Ep. 117 – EdChoice’s 2018 Annual Review

June 4, 2019

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, our President and CEO discusses how—in an era where people say school choice is ‘not going to go forward’—the demand for our training programs and research has increased. He talks about how the idea of ‘universal’ school choice continues to increase, roadblocks in the movement, and more. For even more details on school choice strides in 2018, click here.

Brian McGrath: Hi, my name is Brian McGrath. I’m the vice president of external relations here at EdChoice. I’m sitting here with Robert Enlow, our president and CEO. And we’re going to talk a little bit today about what happened in 2018 at EdChoice and through the school choice movement as a whole and also look ahead into 2019 and see what is on the horizon for both EdChoice and the movement.

So, let’s get right to it, Robert. Robert, you’ve been president and CEO for the last 10 years at EdChoice. You’ve been with this organization when it used to be known as the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation since 1996. You’ve seen it all. You’ve been through the highs of school choice, you’ve been through the lows and the disappointments of school choice. You know as much about this issue as anybody. What happened in 2018 either with the organization or with the movement that you thought was particularly impactful?

Robert Enlow: Thanks, Brian. And I want to make sure we thank all of our donors because none of the things that we could ever do, would happen without them.

Brian McGrath: Absolutely.

Robert Enlow: And you’re right, I guess to put a modern colloquial idea on it, I’ve been there, done that. And we’ve been in this movement for a long time, but 2018 was unique and unique in a couple of ways. In an environment when everyone says, “Oh, it’s really toxic for school choice. Oh, it’s not going to go forward. It’s not going to get going to the next level.” It actually did go to the next level and I think EdChoice was at the forefront of that. Let’s take a look at some of the things we did.

With our research, so we have a ton of research we put out. The donors see it all the time, but I don’t know if they know that our research was used by the United States Department of Education on all five of their publications related to choice this year.

They called us every time and they said, “We need your information, we want your data.” Or that most of the states that pass school choice used our fiscal research for their bills so that we could show them that School choice actually saved their state money. So, really proud of our research.

I’m super proud of our training and outreach as well. So, in the time when everyone again says it wasn’t a positive thing—school choice is not going in the right direction—we had more requests than ever for our training and not just requests from people who are the normal supporters of school choice, but from a very diverse group of people. So, we’ve trained people at the 100 Black Men of America, at the United Negro College Fund, at the Urban League of Indiana and other states.

So, our trainings were off the charts this year. Over 50,000 people experienced some of our training. We trained over 1,000 state legislators in the last few years. And when they get trained by us, they say they’re better equipped. They say they’re way better understanding of the issue, way better equipped to promote the issue.

And then lastly, I think what’s really interesting is like we’ve targeted states and we’ve gone in deep, right? Instead of just going a mile wide, we’re going a mile deep. And one of the things that’s happening as a result of that is a place like Arizona. Fully 21 percent of the kids in Arizona are attending schools that they weren’t assigned. Whether that’s a charter school, a homeschool, a private school, a tax credit scholarship program, school, whatever the case. In Indiana, that’s going from 5 percent to 20 percent in the last eight years. So, it’s tremendous growth in families who are accessing choice more than ever.

Brian McGrath: And you mentioned a lot of the services we do. We do a lot of training, we do a lot of research, we do policy support. As I mentioned, you’ve been here a long time. How’s the organization changed? Where’s been the biggest growth area of our program work over the last couple of years? And you can, particularly in 2018, but even over the last four or five years, let’s say, where have you seen the organization grow the most?

Robert Enlow: So, I think where we’re growing the most right now is just the demand for our training services. It’s impossible to keep up with it, right? We keep adding people, we keep growing. That’s because states across the country are saying, “We’d love to add parent training.” We added that. “We’d love to have legislator training.” We added that on a different format. “We’d love to do training of private school leaders.” We’re adding that, right?

So, all of these areas we’re adding to help people understand and advocate for the issue of School choice. So, our training programs are doing really, really well.

Brian McGrath: So, EdChoice and our predecessor organization, the Friedman Foundation, has always talked about universal school choice. Can you first explain what that means in both sort of the original intent of Milton and Rose Friedman, but also now how that translates to today. And then talk a little bit about what’s the biggest impediment to that. What can EdChoice as an organization do to help us get there? What do we have to overcome? What can all of our partner organizations and supporters do to make that real?

Robert Enlow: You know, when you look at EdChoice or school choice or how people choose education in America, right now, they are really a small number of ways to do it, right?
So, you can move, right? If you have the money to move. You can buy private education. You can get your kid into a lottery for a charter school, that’s always a good hope, right? You could lie about your address or a lot of people who lie about your address, or you know someone. So, you pick up the phone and you make a call and say, “Hey, can you get me into this school?”

And that’s the way American education has gone for a long, long time. What universal education is and universal school choice is, is every dollar that is set aside for a kid follows that kid to whatever school setting works best for them. Whether that is a public school, private school, charter school, online school, at home, or a thousand different ways we haven’t thought of. I think that’s one of the interesting things that’s happening right now.

Universal school choice is beginning to develop micro-schooling. So, people like doing co-ops and getting together with themselves and four or five families and saying, “We’re going to educate just our neighborhood.” Right? It’s just a really cool setting that’s coming. So, universal choice in Milton’s concept was that every dollar follows every kids, or at least a portion of every dollar follows every kids. And we’re getting there. Right?

And what’s interesting is we’re getting, and not only are we getting there, the support for that idea is growing, right? So, for the first time in the last 10 years, the idea of universal choice is almost at 70 percent. It’s increasing its public support. Other forms of choice are decreasing, but ours, the idea of universal choice, is increasing. So, I think what we’re finally getting to in America is this idea that customization and personalization is going to be the standard and it’s not going to be this sort of homogenous public schooling that we’re used to.

Brian McGrath: Right. So, what’s getting in the way of that now? I mean, I think you’re right. I’ve seen a lot of growth in my 20 odd years in this movement as well. But what’s still, what’s the roadblock? What’s the biggest impediment?

Robert Enlow: Yeah, no, so that’s a great question. The biggest impediment to school choice? There are so many of them in some way. One of them is just helping people understand who have gone through the system, that it’s just not the same as it was. Right? It’s not the same as it was when I went to school. Right. And I’m, I’m an old guy now, so I went to school in the ‘70s, right. Even if people went to school in the ‘50s and ‘60s—look, education is just different. It’s delivered different. The needs are different. The curriculum is different. You know, kids like my son learn from YouTube far more than they learn in the classroom half the time, as I’m sure, you know.

Brian McGrath: Yep. I’ve seen that too.

Robert Enlow: So, I think it’s helping people understand that they don’t need to be afraid if it’s not their district run school or if it’s a traditional school they’re assigned to. That there’s actually positives to being, having choice. And so, I think one impediment is helping people understand that this idea of School choice is not something to be afraid of. And I think that’s happening more and more.

Two, obviously you have the people who were hired and running the system. The administrators are there and that’s the way life is, right? When you look at America, one of our studies that’s gotten all sorts of play this last year and the last few years, has been the one that showed that since 1950 there were a hundred percent increase in the number of students in America, but a 709 percent increase in number of administrators.

So, that tells me we have a—to use a Milton term—we have a calcified and ossified system that is, we’ve got to break through. And so, look—and our donors know this and our people who support us know this. And we know that they are up against this idea of public education and saying public education, it’s publicly funded government run schools or state and district run schools and they’re up against the sort of cultural identification with that history.

And so, I think we’re really changing that and I think that is already changing. And that’s happening because of parents like yourselves and myself and all of the people we’ve talked to. They’re saying it’s time to personalize it. So, it really is getting people to break into a new way of thinking, the positives of a new way of thinking where families can get in where they fit in.

Brian McGrath: Yeah. And I’ve always thought, you know, Milton and Rose had the right idea when they started their legacy organization, which was they wanted to educate the public about school choice. They weren’t out there to necessarily do political work or even always drive the policies. They wanted the public to understand the benefits of school choice. I remember that very clearly from the beginning.

Robert Enlow: Yeah, for them it wasn’t passing laws necessarily. Although we’ve been very successful in seeing laws passed for school choice. Like last year, Puerto Rico became, you know, non-territory, non-state to pass S=school choice. Huge advancement. And we had a huge part in that in Puerto Rico.

They turned to our data and they turned to our policy support a lot. But that wasn’t ultimately Milton and Rose’s goal. It was to actually educate the public and that’s because, you know… I’ll never forget my favorite Milton quote, we talked about this all the time.

Brian McGrath: Yeah.

Robert Enlow: “Only a crisis, actual or perceived produces real change.” And then people don’t realize what the next part of that is and that goes something like this: “The change that occurs depends on the ideas that are lying around at the time.” And he said that’s our basic function to produce alternatives and ideas so that they’re lying around at the time of crisis. And that’s what we’ve got right now. You know, in some ways in our country we have a time of crisis about how we’re going to deal with education as we have greater achievement gaps, as people who are poor aren’t advancing as much as they could, as fast as they should, or as much as they could.

Or when you look at it, look, white children who are in the fourth grade and eighth grade, less than 50 percent of them read on grade level.

Brian McGrath: Right.

Robert Enlow: This is a real problem in our country, right? So, you know, we have this growing gap and I think we’re at a time where universal choice is the right way to go. And we’re seeing that. I think that’s the most exciting thing for going forward. We’re seeing more and more support for the idea of universal choice. It’s no longer to say, “Oh, let’s do a little limited choice program. Let’s have it for these kids or those kids or kids with, you know, other kind of ideas.” It’s just basically it’s for all types of kids now. Because that’s what happens in public schools and that’s what happens in charter schools.

We don’t means test just charter schools. We don’t means test just public schools, except in the house price.

Brian McGrath: Right. Right.

Robert Enlow: So, I think going forward, this universal choice is really getting much more steam and much more bipartisan support.

Brian McGrath: One or the other roadblocks or impediments that has been there forever, but it seems like more and more is the legal side. And we actually launched a new center to try to play a role in winning the legal battles around School choice. Why don’t you talk about L-DEC a little bit?

Robert Enlow: Yeah. Our nickname is L-DEC, it’s the Legal Defense and Education Center. And in partnership with our groups around the country, we formed this center because we needed to do a lot more legal education of policymakers, help them understand that the decisions they’re making, have legal ramifications. Two, we wanted to make sure that we were there to provide amicus briefs and support. So, our amicus brief was quoted and used in the United States Supreme Court with Janice.

And the one was very clear that our amicus brief in the Puerto Rico case was read by the Justices. It’s very clear and so we needed to provide sort of legal support and legal advice and legal assistance and legal education and it’s growing. We now have a legal review of every single school choice bill that’s out there. It’s … We’re also involved in the Montana case, which is about religious freedom and school choice.

And so, we are, in less than a year, really growing on the scene of this, our legal defense center and I can only see it growing more.

Brian McGrath: Yeah. Great. Well, one more thing to wrap up is, you know, it’s bull prediction time. What do you see happening? We’re a couple months into 2019 already. A lot of legislatures are wrapping up. There’s some movement policy-wise, but what do you see happening in the rest of this year? Maybe beginning of next that people who are interested in this should be watching out for?

Robert Enlow: The Colts are going to win the Super Bowl.

Brian McGrath: No.

Robert Enlow: No, no, no. They won’t. What I think is going to happen—actually, before the Colts probably win the Superbowl—is I think you’re going to get to see a universal choice state. I mean, we saw that in Nevada a few years ago. It’s not funded. You’re going to see it because our work, and again, thanks to our donors for this, but our work to build local coalitions, it has been just stronger than ever. So, Nevada had no local coalition and we’ve come alongside and build it called the Nevada Action for School Choice Options. Tremendous organization. The same thing in South Carolina.

So, I think what you’re going to see is you’re going to see a state fall to universal choice, sooner rather than later. Also, I think you’re going to see the idea of school choice being re-imagined, right? It’s really this idea of personalization is going to link up with this idea of choice and it’s really going to be the way forward is going to be about why would we ever talk about not giving kids what works best for them?

Why would we ever say that you can’t customize regardless of what setting you’re in? And I think that’s that shift away from it’s got to be private school choice or charter school choice or public school choice. And basically, to the point where we’re saying, “Look, it’s about creating a system that works for kids regardless what that is and whether that’s even a system outside of our traditional idea of school choice.” Whether that’s building up an entirely new system or supporting home schooling.

I think you’re just going to see a lot more togetherness on this idea of personalization.

Brian McGrath: I know this other Friedman quote that you and I have talked about many times is you know, “At some point the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

Robert Enlow: That’s right.

Brian McGrath: And it seems like we’re kind of heading that direction, so—

Robert Enlow: That’s right.

Brian McGrath: Well, thanks for sharing all those thoughts with us, Robert. On behalf of Robert and the entire EdChoice team, thank you to all of our supporters for letting us do the work we do. And please check out edchoice.org if you want to find out more about our programs or how you can continue to help us. Thanks.