Ep. 169: A Conversation with Rick Hess

March 31, 2020

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute joins EdChoice President and CEO Robert Enlow to discuss their involvement in the school choice movement over the past 20 years. They examine past messaging, re-framing the way we talk about school choice and more.

Brian McGrath: Hello, and welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Brian McGrath from EdChoice. I’m joined today by Robert Enlow, CEO and president of EdChoice. And we’re really happy to have a special guest with us today. Rick Hess from the American Enterprise Institute, and thank you guys for joining us.

Robert Enlow: Happy to be here.

Brian McGrath: These are two of the most experienced people in the school choice movement, I would say. They’ve seen all the good, they’ve seen a lot of the bad, they’ve spent countless hours thinking about this topic. What we’re going to do today is just talk a little bit about what we’ve learned over the last 20 or so years, and maybe some things that we should be celebrating in the school choice movement. Maybe some things that we could learn from and just take the conversation as free flowing as you guys are willing to have it. So, let’s just start with that. Rick, maybe I’ll ask you first, I mean, looking back over the last two decades of strictly school choice reform and the school choice movement, what kind of things can we hang our hats on and what kind of things maybe we got to rethink a little bit?

Rick Hess: Sure. I mean I think look, the biggest win is that 30 years ago if you weren’t happy with your local district schools, you were pretty much out of luck. And here we are 30 years downstream. We have states with statewide school choice programs. We have ESAs on the agenda. We have tuition tax scholarships, a bunch of places. We have charter schools in 48 states. So look, tons of options for families that want something better. Two big problems with this. One, I think this has been hampered because how we have tended to talk about school choice. A lot of choice advocates have attacked public education—have attacked teachers. I think this got them some short term sugar rushes. It could be tactically useful at times, but I think most people like their schools, they like teachers. And by drawing the lines that way, I think the choice community put a real ceiling on its opportunities.

And second, I think we’ve tended to talk about choice as something for people who don’t like the school they’re in, and we’re going to let them move to a different school, and that’s great. That works for some families. It’s really good to have, but I think a lot of families like their schools, but they want different choices as part of that school. And I think for most of the last 20-30 years, school choice hasn’t had much to say to those folks.

Robert Enlow: So, the messaging of school choice has been pretty awful, let’s just say, for a while, even if the basis of the idea is good, right? For the most part, right? What would be the best messaging going forward in your opinion? What’s the way to talk about this better?

Rick Hess: I think talking about what this does for families and kids, that there are families and kids who are terribly served by the schools they happen to be in. We don’t need to go to war with public education or school districts or teachers. There are schools that do a terrible job of educating those kids, and those families deserve an out. There’s also lots of schools that do pretty well by their communities or by families in general, but don’t do what those families need or want, or at least not all of it. And we ought to be for, in an age of giving families more flexibility of helping parents do what’s right for their kids, of making that easier for families and educators to do so.

Robert Enlow: So, even though I agree with all of that obviously, but in the reform movement, there’s become sort of a litmus test on how to talk and how to behave in this movement. Describe what that litmus test is and why it’s a bad thing to have.

Rick Hess: Yeah. So actually, I think there were kind of two litmus tests, one more recent and one that goes back about 20 years. The one that goes back 20 years or so was that we were going to go to war with education. And were you going to be on the side of the kids or were you going to go on the bad guy’s side? And what that stance did was it made reformers feel really good about themselves and got philanthropists to write big checks, but it said that all of the suburbanites and all this folks in small towns who like their schools were suddenly bad guys. They were selfish. They were evil, which put a huge ceiling on where you could go with No Child Left Behind, with Common Core, or certainly with school choice. More recently, I think especially in the charter community, a lot of our friends who are more progressive have decided that education is only a small piece of what needs to be fixed to fix America.

That it’s also very much about immigration, that it’s also very much about climate change, about inequality, about intersectionality. And some of our friends have pretty explicitly said that if you’re not with the program on these things, then you don’t have any place in a school reform movement as they see it. And I think that is just the self-sacrificial politics of subtraction. But that seems to be where they’re intent on taking it.

Robert Enlow: The conversation about subtraction is a very interesting one to me, particularly in the reform movement. I was saying earlier today when I read a piece about someone saying the charter school movement should divorce the private school choice movement. It made me think that, go back to the old language, we’re a ragtag army out there. And while we don’t want to go to war against public schools, my question back to you is do public schools want to go to war with us? They don’t want us around to have more options. They like the system as it is, and they like the structure the way it is. So, I guess two questions. So, if you know you can’t talk about an opponent in the terms of, “we want to go to war with them,” but you know they want you out of existence, how do you approach them? How can you approach them?

Rick Hess: No, it’s a great question. And look, like we just said, especially in the early years of choice, it may have been a good tactical trade off, easy to second guess these things were hard to know. Certainly, it was useful in some states and sometimes getting these programs started. Well look, at this point I would say you have a pretty substantial constituency in some places that benefits from choice programs.

In big cities, you have parents that will show up and fight for these. And when school districts try to go after these programs, these parents show up. And if a state is trying to declare war on parental options, then I think responding in kind makes sense. But it’s also the case that a lot of choice advocacy is about trying to expand the map of what’s in play. Giving folks in suburban communities and small towns more school options, more choices, even if that doesn’t mean moving one school to another.

And these are folks who really liked their schools, they bought their homes because of their schools. These schools are anchored to their communities. In those places, the going to war language, even if public schools are declaring it, is I think self-defeating. I think the better response is to say, “Look, what are these guys so scared of?” I mean, these are folks who are going to like the schools. So, the question becomes whether you can allow school boards or superintendents or legislators supportive of traditional districts to portray themselves as heavy handed caricatures rather than trying to put these words around them.

Robert Enlow: I think that that’s probably right, and we have not done a very good job. Look, I go back to the time, I mean, I’ve been doing this 25 years like you have. So, go back to the time of the naive, idealistic. We’re just here to try and give parents options. We want to bust a system that isn’t working for all families, and we never thought about the opposite side of that system. In the sense of we wanted families to have freedom to go wherever they wanted. We didn’t really care where they went, but as long as they could have the freedom to do it. It was a naive, idealistic idea to say that the monopoly was the problem. That’s still true. We have a monopoly in education, as far as I can tell. But we have, unlike other monopolies, people choosing that. So, how do you balance out what criminal justice reform has done versus what educational reform of school choice has done in terms of the inability to crack the nut the big bad system as it were?

Rick Hess: Yeah, I mean there’s a couple going on. One, schooling is both a monopoly enterprise in some sense, but also a natural monopoly. You go out to rural communities, it’s a natural monopoly. Trying to figure out how you would stand up multiple schools just to have multiple schools starts to get pretty goofy. On the other hand, there’s no earthly reason why schooling in a place like New York City or Los Angeles needs to be operated as a monopoly. The market conditions just don’t make sense. So, one, we’ve tended to lump all this together in ways that don’t help.

Robert Enlow: Let’s go to the other point I want to make real quick about… So, the coalitions that exist for ed reform… So, they used to be this coalition of right, left, center, and it was really positive. That clearly is fracturing. And it’s interesting to see the coalitions as they’re beginning to reform around these issues. So, tell me in your opinion what the coalitions were that are fracturing and a little bit of why, and then sort of what are the new coalitions you see and why are they working together well?

Rick Hess: Yeah. So, this is actually a criminal justice parallel, too. So, it’s interesting. Criminal justice reform didn’t move anywhere in the ’90s or early 2000s. Partly because the conversation was about law and order, and you did have a central coalition around law and order. You had Democrats who wanted to kind of the Bill Clinton stance on the legislation of that era, where you were trying to deal with concerns about crime that was out of control. And you had Republicans running on law and order. And then as those problems got solved, as we saw crime rates coming down, as we saw places that New York City cleaned up, everybody’s focus shifted.

And what happened is the parties started to work. The center of gravity in the parties was more on the populous fringe of people who are worried about these folks in the system being treated unfairly or too harshly. So, you’ve got Rand Paul working with the Al Sharptons, and suddenly the old middle became irrelevant and you saw what had been the polls start to become a new middle. Now it doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about the old middle versus the new middle. What happened was the world changed, and so it wasn’t like you reformed the middle. It was on a new world. There was new room to be plowed in the middle.

So, we think about education. In the ’90s, early 2000s—look, you had Bill Clinton and Barack Obama running to the middle. They were, “Hey, we’re not just tax and spend liberals. We believe in investment and opportunity and responsibility, and education’s a part of that, and charter schooling in particular is a part of that.” And on the right you had George W. Bush talking about compassionate conservativism, that in order to respond to concerns that Republicans were talking the talk but not walking the walk on opportunity. If you’re going to talk about equality of opportunity and not result, you actually got to do something to give every child an opportunity.

So, there was a natural center there. It was kind of the Harvard, Yale elites. There were lots of technocrats. You did it with a big emphasis on testing and accountability and choice, particularly charter schooling, which felt centrist and test-based, was part of that. That coalition has come apart. The left is now no worried about proving that it can be centrist. The right is a whole lot more concerned about playing to the populous base and to concerns about signaling to soccer moms that it’s compassionate.

So, that old middle has atrophied. And what you see on the left is this kind of Diane Ravitch resistance attack on school choice, attack on testing, support for teacher unions and more spending. On the right, you don’t see a lot of interest in education per se. You do see a lot of interest in beating up on elites, and self-dealing, and kind of the privilege coasts. And so the question becomes, out of that changing world, what does that look like for education? And in particularly for folks who are passionate about school choice, where are the opportunities to think differently about where’s the new middle on something like a choice conversation?

Robert Enlow: I think that’s right. And I think it’s in the new as we’re talking about in some ways. So, I think back to 2011 when Indiana passed all of its a massive amount of reforms. I mean we did not only charter expansion but the voucher program, but also teacher tenure reform, collective bargaining reform, testing reform, teacher evaluation reform, all these other reforms. And as that coalition has broken apart, there’s really only two things left out of all that. And that’s charters and choice. Charters and private school choice. The testing has gone away, the ADF exists, but it’s really toothless now. Teacher evaluation lead to results is all gone. And so collective bargaining still exists, but that’s sort of not really cared about as much anymore. So, all the things that were the darling of the sort of centrist coalition of the old middle has really gone in Indiana. And it’s happening around the country as well.

Rick Hess: You’re absolutely right. And so you think about it, you think about what are the words you think about when you think about kind of where America is at today? There’s this distrust. There’s frustration. There’s a sense of individualism—in the sense that people are frustrated with elites and institutions that they feel like these things are pushing upon them. And so you get a lot of support for people’s right to X, on the right that’s taking the form of right to jobs. Let’s go to war on trade. The Republicans in Washington are defending people’s right to social security, to Medicare. You don’t see any of this talk about sacrificed or balanced budgeting or balancing budgets. On the left—

Robert Enlow: Yeah, we definitely don’t see that.

Rick Hess: … You see free college. You see Medicare for all. So, choice is actually very much this idea of people are entitled to government provision of which they can make choices is very much actually of the moment on the left and the right. Particularly think about it on the left, and you’ve made this point. That when you go into the urban core and you see distrust of a variety of institutions—distrust of police, distrust of criminal justice—why would we expect that these folks are going to have a high degree of confidence in local school districts? There’s a sense that people ought to have the right to make these decisions.

And on the right, certainly you see the same distrust of these elites and anti-religious bigotry that is seen as pervasive in some school in many school districts. But on both sides, you also see a lack of appetite for some of the compromises that have historically been made. Conservatives on the right are actually very skeptical of testing right now. So, charter schooling’s less appealing. Folks in rural communities and small towns don’t necessarily want school choice.

They feel like their communities are under attack. So, is it possible to talk about giving them choices without attacking their schools or attacking their communities? And it seems to me the interesting thing here is choice advocates keep trying to use rhetoric that I’m not even sure it was really good 10 years ago, and that seems really poorly to the world we’re in. But they keep using this rhetoric as if, if they say it louder and harder, it’s somehow going to pop the door.

Robert Enlow: That people will understand the injustice of the system and rally behind them, and in fact, they can’t get 12 people to rally behind them half the time, which is one of the biggest challenges. Even in the urban areas when you see Red for Ed, they can get thousands and thousands, and the choice movement can barely get that. Now, that’s not always true, but the large part, we haven’t appealed in any way to people’s base self-instinct. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the self-interest is not there. And so this is this conversation Brian and I have about personalization versus standardization, all the time.

If we talk about this issue as, “How do individuals and families get what they need out of the system, regardless of whether that’s provided traditionally or not?” It’s about, “How do I personalize the best environment for my child?” And that could be in a traditional public school all the time. Got no problem with that. But it could be in a situation where I’m in a public school for one part of a day and a micro school for another part of the day. There’s all sorts of opportunities we haven’t thought about when we think about the unbundling of the conversation.

Rick Hess: Well, in fact it’s even worse. And just on that point, it’s even worse than that. We’re not only not appealing to folks’ enlightened self-interest. “Hey, this is good for you, good for you.” Choice community has been in the habit of saying, “Well, you should be for this even if it’s bad for your community, even if it’s bad for your schools, because we think it’s the right thing to do.”

Robert Enlow: So, this is exactly the point of why Friedman Foundation, now EdChoice, has been doggedly universal choice for the whole time because our argument is we’re basically saying to people in suburbia and who are middle-income and higher, “You go ahead and just take another one for the team. You go ahead. Don’t worry about your kids, but just make sure that every of these kids…” We understand we need access. It’s super important, but we’re asking more and more Republicans who are not getting votes by any of the people that the programs are benefiting, to come out and continue to support it. It’s a real problem loser.

You can’t keep asking people to support something that their constituents are getting no benefit from. And then not have an honest conversation about the representatives in the urban areas who absolutely are opposing everything that the folks on the center left or in the charter school folks are saying we support. It’s shocking. So, the folks in the charter community and many of our friends come out and say “Oh, Republicans are all bad.” And yet, they’re the ones who are in most states are voting for charter schools, and now it’s not hard to understand why many Republicans are saying, “Hey, you know what? I’m OK. I’m OK with letting charter schools take a little bit of a ribbing right now.”

Rick Hess: And frankly, it’s weird. You actually have had the same problem on the left… Massachusetts had this charter referendum that went down about five, six… It was supposed to be a slam dunk. And what happened was all of these hugely guilty, nice progressives in the Newton, Massachusetts, of the world, wound up voting against lifting the charter school cap because they were worried it was going to disrupt their schools, and they got attacked as insensitive and selfish and racist for it, instead of the charter folks having ever asked themselves, “How do we convince these folks that they can do this but be confident it’s not going to undermine schools that they paid a boatload of money because they believe in it?”

Robert Enlow: I think that’s exactly right. Now, some of this, before we go, we got to talk about two other things. One, and let’s go here first. So, you talked about Clinton, you talked about Bush, and you talked about Obama. So, what’s different between those guys and the current president in the office in terms of their view towards choice and what’s going on with this administration, and how’s the reform movement sort of handling it?

Rick Hess: Yeah. I mean, the reform movement has lost its mind over Trump. And I mean, I think Trump’s a terrible human being. So, I can certainly sympathize with losing your mind over him, but it’s weird. I mean, it’s weird that you’ve seen the charter community, for instance, get so apoplectic about the president who’s probably most explicitly endorsed our agenda of anybody in memory. But at the same time, I mean, I find Trump’s stance on choice both puzzling and hugely insincere.

There’s no obvious reason that he understands school choice other than he sent his kids to really expensive private schools. It doesn’t really speak to the folks that I tend to think of as the Trump constituency. Betsy DeVos is somebody who is sincere and passionate about it. But Trump was obviously for school choice before nominating a DeVos to be Secretary of Ed. So, honestly for me, one of the really puzzling moments about this time is why Trump himself seems to go out of his way to be such an advocate of school choice and is so critical when he mentioned “government schools.” The whole thing doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I don’t know. Do you have any clues what’s going on?

Robert Enlow: No, not really. I mean, I think I would mirror most of what you said about the current administration. We’re fond, at EdChoice, of saying the thing about school choice, whether it’s charter schools or private school of choice, it’s been around before President Trump. It will around after President Trump. It’s been around long before. It goes way back. And we were talking about some of our founding fathers talked about private school choice. I mean, you had Thomas Jefferson offering a low-income voucher basically. Thomas Paine doing the same.

So, this history of our presidents and founding fathers, it’s been around for a long time. Now, I know that this administration is more publicly supportive than ever before, but there really is that disconnect between the sort of reform community and the current administration. Some of that, let’s throw the last question out, could be traced to philanthropy. Let’s talk about the role of philanthropy. You did something very interesting where you went and looked at, with Jay Greene, of all the sort of organizations that are ed reformers, and their philanthropic support, and then their political makeup, and their political giving. So, you think that has something to do with it?

Rick Hess: Sure. Yeah. Jay and I did this about last spring—spring 2019. We looked at the major school reform organizations getting funded by the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. And we found out that the vast majority of giving, 80-90 percent, went to organizations where the folks who worked at the organizations… Excuse me, they’re giving what to folks organizations, who gave the vast majority of their political contributions to Democrats and not to Republicans. I mean it was the tilt was something like 90/10, which is about the ratio you find at Hollywood or in the teachers unions.

In other words, the folks in the major organization in the world of ed reform are staffed by people who were pretty much ideologically interchangeable with folks at the teacher unions or with the kinds of folks in Hollywood. Now, when you think about former Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan telling the leaders of the charter school community in early 2017 that they could not take money from the Trump administration and the budget, that doing so would be tantamount to taking blood money.

And the fact that this leaked out, and the fact that nobody actually went out of their way to deny it or to denounce it, I think suggests that look, these are guys who are passionate, like we’ve mentioned a couple of minutes ago, about DACA, about LGBT issues, about inequality, and they’re not just passionate about these issues. They think there’s a right side on these issues and the Democrats are right, and they think there’s a wrong side, and the Republicans are wrong.

And that has absolutely influenced and affected almost all of their dealings around the particular issue of choice. And I think that was not purely a product of Trump that had been in the works. It’s certainly going to outlast Trump. And if you elect a Democrat as president and they have made their hostility to school choice clear, and if you have Democrats in the House who have made their hostility to school choice clear, it will be interesting whether progressive school choicers would rather go down with their ship in order to not have to deal with Republicans or whether there’s going to be a recalculation on their part.

Robert Enlow: Because the irony is, is that if the Democrat’s elected, then—look, we’re a nonpartisan organization. We don’t care about who gets elected or not. We don’t support any of that. But if a Democrat potentially gets elected, you could see a situation where they oppose a charter school expansion, curtail it, curtail school choice. At the same time, a past representative, Ilhan Omar, suggestion, where they actually universalized the GI Bill and make vouchers available for all higher ed. I mean, I find that shocking that you could have a higher ed voucher being supported on the left, and then absolute opposition to the K-12 side of it. Somehow different delivery mechanisms aren’t a good thing. Right?

Rick Hess: I mean, I think at this point, for progressive’s charter school supporters, they’re only good option is Mike Bloomberg, which is kind of a really interesting place to be.

Robert Enlow: It’s a very interesting place to be. Well, so last question then, Rick, it’s been great to be with you as always and great to hear your wisdom. Wave the magic wand. So, you talked a little bit about each of their success of reform movements—like a wave crashing on the shore, and the next wave is sort of built off the previous wave. So what is, do you think, the next wave of education reform and educational opportunity?

Rick Hess: I mean, I think I have no more idea than any of us. Everybody who pretends to have any clue is a charlatan. After the fact, we’ll all claim that we could see this coming. But look, I mean, I think basically we have salted the earth of traditional K-12. People have such bad associations with accountability, with teacher evaluation, with standards, that I just think there’s very little appetite in communities, among political leaders, among funders. And so I think that’s going to be a bad half decade or decade for those kinds of efforts.

I think there’s hunger for things which we have not done. There’s a sense that we’ve ignored the whole child. So, for social-emotional learning, for the arts, for civic education, I think there’s a real appetite. I think there’s a need for things which actually help families make their lives easier, which is both why you’ve seen real interest in early childhood. But then particularly with the burdens of loans, and questions about costs, and how do you actually help people find a job that lets them support a family and move out of their parents’ house? A lot of appetite for current technical education for college affordability and college access.

And I think now the question is, “What does that mean for people who are passionate about school choice?” I think, it means at least two things. One, it’s important to think about the relationships between choice, like you just noted with Pell for all, or GI Bill for all, about the relationships between choice and early childhood, and post sec, and career technical ed. And then the second thing is thinking about what does choice mean when we’re focused on things like civics, and social-emotional learning, and opportunities that expand beyond kind of a narrow focus on reading and math?

Robert Enlow: Yep. I think part of that will have to do with how you deliver those services, and that’s where the choice groups can be thoughtful about this. Because at the end of the day, what we’ve asked our traditional public schools to do outside of educating their children is just tremendous. It’s a monster. We look at how much we ask them to do. We’re going to have to find a way to deliver some of these other services in a way that can come alongside our traditional schools, in a way that can benefit our traditional communities and all the schools. Whether it’s charter, public, private, or whatever, we’re going to have to figure out a way to do that and deliver those services more effectively.

Rick Hess: No, and that’s partly why language of government schools is just so ridiculously unhelpful. Look, there’s lots of places in this country where I think in 2120, we’re still going to have local brick and mortar buildings that kids will go to many days a week. Hopefully that won’t be the only option. Families will be able to choose that, like you said, in concert with other offerings. These schools are going to make smarter use of talent, are going to think differently about using technology. But look, the idea that somehow we don’t want a place where 6 year olds or 10 year olds can come together, and get to know each other, and play, and interact, and have recess, and we’re parents can get to know one another as neighbors. The idea that somehow we’re going to outgrow that is just bizarre.

Robert Enlow: Yeah. I think it’s going to look very different, but it’s going to be there. There’s no doubt because communities want to come together. That is something Brian and I have finally given into them on because he and I argue about this all the time. So, Rick, I really appreciate your time. Thanks for joining us. And if everyone should remember this is a EdChoice Chat. You could download or listen to us on Apple Podcast or SoundCloud or any other way you can get a podcast. So, thanks very much for joining us. We appreciate it.