Ep. 295: International School Choice and Reform Conference 2022

February 3, 2022

In this episode we speak with some members of the conference planning committee and hear their take on ISCRC and what makes it such a beneficial event.

Drew Catt: Hello, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. I’m Drew Catt, director of state research and special projects and today we have something extra special for you. We are coming to you from the beautiful, big smoke, Dublin, Ireland. We are here for the international school choice and reform conference in its 10th year. And I have with me some wonderful members of the planning committee who have, between them, attended dozens of the iterations of this conference, if you sum up their visits.

And I have had the pleasure of spending time with them in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Honolulu, Hawaii, back to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Elizabeth, Portugal, Fort Lauderdale, Florida on the internet, because COVID 19 was a thing, and now in Dublin. So I think Nina, if you wouldn’t mind starting and introducing yourself and really talking about the history of how the conference came to be.

Nina: Well Aloha. I am our resident Hawaii on the ground member and this conference came to be as a result of a group of us getting together, recognizing a need to have a reason. We started at AERA, which is the American Association, wait.

Anna: American Educational Research Association.

Nina: American Educational Research Association. Good. And we formed a special interest group and the special interest group started meeting right after charter legislation. And that was one of the impetuses and there happened to be two special interest groups, one, school choice and the other charter schools. But it was so limiting. We were one in 20,000 people.

So by the time we got to our little group, we were frazzled and we didn’t get to spend time with each other and we were so small in number that we didn’t get many slots on the program. And that was the main problem. So we said there needs to be a better way.

Our better way was let’s get just our conference. And originally it was the school choice conference and then we started talking, well, we don’t want to limit it, we want to look at school choice and reforms because we wanted to be open ended, so that was the original. And the first year there were four or five of us. Bob, were you on there?

Bob: I think I was. I believe I was.

Nina: Yes. John Merrifield, Juda Stein, Robert Fox and I and Patrick Wolf put together the first conference. And it was trying to convince people that this was going to be a go. I can’t remember how many people actually attended. I think about 80 to 90 people and lucky for us, Juda Stein did all the logistics and it was wonderful. We’ve got to give credit to Nigel White, who was our gofer, did everything for us. So that was our humble beginning and that was 10 years ago. What has been wonderful is the evolution not only in becoming international, that was the first big leap, but I think the other is attracting much younger scholars. And we now have a cohort of younger scholars who are going to take us into the future.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that was great. So Bob, having been kind of there from the beginning, would you mind talking about also the connection to the journal that you are so closely involved with?

Bob: I think I’ve been editing it for six years now. I think the original idea for this came from John Merrifield, the journal editor at the time and-

Drew Catt: The journal being the Journal of School Choice.

Bob: The journal of school choice. And we are the only journal as far as I know, focused just on school choice and school reform. This was a great way for editorial board members like all of us here, to go and see what some of the best papers are that we want to solicit.

It was a great way to get together with school choice researchers from really at times four continents, mostly Europe and North America, but some from Asia and South America haven’t had as much success in Africa as we’d like, we’re working on it. And seeing the commonalities and the differences has been fascinating. Seeing new research come in all the time has been fascinating.

I’m seeing the nexus between research and policy making has been incredibly interesting. And we’ve gotten a number of wonderful papers that we’ve then published in the Journal of School Choice. It’s part of how we’ve increased the impact factor of the journal, roughly sevenfold.

This conference has been key to that. And it’s also been a great place to meet people as Nina to said a lot of senior researchers, Charles Glenn, I think went every year until this year, but also a lot of very young up and coming researchers and graduate students. Anna you first came to us as a graduate student, right?

Anna: Yeah. I think I’ve been to all 10 of the school choice meetings.

Nina: Think so too.

Anna: And I think that means I’ve beaten Patrick Wolf. This is his first year missing it.

Nina: Oh the young people are taking off. Watch out.

Anna: But Patrick roped me in for sure. He was my mentor at the University of Arkansas and the first year that he was organizing the conference with you and the rest, he said, you have to come. And it was not in Fort Lauderdale, but it was in Florida. And I thought, okay, twist my arm. I can make this work. So I feel like I’ve grown up with the conference a little bit.

I started my first presentation, I was just a graduate student and very nervous. And I have since brought my graduate student here. So last year, Daniella who is a student at NC State with me presented at the conference, said it was her first conference presentation and it was such a supportive environment to do it in. And then her paper was awarded the Patrick Wolf Best Paper prize.

So talk about making a good impression on the next generation. Yes. That just made her feel so good. And I was so proud of the conference that they were able to support the work like that. So yes, have enjoyed watching the evolution and seen the continued growth and being challenged by the planning committee. So Bob Fox was instrumental in always telling us you’ve got to be bringing in diverse voices on this.

This is not an advocacy group. This is a conference where we come to debate controversial topics and nothing is off the table and have to challenge each other to think about these things deeply. And that’s, I think been one of the richest things about the conference.

Drew Catt: I have a confession. This conference was also my first conference presentation, so seems like has it really been seven years now? I guess it has been for me. And yeah, as someone who is new in the school choice research movement, this is hands down the most welcoming conference.

Anna: Definitely.

Drew Catt: And I have gotten some of the best feedback compared to any other conference that I attend, regardless of who the discussant is, just having so many wonderful knowledgeable people attending your sessions and giving you feedback both in the moment and then coming up to you after the session’s over, talking in the hallway. It’s just been a really huge benefit.

And it helps the fact that I have been able to bring my family with me to the destinations that are not the Midwest in the heart of January has been very nice as well. Trin, didn’t know if you’d like to introduce yourself and really talk about what it’s been like as someone who’s not United States based and what the conference experience has been like for you over the years.

Trin: Yeah. Thank you. Hi, I’m Trin. I’m from Estonia, so I’m here to bring a little bit of European context and if I’m not mistaken, I have been with you from the Fort Lauderdale. And to be honest, it was quite accidentally, but at the same time not that much because my doctoral thesis was about school choice. So you have to pay attention what you’re studying. You happen to be in Florida in school choice conference.

So yeah, my doctoral project was about school choice and I defended it very successfully in 2015. And I’ve been in that crew or part of that crew since year second. And I really have to admit that this conference and this crew and this event, this is very important component in my academic trajectory from very many perspectives.

And I think it’s very, very special conference and why, first of all, and I think this goes back what Anna already said because of diversity. So it’s so diverse from so many angles. First it brings together practitioners and academics. When we are talking about academics, there are so many different disciplines all together educational scientists, political scientists, economists, so on and so forth.

Also, I think we have been experiencing with different formats, different of course countries, continents. So yeah, I’m very glad to be part of that crew. And also, I think it’s very important and at the same time, very challenging to see how differently actually we are talking about school choice, private schooling in different continents, whether to be European perspective or US perspective.

For instance, this year, I’ve heard that so many times in so many presentations, somebody says that private schooling, sometimes in US context has been seen as the threat to public schooling. In European context very often you see that private schooling has been a component how to improve public schooling.

So there are so many different meanings and framings and whether it’s salient in one country and why it’s salient in one country, whether it’s goes back to religious history or not so yeah, it’s such a rich area and I’m really happy to be here and I hope to bring more and more Europeans to that environment.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So the conference is quite the undertaking and Anna you’ve been intimately familiar with that over the past year. So would you mind really talking about what goes into kind of some of the decision making behind the wonderful proposals that are received and honestly how much work is put in to really making the program happen?

Anna: Yes. So I’ve been the co-chair this year and last year. And that also means I chair the program committee and I have gotten to see all the different steps in the process of soliciting submissions, they don’t just land on your doorstep. But we have a really hard working planning committee that go out and drum up interest in the conference and encourage people to apply.

And we also have a travel grant committee and that has been something that we emphasize on the front end like, hey, graduate students and junior faculty, this is affordable, this is attainable. You should submit something to our conference. I think that has been a key selling point. And then we have a program committee that reviews between us, the submissions that come in.

Something that’s different about our conference, because I do serve this role for other conferences too, our conference is unique in that we have these critical conversations sessions and they’re very popular, both for the presenters and the attendees because it doesn’t have to be based around a research paper. So it could be a philosophical topic, it could be a debate and it can be structured very flexibly and people submit their proposal or they assemble it with one other person or with a whole panel of people.

And those have been really rich grounds and safe spaces for people to intellectually develop and hash out new ideas. So we have a mixture of both of those and the research panels, which I think has been key. The process, just like you might imagine for any conference, solicit all these submissions and then the committee reviews them, they’re reviewed multiple times and then we contact people and let them know if they’ve been successful or not.

And then we start to assemble the program. So I feel a little unlucky that I was the program chair during the pandemic year because it was all online and it was very strange trying to think about how are we going to assemble these virtual panels and everyone was getting used to Zoom and it turned out to be very successful. I think Nina and Bob were the people that watched every single panel.

Nina: Yes. Yes. We are quite faithful. Even though our time zone meant we sometimes had to get up at five in the morning if there was something live because it was happening in central time or some other time zone.

Anna: So yeah, that was another feature of last year’s conference that we had asynchronous content and synchronous live conference.

Bob: I will say that we attended four conferences last year by Zoom, ours was by far the best. And I would say that some of my collaborators noted how we got the best feedback on our work at our conference.

Anna: Oh wow. That’s great. And I think it was good in the grand scheme of things to push us into Twitter a little bit more because people were tweeting about the panels they had watched and recommending them to each other. And that’s something that we can continue in future years, using Twitter. I know that you’re good at that. And you-

Trin: No. No. No. I’m just a newbie. But I know that I should do it.

Anna: Yeah. Just to share what’s happening so people are aware of the good things at this conference. So this year then being in Dublin has been super, everyone was excited about the location. I think we will have to come back to Dublin, just putting that out there.

Bob: You’re from a few hours away, right?

Anna: Coincidentally. But lots of last minute changes. Just people faced travel difficulties given the current situation but we were very flexible and able to accommodate. We have an amazing team, both from the technology side of things, event planning and just Keri Hunter as executive director gets all the credit.

Nina: Absolutely. And you know what, there are two aspects to the program. One, is the program that all conferences have. The other is what really happens at this conference. Nobody is a stranger. For example, the first night we had the reception, I saw a couple sitting in the corner that I did not know and I happened to know almost everybody, not everybody. So I made it a point to go talk to them, get to know them and suggest other people they might talk to who might be interested in the same thing.

And then we’re going to dinner last night, we collect others who maybe aren’t as known and bring them in the fold. So we know them and they know us. So there is no stranger at this conference. So if you’re used to going to AERA or any of the major or the really big conferences, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that the 120 or so people here, you develop a family and they’re part of your family. So definitely that is the real program for some of us and that’s where we make connections for our next study or our next question that comes to us as we’re talking. So that is the other program.

Drew Catt: Yeah. I’ve definitely recruited co-authors at this conference. That is definitely something that has happened. So Nina I think you’re on a great point and I’d love to kind of wrap this up by going around the rest of the table and saying why you think people should actually attend this conference. The sense of family, the wonderful feedback, the opportunity to present in a friendly atmosphere and still get very, very constructive, but still criticism and feedback.

Trin: Why to attend all this plus Florida, of course. And it sells very well for people from Estonia and  countries, close to Estonia or all European countries. But yeah, as I said, and I entirely agree with Nina that it’s very rich, but at the same time, you are not incognito. So you come here and all will notice that and you feel so welcomed. And at the same time, it’s like a reciprocity. So you come here, you want to give back and you also receive, so that’s why, besides all other aspects you mentioned.

Bob: I would say at most academic conferences, school choice will be one half of 1% of what’s there and you may have to run from one side of a convention center, half a mile away to another to catch a panel. We have three or four rooms, all adjoining each other in school choice and school reform education policy, are all we do. And for that reason, we get the best work on it. So it’s a very fun environment, but it’s also an environment where you learn a great deal. This is one of your research areas, you should go here or maybe you shouldn’t. We sort of like having a small conference.

Anna: Yes. I think the intimate nature of the conference means that there are no missed opportunities. Everyone is so accessible. And for example, I attended a session this morning and I had some feedback for the presenter, but there was good conversation happening in the room. I never got to ask my question and I’m going to see them tonight. We’re going to have dinner, we’re going to talk about it more over drinks. There’s just no missed opportunities. I know that I can follow up with them.

Drew Catt: Yeah.

Anna: And I think what it’s different about this conference.

Drew Catt: Nina, any last words?

Nina: Actually, not. Just as we would say in Hawaii, a hui hou and that is until we meet you again.

Drew Catt: Speaking of which I hope that as many of you as possible can mark your calendars for January 13th to 16th, 2023, where ISCRC edition 11 will be in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. And until next time, this has been another episode of EdChoice Chats.