Ep. 282: 25 Years — 25 Years of EdChoice with Dan Miller

November 12, 2021

We speak with Dan Miller, who runs Historical Solutions, where he uses history to help teach lessons in leadership.

Brian McGrath: Hello everybody, this is Brian McGrath, I’m the vice president of external relations for EdChoice. Today, we’re talking with Dan Miller, Dan runs Historical Solutions, a friend of mine, runs a really great program of using history to teach us lessons about what we can do today in leadership, and he’ll tell us more about that later. But Dan has embarked on a project, Red Choice, to look back at our 25 years of history and talk to some of our friends and get a sense of who we are and what we’re doing. And so, Dan, thanks for coming on today to talk to us about that.

Dan Miller: Thanks very much for having me Brian, it’s good to be here.

Brian McGrath: You want to tell us at all about yourself? Just so folks know who they’re listening to?

Dan Miller: Sure. I’ve got one foot in two worlds. One foot is in the historical world where I’ve got some advanced degrees, PhD, MA that kind of stuff in history, American history, specifically. The other foot is in the business world. I do leadership consulting using history as my basis for that. So that’s a fairly uncommon combination I think it’s fair to say. And so I’ve been doing my enterprise, and it is a business enterprise, I’ve been doing my enterprise since 2004.

Brian McGrath: Great. Well, we connected a few years ago, I came to one of your workshops and it was fascinating the way you conducted it. And you’re a great story to teller. So when I was tasked with coming up with this project to kind of explore some of our history as an organization, I thought you would be a great person to do it. So let’s just dig into it.

You went out and talked to a bunch of our partners, some new friends, some old friends, people we run around with for a long time, some newer to that. What did you hear? What stuck out to you as you talked to our friends about what EdChoice is, what we’ve been doing, what themes maybe jumped out at you that might be interesting for people to hear?

Dan Miller: Well, I’ve got… By the way, they were wonderful conversations and I purposely conducted them in a very broad fashion. I didn’t have a laundry list of 20 or 30 questions for people to check off or whatever, just a handful of questions.

And as I told everyone, I wanted them to have freedom and comfort in running around wherever they wanted to run around in the course of their responses. So that was my framework.

Several things jumped out, and it was just fascinating to me. Of course I live and breathe this stuff in terms of using the past and history, which I think are two different things, we could talk about that later. But one of the themes that I wanted to share, and these are in no order by the way of, of importance. But one of the themes that clearly came out was that the organization is in a very unique situation of spending its time on a national trend and issue, but yet rooted in local action.

“Local’s” almost really not even the right word. It’s almost, “Neighborhood.” I mean, it’s this local neighborhood personal action that is valued and pursued by EdChoice. And yet it’s doing so on behalf of this mega, massive, monstrous trend of education and educational reform. So that’s a very interesting pairing it seems to me for EdChoice.

And by the way, a word that I’d kind of tuck in the back of your mind is the pairing, P-A-I-R-I-N-G. There’s a lot of twos in EdChoice. And it makes for a fascinating dynamic as you look at the first quarter century.

Another thing I would say, again under the pairing title or heading, is on the one hand, and this I wasn’t surprised at by the way, what I’m going to say next, on the one hand, you’ve got this super sophisticated research and analysis engine that is EdChoice.

That didn’t surprise me. I know smart folks when I see them, and Brian, whether you were the other two dozen there, that didn’t surprise me that we had this very sophisticated, very advanced research and analysis entity. What surprised me was what it paired with. And this, I think goes back to my previous point about local, neighborhood, personal; that intellectual and mental ability pairs with this gift of nurturing, of supporting, of encouraging, of just helping, providing a genuine personal help and compassionate outreach to the folks that are involved with EdChoice.

And I thought that was quite a striking combination of abilities and of skill sets and all the rest. I would say it’s a pretty small percentage of workspaces in the United States that have those two things operating on an equally high level in the same space with the same folks. And that cannot be overstated as a characteristic of EdChoice in it’s 25 years.

Brian McGrath: Yeah, Dan, I would jump in there to say one of the things that Milton Friedman, was our founder and continues to be our intellectual North Star as it were, and he was always great at taking things like research and data points and high end intellectual thoughts and delivering them at in local, understandable, agreeable level for anybody, whether it be a college student or parent activist in Washington DC or anything else. So that’s a great pairing that I guess we’d be able to carry on that legacy.

Dan Miller: It is. And I’ll just go with that for just a second, if you don’t mind, Brian, and that is to say, I’m going to add to your list of examples of Milton Friedman’s remarkable combination of the intellect with the compassion, and just encourage folks to go on YouTube and look up Phil Donahue and Milton Friedman. And you’d see Milton Friedman handling a Chicago-based talk show host of some ego, handling in with just tremendous warmth and compassion and all the rest. So I’d add him to that list too.

Brian McGrath: Yeah. And I’ll tell them to go one other place. Back in July, we published an article by Mike, one of our researchers, and it was a story told about Milton and his interactions with Virginia Walden Ford, who is one of our board members, but really got her start as a parent activist. And she recounts a story of one day when things weren’t going well, and she was close to just saying, “Forget this whole thing,” she got a phone call from Milton Friedman of all people. And all he said was, “Keep it up, it’s important.”

And he just encouraged her. He didn’t try to tell her what to do or anything else. He just was there, again, this Nobel Laureate prize winner, intellectual for the ages, reaching out to a parent activist saying, “You’re doing great work, keep going.” So that’s been fascinating. So that’s on our website if you want to check it out at edchoice.org. But anyway, I’ll let you get back to it, Dan.

Dan Miller: No, no, that’s perfect. That’s a great story. Virginia was one of the folks who I interacted with. It was real blessing for me to have the chance to talk with her, but since you’ve referenced, or we’ve referenced Milton Friedman, let’s go into this because that certainly constitutes another theme that I’ve encountered in my work here on your 25 years.

And that’s the… And by the way, this is something I think that folks ought to take seriously in every organization, and that is founding and founders. You cannot overstate the unbelievable importance of the two founders, Rose and Milton Friedman, along with Gordon St. Angelo, I think it’s almost a trio of founders. And the founding moment back in the mid-1990s, 25 years ago, you guys do the math better than me on that, but that moment, that’s a birth moment and it’s so important.

And it brings such life to the organization and a liveliness that you can see down to today. And it’s remarkable that it’s withstood, and flourished, and continued, and endured over the quarter century, the imprint, the thumbprint, the mind and heart prints of Mr. and Mrs. Friedman, and Gordon St. Angelo.

So you cannot put a monetary value on how priceless that has been to EdChoice. So their spirit just circulates everywhere. And it’s probably a little weird. I’m not even sure half the staff or whatever is fully even aware of it. I mean, to be honest, but it absolutely is such a resource of immeasurable value and importance.

Brian McGrath: Yeah, that’s a great point, Dan. We talk about this occasionally, so I was lucky enough to have interacted with the Friedmans, both Milton and Rose when they were still with us, and some of the most electric times, really, it was a thrill for me to be able to meet them and interact with them. And they were the most easygoing, normal people to talk to. And I loved every minute of it.

And we often refer back to them in our work, but you’re right. Like it’s been a while now since the Milton has left us, and it doesn’t take much for people to forget, and so we have to be mindful of reminding people of just the importance of his work and the importance of Rose’s work too. She was an equal partner.

Dan Miller: Absolutely.

Brian McGrath: … in the enterprise. This was not a wife standing off to the side. She was an activist in all this. And so, the fact that they dedicated their last full push for something to school choice and to this organization is not lost on any of us, but we need to make sure people remember, and we actually do some work on that space now trying to get back on college campuses and what not, so yeah, it’s great that we keep doing that.

Dan Miller: A couple other things that I encountered in my discussions about all of this, and one is that it’s absolutely necessary and accurate to talk about Friedman’s in the plural sense, because I heard over and over again independent of each other folks saying that you don’t have Milton unless you have Rose, and that that’s such an easy thing to overlook or to even never know in the first place, so that’s one thing to think about.

And as you know Brian, going back to your intro of me here on our podcast is I’m a history guy, right? I’m a past guy, P-A-S-T, and it is absolutely the truthful thing to say that Milton Friedman is to EdChoice what George Washington is to the United States. It needs to be understood in precisely that imagery. So, I would want people to embrace that as they think about the connection between the two.

And the other thing to be honest that came out of the conversations and I’m still in this founding and founder theme and mode here and that is that there was, and this is my word, there was also a re-founding of the entity. Now, I think the corporate term for it and the popular term for it is branding and rebranding and all those kinds of things, and that’s fine, but history and past guy here, so I also consider it a re-founding to shift from Friedman to EdChoice and to do so it’s not like it’s some seamless, effortless, wave of the wand kind of exercise. It took effort. It took work, sweat, and blood, and tears Churchill would throw on the list.

And that was a very important river to cross in all of this, and so I think it deserves the word re-founding and I think it deserves also, and he’ll probably get mad at me, Robert to be talked of as a re-founder in that regard. I heard that a lot. Now, what’s interesting is to think about this … As you could probably tell you give me a glass of wine and I’ll talk all night about this.

Brian McGrath: Yeah. I’d love to do that sometime.

Dan Miller: When you think of Robert, Robert came early. He’s the third employee I believe or the third staff.

Brian McGrath: Been there since the very beginning really, yeah.

Dan Miller: So, it’s like having Thomas Jefferson as your re-founder. He’s one of the people who was there at the beginning, so it’s not like an outsider came in and did it.

Brian McGrath: Right.

Dan Miller: So, in that sense and maybe I just hit on it Brian honestly, which is the Friedmans are the Washington of this and I think Robert is the Jefferson of this, and what I mean by that is … He’s going to get made if you say it.

Brian McGrath: He may give you some grief for that. That’s all right, continue. This is your podcast, not his.

Dan Miller: Here’s why I say that, because the American Revolution is more than the war. It’s more than the documents, and it’s more than the first person in the presidency. The American Revolution is successful when there’s a change of power and that’s in the election of 1800 when Thomas Jefferson in a new political party takes over as the third president without bloodshed, without warfare, without all upheaval. That’s the culminating success of the initial American Revolution.

And so, in that sense that’s a rebranding. That’s a re-founding of it. And so, I think Robert plays that dynamic here and I think he is that dynamic, and when you look at the 25 year lifespan thus far of EdChoice. So, I don’t want to go on and on about it, but I do think the parallels match up pretty nicely.

Brian McGrath: What else did you hear that jumped out at you about the organization or the movement even? I’ve been around not quite as long as Robert, but I’ve seen different seasons of school choice and the movement, from the sunniest of days, to the darkest of winters. What did you hear along those lines?

Dan Miller: One thing that was interesting to hear is this business of … It’s one of my themes, this business of having started, founded, as a lone wolf, kind of the only kid on the block type of thing pursuing this type of educational reform, because in the mid-1990s and as we said with this towering intellect in the Friedmans. They’re the only game in town I think to a great extent, but over time having the organization become one of several that are involved, one of many that are involved, not to diminish the organization’s role, or stature, or anything like that. It casts a long shadow and it certainly will continue to do so.

But it has continued to flourish in a world that has more EdChoices or more things like EdChoice. That’s not written in the stars, because that could’ve been a very difficult environment, and an organization that had a different mentality and a different attitude and culture could’ve really struggled with that kind of multiplicity of organizations, and stakeholders, and allies, and all the rest, but EdChoice has handled it beautifully.

And to some extent, I think actually to a great extent, has actually encouraged and helped produce that multiplicity. And I think that goes back to what we talked about a minute ago this founding spirit and this re-founding spirit where it was a very welcome, warm set of people and that carried over into how it viewed other like-minded organizations, which I think that’s a great thing, but that’s been one change over time that has occurred.

Brian McGrath: Yeah. I think that’s right. Having been around this like I said for two decades myself when we started we did certain things really well, and we continue to go things, like research really well, but we’ve expanded our outreach efforts to new groups. We’ve expanded our training operation. We’ve done things to react to the market a little bit which is what Milton would’ve wanted I think. Always stated true to the mission, which is universal school choice, and then over the years we’ve had different partners in different places, whether they be national groups and certainly local groups.

But our role, we’ve always believed to adapt to the moment and provide the services that are needed in the moment and be useful in that way, so that’s a pretty good observation I think.

Dan Miller: One other thing I wanted to be sure to mention and you referenced Virginia a few minutes ago, and I think we need to go here next, which is again this is one of those pairings that we talked about at the outset. The organization really drives down, if you just strip everything away, boil it all down, and everything else, it comes down to an intimate relationship between parent and child, and that’s it. That’s the start. That’s the mid. That’s the end. That’s everything that is going on is about what I just said, the intimate relationship between parent and child.

Virginia of course is a wonderful embodiment of that reality and of that mission, and so on, and that’s a very important theme in all of it, and again it’s not set in the stars. It’s not written in the stars that it was going to thrive as an organization with that as its fundamental purpose, the intimate relationship between parent and child. And especially as you start to amp up things like research and analysis, and policy design, and the savvy and the wherewithal of how to navigate those worlds to do that and retain the supremacy of the intimate relationship between parent and child is a remarkable achievement and a remarkable DNA.

So, that’s a big, big deal.

Brian McGrath: Yeah. I think we always try to remain focused. We do a lot of things and sometimes we even debate internally about who are we really doing this for, but it does fundamentally come back to that this is about helping kids and families get something better for themselves, and Milton’s always done that. He talked about the biggest winners in all of this are going to be people who have terrible education options, and those people need help to change that situation.So was there anything you heard that was surprising, that really, you were sort of like, wow, I wouldn’t have suspected that story to be told about EdChoice, or anything, either something that was said, or maybe something that wasn’t said?

Dan Miller: Well, one thing that was, and I will kind of invoke Virginia here again a little bit, as an example, she’s far from the only one, but she’s a wonderful example, is this almost David and Goliath kind of situation where there’s someone like Virginia who’s had enough and has decided that this is isn’t going to happen to me, this isn’t going to happen to my sons and daughters, this isn’t right, that it happens this way. And I have to make this change. When that person stands up and looks out, they don’t see balloons and a ticker tape parade and a light show on their behalf, welcoming them across the river. They see this vast wall of resistance. And so again, it’s a David and Goliath thing.

That really surprised me about how powerful that was. I mean, I don’t think I’m telling any tales out of school here. I mean, Virginia and I both were practically in tears in our conversation as she recounted just feeling so alone and getting that wonderful call from Dr. Friedman. And by the way, she made a remarkable statement. And I think it fits into this idea of individual people just having to stand against and face the wall of resistance. She said, she loved her father, talks about her father with glowing recollections, and rightfully so, but she considered Milton a grandfather. And though they’d never met, she thought that they would absolutely get along so well together.

And I just was really struck by that and how much of a personal connection, both he, but then also his organization, had in her life. So that’s something that I was surprised about, was this whole David and Goliath thing and just how important it was, or it is, for David to look at his right or his left. And he sees EdChoice standing there with him. So that’s a big thing.

Brian McGrath: Yeah. That’s a great insight because I think it sort of leads into, I mean our focus of work has always been local. I’m sure you’ve talked to several of our local partners.

Dan Miller: Yep.

Brian McGrath: I mean, our work is largely done in the states. I wonder if there’s a story from any of those conversations that jumps out at you, as we’ve always tried to go to the states and try to figure out what they’re trying to accomplish and try to figure out how to reach their goals. And those goals had to actually match with ours a little bit, too, but we never came in and said, aha, we’ve got the answer, guys, just get in line and follow us. We always were very much, and still do very much say, what do you want for your community? What do you want for your state? How do we help you get there? So is there a state based story that jumps out at you from that?

Dan Miller: Well, there one that does, and I think I’ve got the correct state here, and that’s in Arizona, where it was an especially difficult battle to move forward along the reform lines that EdChoice embodies and represents. And there was some initial impulses on the state level in some specific meetings that occurred, that folks were upset and wanted to kind lash out at opponents and folks who were not coming in line as they were hoping they would.

And some of the staff from EdChoice calmed them down and said, “No, we don’t want to go out and retaliate. We don’t want to go out and kind of smack back a little bit.” And again, I think it’s very much in that kind of happy warrior culture that is so, so clear across the 25 years. And as you well know, it’s so rare these days, when you talk about change and reform and everything else. So that’s the story I remember of a calming down of folks at an Arizona meeting, or the aftermath of that meeting, and saying, “No, we cannot, we cannot lash out tomorrow or next week, even if it makes you feel good for the temporary moment.”

Brian McGrath: Yeah, that’s another trait I think we picked up from Dr. Friedman and Rose, is you sometimes have to take a lot of heat, but if you keep your composure and keep focused on what’s important, you get further. And again, that’s kind of been a hallmark of our work.

Dan Miller: Yeah. One of the things, Brian, I want to make sure it’s also understood as a theme, and this came out across several interviews. And this runs counter to the national culture and it runs counter to everything we know about 2021 in the United States. And that is the long haul and the long run.

And EdChoice is built for the long haul and the long run. And doesn’t expect, doesn’t mark itself by seeing instant gratification and instant successes. And doesn’t hang its head when there are obstacles that continue in the path and all the rest. That’s a really remarkable thing, to hold that kind of value of the long haul and the long run over the course of these 25 years, when everything about the broader national culture just screams, you’ve got to have it now, and what’s wrong with you if you don’t have it now? And so I really, I want to applaud that as a finding. I think that’s a very important finding.

Brian McGrath: Yeah, that’s something. It’s funny, I was having a conversation with somebody yesterday. We were talking about oh, diversity at issues and whatnot. And it was a day long event and it was interesting. And someone said, “Well, what do you think?” I said, “Well, I think we’re trying to move mountains. And in addition to that, there are people who don’t want the mountains moved. So we’ve got to figure how to do that. And that takes a long time.

And school reform is certainly like that. As much success as we have, we certainly understand there’s more work to be done, and that there are people who don’t agree with our assessment and want things to change. So that’s part of the way you have to approach the world, I think, or you just don’t get very far. Any other themes jump out you want to share before where we go on to anything else?

Dan Miller: Absolutely. Another theme that I encountered, and maybe there’s some better phrasing than what I’m going to offer to you next, but there are certain what I would call competing tensions in the movement that the organization pursues. And I’ll give you a couple of examples.

One is that the idea of having to balance coming alongside, I heard that several times, that EdChoice comes alongside people at the state level and local level and so on, but yet doesn’t take control. Doesn’t direct, doesn’t dominate, or act domineering. That’s a tough thing to balance. You want to provide guidance, you want to come alongside, but you don’t want to spill over the edge and start to direct people into doing this, that, and the other thing. And it’s been a tremendous achievement that the organization has been able to not go over the edge of that. So I think that’s a great example of a competing tension.

Another one is providing a strong voice and yet providing an attentive ear. A strong voice and an attentive ear don’t often go together, whether it’s a person or a group, and it goes together really nicely inside of EdChoice. And I think that that’s been a very important part of its success, is obviously projecting a strong voice, but only doing so through constant and continuous and never ending listening, again, to parents and local folks and all the rest. So that balance of those tensions, which can get out of hand in other organizations real quickly, especially when that George Washington figure has gone away, that hasn’t happened with EdChoice, and that deserves a great deal of gratitude, it seems to me.

You know, another thing that strikes me as a surprise, for me, was the constant motion. The organization is in constant motion. If anybody has some preconception or assumption about a research heavy, analysis heavy organization, like EdChoice or whatever, pursuing a cause, that might sound a little sedate. That might sound a little academic, or that kind of thing. And we all know what that means.

But in fact, it’s constant motion, from idea to reality, from whiteboard to blacktop, everything else, it’s always in movement. And I think it would be easy to have that feel overwhelming, but it clearly is in the DNA of EdChoice for there to be just a continuous motion and movement.

Brian McGrath: Yeah, it’s funny you say that because years ago we did kind of … Actually, when we re-founded as using your phrase in 2016, we did kind of a brand book for the organization. Like who are we really? And let’s distill that down. And one of the first things that popped up was this phrase that we used to all laugh at, which was, we’re not a stuffy think tank. And people used to say, oh, we’re an action tank or whatever. And, that’s all fine, but while we’ve done a lot of the work of a think tank over the years, I mean, our research department is second to none in my opinion in the education world, but we do, or we are action oriented. What’s the next thing. Who’s the next group we can reach out? Where’s the next event we can host to convene people to think about these ideas and put them to action? So that’s a great analysis, I think.

Dan Miller: And you know, again, we, we use the word pairing, right, again, P-A-I-R-I-N- G, this is another pairing that we see here. And I want to emphasize that because I do a lot of work on the histories in the past of various organizations. I’ve written three different books for three different client organizations on their specific histories. And it would be really easy for an organization like EdChoice to have so many pairings of things and become this kind of schizophrenic and internally divided entity that ultimately would fracture apart. That has not happened. And you need to celebrate that. And again, starting to sound like a broken record here on this, but it’s a lot easier to avoid that fracturing when you’ve got this founding father in place, but when the founding father goes away and for that fracturing to not rise up, that’s a heck of a thing. And I want everybody to be aware of that.

Brian McGrath: Let’s do a little kind of lightning roundish ending here, Dan. So if there are a couple key words you would use thinking back on your interviews and what people said about the organization and the history, what handful of words might you, if you’re going to put up a word cloud, might you use to describe EdChoice?

Dan Miller: Happiness would be my first one. Happiness. And I’m happy to elaborate if you want or just give you other words.

Brian McGrath: We’ll call it a slow lightning round, but you can. I had a phrase if you need, but just yeah, go ahead.

Dan Miller: Some are lightning. So yeah, you guys, your organization puts a whole new look on the declaration of independence phrase pursuit of happiness. So happiness would be one that I would say. Compassion would be another one in fullest form and on fullest display, top to bottom, side to side, compassion. Risk, a willingness, a purpose in taking risks again in a happy way, but not being satisfied with the way things are or the way they seem to present themselves. So risk would be another thing. I’ll give you… The American way. EdChoice is the latest example of the American way of civic change. And you know what? You would be as comfortable as you can imagine in the anti-slavery movement of the early 19th century. You would be as comfortable and as welcome as you could imagine in the women suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the civil rights movement on into the mid 20th. So you are following a cherished path of the American way of civic change. And I find that an exciting thing myself.

Brian McGrath: Yeah, absolutely. Let me wrap up with this. You’re a man of the past, as you said, or you look at the past, I love to look to the future. I mean, when you talk to our friends and partners and these other folks who were reflecting on the last 25 years, did you get a sense from them, are they optimistic? Are they hopeful or do they see anything in the future that that EdChoice should be focused on?

Dan Miller: Well, I think they’re very optimistic and I think the reason for that is probably the nature of my phone call. The fact that they were being asked to talk about and reflect on an organization for which they have a great deal of respect and regard. So that by definition makes them optimists in discussing it. I think that they would say, and I’m not trying to put words in anyone’s mouth, I think what they would say is spread the gospel. Spread the gospels, spread the message. There are new horizons and new states and new neighborhoods and everything from the past points to a green light to accelerate in the future. So I think they’d say spread it everywhere you can because you’ve got the right message.

Brian McGrath: Well, Dan, this has been a great conversation. One, it rekindled a lot of fond memories for me having been around this for a while. And it’s nice to hear that the work we’ve been engaged in for so long is thought of so well from people we truly respect. So thanks for taking the time to talk with us to do your work. If someone wants to hear more about what you’re doing on your other projects, where should they go to find your information?

Dan Miller: Well, couple spots, historicalsolutions.com is my website. A lot of stuff on there. I have a page on Facebook as well, and also I’m on LinkedIn. And so those are a couple of social media ways that you can access what I’m doing. I have a new book coming out very, very shortly about a young man from Montana who has an amazing experience in the American military in Hawaii in the mid 1930s. And you also should see coming out very soon a short video that I’ve been blessed to be the narrator of for Shepherd Community Center and it’s on the importance of remembering despair in the leadership of Abraham Lincoln.

Brian McGrath: Wow, that’s a wide range of things that you’re involved in, which is why I thought you’d be a great guy for this job. So Dan, thanks again so much for spending some time with us and doing this work and we’ll look forward to checking on your work going forward.

Dan Miller: Thanks so much, Brian. I really appreciate it.