Ep. 267: 25 Years with Susan and Robert — An Early History of the Movement

September 13, 2021

Our own President and CEO Robert Enlow teams up with longtime advocate Susan Mitchell to discuss the past 25 years of the educational choice movement. What are those early lessons they learned getting the first modern school voucher program off the ground? What has stood the test of time? Listen in for the answers from these two seasoned veterans of the choice movement.

Robert Enlow: Welcome. My name is Robert Enlow. I’m the president and CEO of EdChoice. And I’m joined by my dear friend, Susan Mitchell, who along with me, in fact longer than me, has served in the school choice movement as a beacon of what good practice and good policy and good thinking is. And so we’re super happy to have this podcast and discussion with Susan to talk about some of the early days of the movement and what we’ve learned and what we need to get better and what we got right and some things we forgot. So I guess one of the fun ways we could start here, Susan, is, so what is it that people don’t know about the beginning of the parental school choice movement that they should know?

Susan Mitchell: I think what people don’t know any longer, especially the young reformers, is the story of how this got started when there were no models and we were figuring out what to do as we went along in Milwaukee. I think a lot of the lessons we learned still are valuable. So I think the story has merit.

Robert Enlow: What were some of the lessons that you learned early on that are still valuable today?

Susan Mitchell: Well, I think we started out with the notion that a strong and diverse coalition was really important and that we needed a coalition that showed legislators that parents, not just parents, but employers, parents, community leaders, others in Milwaukee needed opportunities for children to learn more, to graduate, to have chances in life ahead of them. And so we devised the strategy to try to promote that and we learned some lessons along the way.

Robert Enlow: So you look at that coalition building, that effort to bring people together, which obviously EdChoice is totally supportive of and does that as much as we can, has that stood the test of time or did this movement get away from that kind of thinking for a while?

Susan Mitchell: It’s hard for me to evaluate. I’ve been out of the front lines for nearly 10 years now so I’m not really tuned into what lots of people are doing in other states. But I think the old lessons still apply, and when they’re not heeded, things go wrong. For example, I think it’s really, really important for a coalition to focus on a goal, to stay unified, to build the best policy possible and not negotiate among themselves, to avoid the temptation to make what looks like a gain but really isn’t a gain and therefore diminish the opportunity for real gains down the road. So I think all of those things still pertain, and the better that people do that, the more valuable the accomplishments.

Robert Enlow: That’s right. So now let’s take a quick break and ask you a funny question. What was one of the funniest memories you have from the early days of this movement?

Susan Mitchell: Robert, I don’t remember anything funny. All I remember are moments when everything that we had worked for might have collapsed. One example in Wisconsin, the expansion of the program in 1995 occurred in the budget writing committee. And we were down to the last day of the session, the last votes in that committee and the expansion that we thought was moving ahead that would enlarge the program and include religious schools was on the bubble because one Republican senator said at the last minute that he wouldn’t vote for it. And what I remember is then Governor Thompson called that senator into his office, the senator came out and voted for the program, and I breathed that huge sigh of relief. [Inaudible 00:03:57] waiting to see the governor again and ask him how that happened.

Robert Enlow: I’d love that. I mean, that’s-

Susan Mitchell: [crosstalk 00:04:03] the program.

Robert Enlow: That’s a great. That reminds me, of course, I mean, I think our governor here in Indiana, 10 years ago, Mitch Daniels, learned from Tommy Thompson on that. So there were a number of people he called into the office and said, “Hey, we’re going to do this,” And I think it passed at the last second, so I get it.

If you look back and then you look forward, do you think the school choice movement has progressed the way you thought it would? Do you think we’d be where we are today? Looking back in the day, do you say, “Hey, in 25 years, here’s where I think we’ll be,” do you think that we’ve accomplished that? Have we gotten to where you thought we’d be? And what progress have we made?

Susan Mitchell: Well, let me give you two different observations on that. In the years following the expansion in Wisconsin, I became disappointed because I had expected then that other states would look at Wisconsin and say, “Oh, we can do better than that.” And instead, states looked at Wisconsin and said, “Well, we can’t quite get there so we’re going to do a little bit less than they did in Wisconsin.” That disappointed me. And I really didn’t expect that at all. I thought people would look across the fence and say, “Wow, we want more of this.” And that didn’t happen initially.

Fast forward to today, one of the greatest silver linings of the pandemic is that it has brought us support that we could not have bought, organized, whatever in any of the years prior to this. So people who don’t even know they like school choice now support school choice. They may not call it that but they understand the value of options for parents. And I think that’s huge and I think that many states are reaping the benefits, and I just couldn’t be more delighted to see that kind of progress.

Robert Enlow: I couldn’t agree more. And look, I think you’re right, the early stage of this movement, that it made a grand bargain to keep that coalition together, which is, “We’ll continue to look at Milwaukee as the high point of choice,” as opposed to, as I used to say, “We should move from Milwaukee to Milton in terms of everyone getting choice.” Right? And so I think that bargain was made and I think the pandemic, you’re right, has changed the way that this is being looked at now. People are looking at choice, not in terms of public or private or charter schools, they’re just looking at all sorts of different opportunities in different learning environments, so I think that’s neat.

One of the things that people forget when you talk about a movement or you talk about an effort is who was there at the beginning and what they were doing and how important they were. So I’d love to hear from you some of the people in the early days of the movement or in your time in the movement that we don’t talk enough about, and our listeners could say, “Hey, this person is important to what went on in the early days.”

Susan Mitchell: Well, we have a lot to learn early on, but as I said earlier, I always felt strongly that a very diverse coalition was the way to tell the legislators the story. So among that cast of characters was the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, led then for the first year as president, his first year as president by Tim Sheehy and a group of really, really courageous CEOs who went to Governor Thompson and said, “Expanding parent choice is the most important thing to us in the upcoming budget. We can’t find employees ready for prime time. We need to improve educational results in Milwaukee, and we think this is the way to do it.”

We also benefited from a large number of private schools and parents, none of whom had school choice, or very few of whom had school choice at that point and who trusted us to join forces with us, get on buses, go to Milwaukee, tell stories and say, “My child can’t read, I need this. My child can’t read, we want more of this.” And then there were other community leaders who helped, in particular, for example, John Gardner, a labor organizer who had worked with Cesar Chavez and taught me how to organize parents. I would have been way too tentative and polite, and he was the one who said, “Susan, you have to sit down at the kitchen table and say, ‘I need you. I need your help, be with me.'” And we hired a crew of parents who did exactly that and wound up being able to tell these stories and show legislators that this had a very, very human face. That was critical.

Robert Enlow: So I want to come back to some of the unsung heroes, but I want to follow that track a little bit further because I think it’s so important. My experience with this movement is sometimes when people talk to parents, they are tentative or they don’t treat them as they treat everyone else. There’s some kind of kid gloves treatment because it’s a parent. But if you treat the parents with respect and [inaudible 00:08:55] and say, “This is what I need,” and are very upfront, they’re going to be on your side more and more. And I think that’s a really good lesson to learn.

Susan Mitchell: I totally agree. There has been-

Robert Enlow: Lessons learned.

Susan Mitchell: I totally agree. There has been an attitude in some quarters in Wisconsin that low income parents, in particular, just aren’t smart enough to make good choices. And I always hated that thought because they love their children largely as much as anyone else love their children, and people with money make bad decisions as well.

So I never had any reluctance to give more power to the parents, and I still think it’s critically important. And I think they sense that. They had a seat at the table. They were very important. And they would get on buses and tell stories and do rallies despite the fact that none of this existed yet. And they were critical to achieving these goals.

Robert Enlow: You think that’s something missing from the modern movement right now, this parents at the table?

Susan Mitchell: I don’t know, Robert, because I’m not close enough to what people in other states are doing. I just know that I think it remains extremely important. And one thing I am happy to see, the individuals who did benefit from school choice sharing their stories. I think that’s just wonderful to have people come out the other end and say, “Here’s what it meant to me.”

Robert Enlow: I agree with that whole-heartedly. And I think there are a lot of storytelling that’s going on. I’m not sure at the policy design table there are still parent representatives anymore, still being in this movement.

And so I think that while I think there’s a lot more storytelling, which is great, I’m not sure that in the real central policy coalition or real coalition there’s a lot of parents involved yet. They’re around, but they’re not in the making decisions. And I want to say that one of the lessons I learned from you is you can’t design good policy if you don’t have your end customer in mind, which is parents in schools, right?

Susan Mitchell: You make me recall an instance where a legislator in a western state asked me to come and take a look at a piece of legislation. And I took it overnight and I diagrammed the process that would result if the legislation were passed, and I took it back to him the next morning. And I said, “This isn’t going to work for parents, and here’s why. They have a window of 10 days, and that’s all, to engage in a very cumbersome process. You need to stand in the shoes of the parents and secondarily stand in the shoes of the schools and say, ‘How is this going to actually work for people?'”

And I think that remains an absolutely critical aspect of looking at legislation and its goodness. Because once you pass it, it’s much harder to repair it and undo damage than it is to get it right in the first place.

Robert Enlow: I couldn’t agree more. We often spend time going back and fixing what we failed to do right in the first place, which is a lot of time and effort we shouldn’t do.

I want to return to some of the unsung heroes of the movement. Obviously, you are a hero of the movement. Your husband, George, is a hero of the movement. You guys early on were doing all that work. Who are some other folks? You mentioned Tim, who are some other groups and organizations and folks that were there and have helped get the movement going to where it is?

Susan Mitchell: Well, one of the things I learned early on was that at that stage at least, it was very hard to draw organizations into the coalition. They had boards of directors. They were nervous. They weren’t sure what this was going to look like. And so we really focused on leaders.

John Norquist, then mayor of Milwaukee, was one of those. He always understood why school choice would be good for Milwaukee. And he was interested in a much more expansive program, as was Governor Thompson, who was very, very willing to be more expansive than the legislature turned out to be with that enlargement. There were other community leaders, and we did go after them very specifically: religious leaders, different denominations, specific business leaders. People who were willing to stand up, take the heat, not be afraid of it. And those were the people in the early days.

There were no national organizations at the time. So there was no one else to call on. And frankly had we done that, we would have diluted the impact of showing legislators that this was really an up from the grassroots situation coming from Milwaukee. We didn’t hire a professional lobbyist. We did it all ourselves.

Robert Enlow: Yeah. We’ve come a long way since then. I’m not sure it’s a good or bad thing in some ways. But as someone who did this for such a long time and for the listeners out there, you should know how important Susan Mitchell is to the origins of everything that has gone forward in school choice, setting the groundwork for how to organize, how to behave, how to set coalitions up. EdChoice, I promise you, follows her coalition guidelines to this day because it’s so important.

So when you look back, Susan, what do you think was one of your biggest accomplishments in the school choice movement?

Susan Mitchell: I am so happy that we were able to enact the expansion in 1995 and include religious schools. And we spent 10-15 years after that in court defending against legislative onslaughts, defending against excessive regulation. We hit the enrollment cap that would have really killed the program.

But I think we created a basis there for defending, strengthening, expanding that really pleases me to this day. And it just is a delight to see all of this going on in other states now. It makes me happy.

Robert Enlow: Yes, I agree. And I thank you for that, because I think the Milwaukee experience that got through the courts, which took a long time, I remember that.

So that was the first case on the Blaine Amendments that just started tumbling them down. Right? So we’re now to Espinoza, which is basically public money can go to private institutions and religious institutions without fear of violating Blaine Amendments, right? So this is a long way to go.

Susan Mitchell: There was another player that particularly in that period was very instrumental and that was the Bradley Foundation. Bradley Foundation was there, in many respects, early supporting research and polling that showed the value of parent choice.

But then when we hit the lawsuits, which just seemed never-ending, they were very supportive, helping get witnesses ready, helping with scholarships through an organization called PAVE so that children who were in the program could stay in the program until the court suits were sorted. And they just have been a major force and remain a major force to this day. And Milwaukee and Wisconsin are just very fortunate to have them.

Robert Enlow: I couldn’t agree more. And we’re very blessed that Bradley’s part of this movement and still leading it in so many ways. In fact, as I’m sitting here reflecting, you look at the Bradley Foundation who some consider a certain ideological bent, but then you look at Mayor Norquist who was a very strong, left wing liberal, and John Dart, who was a labor organizer. And then you look at some of the grassroots folks who heads, Courtney, and then you look at brother Bob Smith and you look at yourselves and Tim Sheehy and the business leaders. That’s such a different group of people around the table that is such a powerful way for us to think going forward.

I guess now putting on your hat of your incredible strategic thinking, what do you think the biggest threats are for the school choice movement in the next 25 years?

Susan Mitchell: Let me talk a little bit about Wisconsin. I think in Wisconsin, and this is not always visible, regulations that choke the programs, that divert money from academic endeavors in the schools that make it difficult for parents to sign up, those kinds of things need to be dealt with. And that can be a difficult lift. It’s not very glamorous, but it really has a lot to do with how the programs function.

I also think we really need to get to the stage where legislatures and policy makers look at students rather than schools as having value. A student ought to have the same value no matter what type of school the student attends. And that also is a very heavy lift because of the complexity of school finance. Particularly in Wisconsin, we have an unusually complex, constitutionally bound system of finance that makes it difficult for us to get from here to there. I think the prospect of programs being killed outright, which used to threaten us in the 1990s, is-

… Right, which used to threaten us in the 1990s is largely over. We really need to create programs that have a constituency. Here’s where I know you and I have talked about this many, many times over the years, we need programs that allow all parents to participate first of all because it’s good policy, but also tactically that is what creates the constituency that ultimately will stand up and say, “You can’t take this away from me. This is too valuable and it needs to be here to stay.” You can activate that constituency to do what you need to make those programs work.

Robert Enlow: You know, I agree with that and making it broad enough. As Milwaukee was a city-based effort, so is Cleveland, and then the tax credit efforts started happening. Then it wasn’t until, in my opinion, Governor Daniels, after Governor Bush did it first, but Governor Daniels doing a statewide effort, a broad-based income program, statewide effort where we now have in Indiana scholarship recipients in every single district. Every single legislative district has scholarship recipients because there are private schools all over the state. Making sure that it’s not just people in urban areas, but it’s suburban areas, and it’s rural areas, it’s towns, we have about 40% of the kids in the scholarship program in Indiana now are not from urban areas, but 60% are. So, it’s doing I think what it’s supposed to. It’s helping certainly those who need it most, but it’s being very broad.

Susan Mitchell: I think that expansion is absolutely critical, and I would just like to see more of it, more parents, better funding, more robust funding, less regulations, more simplicity, more opportunity.

Robert Enlow: That sounds very simple. If we achieve that, particularly when it comes to school funding and based on the kids, so modernizing school funding [inaudible 00:19:53]. Every kid is worth an equal amount, frankly, in many ways. What do you think schooling will look like in 25 years?

Susan Mitchell: I think it’s always hard to project the trajectory of innovation. What I’ve always had in my mind, what I would love to see is the kind of ESA, Educational Savings Account, model where parents have the power to spend the money and educators have the freedom to respond. We’re seeing much more of that during the pandemic, but I think we’ve just barely scratched the surface of what could happen if some of the other restrictions that tend to be in many state laws on grade levels, and what must be taught, and all the other things that tend to favor traditional brick and mortar schools and not necessarily mastery move at your own pace kind of education.

The more those things break down, the more innovation there’s likely to be. I believe that when educators get a taste of genuine freedom, and they can demonstrate their effectiveness to parents, things break wide open. We know already from the research that an effective teacher is really, really the critical element of progress. When effective teachers can band together and offer services outside the current models, and parents can go after them based on what they want for their children and the results they want, and what happens to their children, their employability, their future life prospects, it could be a whole different world.

It’s just hard to know where that breakthrough actually happens.

Robert Enlow: I think that’s right. Hopefully maybe in West Virginia where we’ve passed a program and there’s Education Savings Account program for everyone in the state. Maybe it’s there. One of my concerns about now, the pandemic, is everyone getting back to school. That’s fine, but that’s just not what parents want. Parents still want some hybrid models. They still want some… The nature of work is going to be different. We’re not going back [inaudible 00:22:06] choice full-time. We’re not going to be in the office 8:00 to 5:00 anymore. A lot of groups are going to be like that.

So, I think it’ll work itself out over time, but I think it’s going to take a state like West Virginia or some other state getting it done right.

Susan Mitchell: I think that’s right. That’s a great reason why it’s wonderful to have states doing different things and trying different things. I still believe in the state laboratory concept. The breakthroughs may come in one state, and then can be adopted elsewhere. I do with agree with you. Other things that the pandemic has changed, has been the telehealth, all that healthcare, the how much people are willing to go back to work. Whether schools are partly online, what else can happen now? It’s just hard to foresee and it’s especially hard to foresee if parents will go back to the way it used to be.

I think the behavior of the teachers’ unions has really disenchanted a lot of parents because it’s shown that they’re really about the power and the money, and less about the kids. When I watch what has happened in Wisconsin, and I know this is true in other states, the way the private schools in Wisconsin in these programs have stepped up the pandemic, the way the special needs schools in Arizona have done the same thing, the teachers and the staff there have done incredible amounts of work, understanding that the children need the socialization, the support, being with each other in addition to the academics.

So, parents are seeing differences and it remains to be seen what happens in a year or so when we don’t need masks and we can move freely.

Robert Enlow: Well, let’s hope we keep with some of this innovation. I’m going to ask a question as someone whose getting older hates, but I think I got to ask it which is, hopefully the next Susan Mitchell is listening to this podcast, what would you tell a young reformer coming up in the movement now? What advice would you give to them?

Susan Mitchell: I would try to study what works and why, starting with bill design. What makes good public policy? What is worth standing for? Then I would look at [inaudible 00:24:28] and said, “George and I have come to say how a bill becomes a law.” What makes it easier for legislators to say yes and harder to say no? Certainly, unity, sense of purpose, not fighting with your friends, all those things are really critical. How do you make that happen? How do you lead a project where those kinds of things are the outcome? How do you move away from the tendency to wish to negotiate with yourselves among yourselves because you think you can’t get something, so you don’t try?

I’m fond of trying to aim quite a bit higher than you believe you can go, because you just don’t know. You can always peel back, but you just don’t know what you can get done.

Robert Enlow: I couldn’t agree more. I always argue that if you say you’re going to shoot for the moon you won’t hit it, but if you’re going to say you shoot for the sun you’ll probably hit the moon because you have a farther reach and a farther idea in mind. As we’re getting near the end, and I know the names of people and all that, but tell me some funny stories or tell me stories that you remember from the early days, just a couple of stories, memories you might have of interesting things that people might say, “Wow, that’s different.”

Susan Mitchell: I don’t remember funny. I remember the points where I was scared things were going to fall apart. Here’s one of them, we’re organizing our very first rally for Governor Thompson, who is running for re-election. He’s been told that School Choice is very important to the CEOs and we want to show him in Milwaukee that it’s important to this wide ranging group of parents from all over the city. So, I do all the organizing. I had my heart in my throat. I’m watching the buses line up. My good friend, John Gardner, who has taught me all about organizing shows up at the door with a group of women who want to protest Governor Thompson’s welfare policies.

I had told everybody we are focused. There’s no litmus test. We’re only focused here on School Choice. I remember getting in the elevator and stopping all these people with signs from going into the elevator and up to the rally. I said to John, “John, if you want to be in this coalition there’s only one thing that unites us, and that’s the view that we want.”

There’s only one thing that unites us, and that’s the view that we want more choice for parents. Nothing else matters, so this is the wrong place for this protest. And he backed off.

Robert Enlow: What an interesting story and particularly relevant to today, because I think I’m not sure that would have happened today in the sense that backing off. Because one of the things that’s happened in this movement, one of the I think challenges facing it, is while we’re United around choice, there are all these other issues that have come into play where the coalitions on the right and left saying, “Well, you got to believe this and you got to believe this.” Litmus tests have become more important, unfortunately.

Susan Mitchell: One of our rules of the road was, it’s only school choice that unites us. You can not bring any other issue into this coalition because we would have blown up instantly. We were all over the map on almost anything else that you could mention. There was another moment like that I can tell you about when we were approaching the enrollment cap on the program, which would have absolutely decimated genuine parent choice. Instead of parents choosing schools, schools would have been assigned a certain number of seats and it would have destroyed the intent of the program, that we had a democratic governor at the time who was very resistant to lifting the enrollment cap. And so we did issue advocacy TV spots with real parents, and we interviewed the parents and asked them, “Why does this matter to you?”

One of the interesting elements was that the then governor had his own son at a private school. And one of the most powerful ads was a black father who looked in the camera. And he said, “Governor, if school choice is good enough for you, it ought to be good enough for me.” That ad went up, and within half an hour, the governor was on the phone with one of our business leaders saying, “Take that down.” And we said, “When we have a deal.”

Robert Enlow: Yeah.

Susan Mitchell: And it worked, and it worked. But that was another moment where I was very worried that we were about to lose a lot of gains and we’d not be able to restore them.

Robert Enlow: I tried to get you to think about funny stories, and I really appreciate you coming back to these stories because as I remember, you’re right, at the early days of them, there weren’t a lot of funny going on. It was a lot of live and die. I remember the work in Cleveland and then the Supreme Court stuff. There was a lot of high stakes for families, and really at the Vanguard of trying to do something radically different in America. So those are much more stories that make you think, “Oh God, things could have gone really bad really quickly.” But we’re not there anymore, thank God. We’re growing.

So I guess the best way to end would be to say, tell me what you think we should all be focusing on as we go forward. All the people who care about parental freedom, what should we be focusing on? What are the one to four key things we should never lose sight of?

Susan Mitchell: Putting parents at the center of policy, standing in their shoes and looking at how well policy works for them, designing programs that are actually robust enough to give this idea a much fairer test than it’s ever had, allowing all parents to participate, working to create much fairer funding than we’ve ever gotten. I know that’s improving in many states, but we still are not at a point where we look at a student and say, “Every student has the same value, no matter what type of school that that student’s family chooses.” And finally, I consider over-regulation an underrated threat. It’s easy not to see it. It’s hard to get rid of it. And it can very quietly choke the vigor out of a good program.

Robert Enlow: Well, and certainly regulations keep, I think an ossification to certain certain programs to keep the status quo going. In our home state, one of the regulations is that every school must keep the physical copy of chief Seattle’s letter. And I’m just like, “Well, hold on, you’ve heard of this thing called the internet, right? You don’t actually need a physical copy of anything anymore ever.” They’re like, “No, you must have it.” And these kinds of things make a burdensome day for an administrator. I got to make sure I have a report file that says that I have this in there. I have to prove that I have this in there. Instead of saying, “Look, I can download it tomorrow at a moment’s notice.” These regulations are critically important, and people definitely under rate them.

Susan Mitchell: If you live in a state with an education department that is not particularly friendly to the notion of parent choice, the degree of regulation can be really fierce. In Wisconsin, we just did a review of the requirements. Some of them have a statutory basis, some of them don’t, some of them are simply guidance. And the schools feel as though they have to follow all of the rules because they’re afraid of being kicked out of the program, which could ruin them financially to say nothing of the damage inflicted on families. So to me, that has always been a big issue to pay attention to, but it’s one that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

Robert Enlow: I really appreciate that. And I think all four of those things are absolutely important for us to remember. So again, I want to thank you, Susan, for spending time with me today, for sharing some of your thoughts and memories about 25 years ago and going forward.