’s far more diverse in their classrooms than it was in the public magnet school that we left. I do actually want to take the conversation in that direction because you hear a lot these days from educators and from parents about how they are supposed to deal with this issue as they teach our young minds, as they raise their own kids or grandkids, and I’m just curious. Robert, you just sent your last son off to college. As a parent how have you and how would you recommend approaching the issue of race and segregation in our society in these times?

Robert Enlow: So as a parent who sent two kids off to college in the last three years, the answer is to keep talking with your kids about it. My children and I had open conversations about it, and it’s ironic. They don’t even consider the discussion in the way that we do. They know society should be integrated. They know and understand that schools should be mixes and places where people are choosing to go. They want to be in a diverse society and diverse schools. So having that conversation with your children—and one went to a private school and one went to a charter school—both of those environments created a more tolerant child and a child more interested in diversity.

So I think the key thing that we parents can do is continue to have an honest dialogue. By the way, that shouldn’t just be an echo chamber dialogue. We should be having conversations with people who don’t agree with us. We should be finding people who are on the other side of issues that we can have open and honest conversations with that become heated, but not personal. I think that’s something that’s really important to do. And by the way, as a parent of two high-school and now college-educated boys, you can have between your children and you, too.

Jennifer Wagner: I bet those are some fun conversations to have. That was actually the easier of my two questions about how we communicate on this issue. The tougher one is actually the one that addresses what’s happening within the school choice movement right now. I think we’ve seen, probably since last November’s elections, some fracturing. You wrote recently about it over on Rick Hess’s blog. Among those in our movement who maybe weren’t as committed to the idea of school choice … In the face of those difficult conversations, in the face of a political climate right now that, regardless of what side you’re on, is difficult, how do we as a movement stay steady and get through these turbulent times, while tackling this and other issues?

Robert Enlow: If I knew the answer to that I’d have a million dollars, but I do want to say a couple of things:

One: We have to recognize the challenge that the last election has presented to us as a society. It’s not been an easy transition, and it’s not been an easy dialogue. And it’s not going to continue to be an easy dialogue based on what we see every day. So, I think we have to be honest and open with where that is.

That said, look, the fact that President Obama supported charter schools but not a lot of other things that I supported doesn’t mean I hated what he supported or hated him or hated the politics from him. I loved the way he was supporting charter schools. I didn’t agree with everything.

President Bush: Ironically, I didn’t agree with No Child Left Behind. I think one of the conversations we have to have is we have to start discussing how we remove politics.

Two: Let me take a step back. Of course, being aware of political situations and politics is critically important, and anyone who’s not is actually not living in the real world. That said, our movement has become dependent it seems on which party is in power. That is unacceptable to what we are trying to achieve.

For example, I support much of the things related to the changes needed for Ferguson and the results of that. How do have a conversation about the oppression caused by fees and the oppression caused by charges to people who are poor, extra charges, or all sorts of takings in civil asset forfeiture? How do we have that conversation, right, and say that government is bad on that end, but we’re okay with the government running our kids in the front end?

Now, ironically those two things are diametrically and politically opposed. Right? So the Fergusons would be the one supported by the left, and the vouchers would be supported by the one on the right—supposedly. Until we get to, as a movement, to the fact that it doesn’t matter which party you support, it matters which philosophy you have, we’re not going to get past this problem.

Right now, the philosophy of many of my friends in the school choice movement is politics matter more than children. I’m going to be blunt with that. They think it’s more important to worry about the political person in power rather than the philosophy that we should be supporting. And, yes, the person in current power right now has a lot of issues that we should all be very concerned about. I’m not hesitating saying that, but there’s also some fact he supports school choice.

What am I going to say about that? Am I’m going to say, “Hey, it’s terrible that he supports school choice because it’s him. But it was great when Obama supported charter schools because it’s him?” That doesn’t seem to me to be the way we should be looking at this movement. I’ve been saying this a lot recently: We should be focusing on what we want to achieve, not where we live.

We should be focusing on: How do we get to a system that serves all kids? How do we get to a society that gets stronger? How do we get to children that are successful regardless of who’s in political power?

I’ve always seen myself … There’s this theologian named Jacques Ellul who wrote something called Anarchy and Christianity, and he basically argued that one of the preeminent things we should be doing is standing on the hill and complaining about everyone. I think there’s something to that in the school choice movement that we’ve forgotten. We’ve made it all about politics and forgotten we’re standing up for some social justice. We’re standing up for some civil right here, regardless of whether you’re Milton Friedman, right, or Harold Ford, left, where there is a social justice civil rights argument to be made in how we’re treating children in education and how we’re treating adults through our life.

Jennifer Wagner: Well obviously I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t agree with you. I guess my last question though is, obviously … You said earlier you were born into a family that was able to give you everything, as was I. We are both white, you can’t see us but we are, which makes us allies. It makes us advocates not just in the school choice movement, but generally in society. I will never know what it feels like to walk into a store and have someone assume I’m going to steal something because of the color of my skin. So what else can we do, if anything, to shine a light on the injustices, to shine a light on the inequities in our educational system, beyond just working in this movement?

Robert Enlow: That’s a great question. There was two things I’d say about those, one on a micro and one on the macro level. On the micro level, if you see injustice say something about it, don’t stop. I would ask people who listen to this podcast: How many times have you walked by a homeless person and not looked in their eyes?

Think about the kind of justice you’re giving and showing people every day in everything you do, and then we can have conversations about what it means to have educational freedom and economic liberty. So look at the micro level and just don’t not say something. When I’ve had friends, great friends who happen to be of color, we walk into a restaurant and all of a sudden it closed. Trust me, I got up in the guy’s face as quick as I could because that’s unacceptable.

On the macro level, we should be trying to have policies that do two things. We really were given by Dr. King an idea of what things should be. The content of character should be more important than the color of your skin. We have an idea where things should be. We should not forget that we should be thinking about in that in all of our policies, while understanding that we can’t be ignorant of where we are.

One of the things that I think is happening here is we’re spending all of our time in the … Let me rephrase that. We’re spending too much of our time, because of the current environment, in how things are. And we probably need to be there, but we should not forget where we should be going policy-wise. What does a just society look like? What does an educationally free and economically vibrant society look like? Does it look like what we have now? In education, let’s take perfect example, does it look like a bunch of state-run schools that are segregated? Not to me.

Jennifer Wagner: So can we truly be color blind?

Robert Enlow: Probably not as much as I’d like. I think the goal is to keep striving there. Maybe I’m the relentless optimist. I think if we keep struggling, and we keep fighting, and we keep pushing, we’re going to get closer and closer. And, yes, there are going to be times when things go bad like they are right now; but, yes, there are going to be times when they’re better.

You know? Maybe it’s when you’re over 50 you start seeing things a little bit differently, but I think things can get better and we should never not give up on what we’re shooting for. Ever. We should never not keep striving for what it should be. We should keep striving for that every single day; but we should also be aware of how things are bad.

One of the challenges Milton Friedman used to say all the time is we would make policy based on how bad things are now and forget about what we should be making policy on. What they ended up doing is then you do that and you’d have to come five years later and redo the policy that was bad in the first place. So there is a conversation to be had here about: How do we keep going forward to the next level of conversations about this? How do we keep putting our eyes on, ultimately, the prize of a “color-blind” society? Do I think we’ll get there? I’d like to hope so.

Jennifer Wagner: Well I hope so too. I think on that note I want to thank you, Robert, for joining us today for another edition of EdChoice Chats. Thank you for all the work that you do and for having all of us here committed to your hopeless optimism.

Robert Enlow: Well I appreciate that. I’d like to say thank you to all the families out there who are trying their darndest to get their kids in school. To get their … Trying their darndest to, in difficult situations, to making sure that their kids have the access that I have. That’s the only reason I’m in this game.

Jennifer Wagner: And we thank you for it. Thanks, everyone, for listening and have a great day.