Ep. 312: Researcher Profile — with James Shuls

March 31, 2022

Sit down with Dr. James Shuls, Dean of the College of Education at Southeastern University where he is the Academic Director for the American Center for Political Leadership.

Drew Catt: Hello, I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and special projects. Today I’m in the studio to follow up with an amazing researcher. I’m here with Dr. James Shuls, Dean of the College of Education at Southeastern University where he is the Academic Director for the American Center for Political Leadership. He’s also a fellow at EdChoice, and we’ve had you on the podcast before to do one of these profile podcasts, but it’s really great now that you’re in your new position to kind of hear about what’s changed and hear about really what life’s like for you now, James. So thanks for joining today.

Dr. James Shuls: Hey, Drew. It’s always great to be with you. I always love what you and EdChoice are doing and love being a part of it.

Drew Catt: So, James, would you mind really telling our listeners about kind of your transition from Missouri to Florida and what life is like now that you’re a prestigious Dean of a college of education, and also really what the American Center for Political Leadership is?

Dr. James Shuls: How long’s the podcast, there’s lots to talk about there. So, for the past several years I was at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, had a wonderful experience there training mostly public school leaders. So I worked with people who wanted to be principals and superintendents, and that was primarily what I did. Transitioning here has been a great change and challenge. I wanted to go to a place where there was really an atmosphere on campus, and the university I was at was much more of a commuter campus and I was always working with students in the evening. When you’re training principals and superintendents, they are typically teachers. And so all my classes were either online or in the evenings, and I wasn’t in a place where I felt like there was that vibrant campus atmosphere. And so this job position came open at Southeastern University, we’re a Christian university located in Lakeland, Florida, and I came to visit and just fell in love with the campus and the life around campus. There are a little less than 2,000 students that live on campus, but it’s a small place with a really great feel to it. And I really liked the feel of the place and the ability to be at a place where I could help shape the mission and vision of the college of education. And so I transitioned earlier this year in August and was on campus for a week, then took two weeks off with COVID and then got back to it. So I feel like I’m just now getting to a point where I’m really understanding all of what goes on at the university, because it’s very different being at a state-funded institution where faculty have tenure and all the things that go with a state-funded institution, going to a private Christian institution where people don’t have tenure. And so there are lots of interesting dynamics there we could talk about or not. So in addition to being the Dean of the college, as you mentioned, I wear another hat as an academic director for the American Center for Political Leadership. And so this is an academic center on campus, and the mission is sort of twofold. When it comes to civics instruction, there are lots of organizations that try to promote political engagement and they try to help people understand their rights as a citizen, and that’s one aspect of the work we do. We want people to understand how government works, we want them to take an interest in it and possibly be involved. But there’s another side that lots of people don’t talk about, the [inaudible 00:03:18] responsibility as a citizen. What does it mean to be a citizen, and how should I live as a citizen? What does it mean that I need to do with my life? And we think that part of that’s being responsible, not just in voting, but in caring for your neighbors, taking care of your community, participating in civil society, doing all those other things that responsible citizens should do. So the center works to promote civic life through those two different channels.

Drew Catt: Civil society, yeah. I remember fondly, of course, philanthropy and civil society and just how long the class actually spent trying to come up with their own definition of civil society. So really, in your work there, how do you conceptualize civil society, and how do you measure something like that?

Dr. James Shuls: Well, I mean, civil society typically is thought of as the area between people and government, right? So it’s our mediating institutions, it’s our churches, it’s our Kiwanis Club, it’s our Elks Lodge, it’s all those sorts of organizations that you could belong to that help solve problems and take care of people outside of government. And in many cases, the organizations we want to take care of people rather than the government do those things. And if you look, almost all measures of civil society participation are down. Church attendance is down. Church membership is down. Participation in these fraternal organizations is down. Even little things like knowing your neighbor, knowing the names of your neighbor, measures of those things are down, and that’s terrible for our society. The average person, if you say civil society, they think of people being nice to one another. So that’s not just what we’re talking about. We certainly want people to be nice to one another, but we want a society in which we take care of one another, where if someone’s in need, they don’t have to just go to the government to take care of those needs, but where there are organizations locally, there are food pantries, there are churches, there are all these things that people can rely upon for support. And so that’s what I think of when you say civil society, I think of the organizations that can help take care of people’s needs. But I do want to say we also promote civil society as the people think of it, being nice and courteous, but also thinking about it in terms of debate and dialogue. One of the things we try to promote here at the university and through this center is being able to engage with people you disagree with and listen to them and debate with them and reason in with them, which is an art form that many people don’t have these days. We know how to own the other side or try to destroy the other side, but we don’t know how to engage with one another in a productive way. And so, even though that’s not what I would conceptually think of as the civil society, it’s part of the work that we do in promoting interest in civics and civil life and all those areas of our lives.

Drew Catt: If only we still had Milton Friedman constantly on television engaging with opponents and having frank discussions with them in easy to follow words. The man had an uncanny ability to take these extremely complex ideas and have a conversation with them and have a conversation with people who didn’t agree with them. That’s definitely something that try to embody, but it’s hard to find people that’ll engage equally on the other side sometimes.

Dr. James Shuls: You have to start from the premise that the other person’s not evil for thinking differently than you, and that’s hard for some people to get past. They say, “You don’t see the world the same way as me, therefore, you’re a terrible person and I can’t talk with you. Therefore, I must destroy you.” And if you start from there, you’re not going to have any productive dialogue. One of the best experiences in my life was graduate school at the University of Arkansas. Mike McShane was there with me, and Dan Bowen, who’s at Texas A&M and a few other people. And we didn’t all see the world the same way, but we liked each other, six people who shared an office. And we would come in and we would debate each other and we would push on each other and try to win each other over through arguments. And sometimes we would say, “You’re an idiot.” But it was out of love for one another. We were able to engage in those conversations because we liked one another. If you enter the conversation thinking, “I hate this person, they’re terrible.” You can’t have productive dialogue. And so what we need to do is the society is start recognizing just because people see the world differently, doesn’t necessarily make them bad or evil and our job should be to listen and to rationally debate with them, try to win people over. I’m a Christian, I view my political faith, my political life a lot like my Christian life, I don’t want to come in fire and brimstone telling or go to Hades, right? I want to win people over, I want people to be about the power of my argument and the logic and the reasoning and the truth behind it. And if we approach conversations like that, trying to win people over, I think it’ll go a long way.

Drew Catt: Yeah, more leading with love, if you will.

Dr. James Shuls: Absolutely.

Drew Catt: That is really interesting, not to dive too deep into politics, we’ll skate on the surface if you will. But yeah, just the extreme divide that really has come up, and we’ve kind of seen this in some of our polling, kind of extreme thought and so many polarizing views. How do we find the middle ground if there are so many people unwilling to reach out for the middle? Is that something that you’ve seen in the work and the research that you’ve been doing?

Dr. James Shuls: So I think that what you’re saying is absolutely happening. It’s either you are pro-public education or you want to destroy public education. This is your great Chicken Little, recent publication that you guys put out, Jason Bedrick. You have people that say you’re either with us or against us, there’s no middle ground. And if there’s no middle ground, well, why not push more into my camp and get further away from your side? So instead of saying, as Milton Friedman would’ve said, we’ve already kind of settled that we’re going to have public education, let’s figure out the best way to deliver it. He says vouchers is the best way to deliver on the model of public education. Instead of saying that, you keep telling me that I’m anti-public education so I say, “The heck with it, let’s destroy public education.” And I go all in and throw my hat in that ring because I’m tired of people categorizing me one way. And I think when we do that, when we don’t meet people in the middle, when we don’t have these conversations, we push them further into the other side and you get these more and more extreme views. And that’s where I think it’s good to try to build bridges. And that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call out behavior. I just saw a terrific video you guys put out where you show people, these Chicken Littles saying, “This is going to destroy public education.” Well, we should clearly come in and say, “That’s silly. We have 20 years or more showing that it doesn’t destroy public education, let’s talk about this.” And try to bring people in. Our goal isn’t to destroy and to own people, our goal is to win them over. And that’s the way we should try to approach people.

Drew Catt: So are you telling me you didn’t brainwash every single one of your students when you were at a state run university leading these principals and teachers to destroy the public education system from within?

Dr. James Shuls: Well, I’ll tell you what, I got some pushback because I would write school choice related articles. When I was at a public institution I would write about pension reform, and I would have people contacting the university saying, “Fire this professor, he wants to take away our pensions.” Now I certainly supported school choice when I was at a public institution, and what was funny about it, I had a ed policy class, because when I first started, I tried to sort of hide my opinions. I thought, it’s not appropriate for me to put my opinions out there. But if you’re like me, an academic who is consistently in the public sphere, I blog, I write op-eds, I’m on these sorts of podcasts, it’s very easy for people to find out your positions on things. So I found there was no point in hiding it. I might as well be honest about what I believe so students know, and then we can have open dialogues about things. And I had students that would come up to me at the end of the semester and say, “I want to thank you for presenting these different viewpoints. You go through an entire program and you only get one side of the story, it’s nice to have a different perspective.” And that’s what I found oftentimes at my previous institution. Again, I love the people I work with, my deans were always terrific, but there’s no secret that I was in a very small minority, usually a minority of one, of advocates for school choice. So it’s nice to be in a place, a private institution where there’s much stronger support for school choice.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and a state that there’s just a proliferation of private school choice.

Dr. James Shuls: I mean, moving to Florida, we certainly have a whole lot more options. But even in Florida, what I’m realizing is, we’re not done, the work isn’t over. There are still lots of people that don’t have access to high quality schools. I mean, we moved into a house in October, so we missed the charters school lotteries for the better charter schools in our area, we can’t apply again until next year. And in many cases, we may not be eligible for some of the private school scholarships. So it’s not a woe was me sort of thing, but as just an example, not everyone has access to school choice, even in Florida. We’ve made tremendous progress here, but there’s still more to done that we could expand options for people.

Drew Catt: Even if all the options were available, it’s getting the word out too. I keep doing these parent surveys on a state by state basis and finding that a third to half of the non participating families, including the charter school, public school and the full freight, if you will, private school parents, even though so many prep school parents still have their students on scholarships, but such a large percentage of the non participants have no idea that the programs exist. Even in states like Indiana, where it’s in the news all the time, or like Arizona, where they were undergoing a referendum and it was literally front page news on almost a weekly basis there for a while, still a third of the families have no idea that the programs exist.

Dr. James Shuls: Yeah, continue getting the word out. One of the interesting things that I found here that I think is used for places like Missouri or other places that are new to the school choice game, when we think about tax credit scholarships, people would always argue, “Well, who’s going to donate? Where’s the money going to come from?” Well, I got here and my car broke down and I had to go buy a new car, I didn’t have to, but I went and bought a new used car. And when I’m signing the paperwork, they slide the paper over and say, “Here, sign this, this helps us donate a hundred dollars to the Hope Scholarship fund.” And when buying my car, I signed a little paper and a hundred dollars of the proceeds went to fund scholarships here in Florida through the tax credit scholarship program. I saw that and I’m like, “This is how you fund it.” There are all kinds of creative ways to fund these school choice programs. And I just thought it was amazing, because… It’s funny, people in places where they don’t have these programs think that there’s no solution or there’s no way of solving some problems, and then we go some place that’s figuring these things out and solving these problems and you say, “Oh, it can be done. We can make this work.”

Drew Catt: Yeah, it’s going to be fascinating over the next decade. It’s been a decade since Arizona had its first ESA program, and 10 years later here we are with West Virginia having a pretty much near universal eligible ESA program. And West Virginia is, let’s just be blunt, West Virginia has been towards the bottom of many education rankings over the past several years. So it’ll be fascinating to see if they have a Arizona-like increase in their NAEP scores or how much of it is tied in Arizona to the charter sector and the growing population. It’d be fascinating just to see, okay, how many states 10 years from now have an ESA, because we only started with one and they’re proliferating year and year. And even your state of prior residence, Missouri has a tax-credit funded ESA.

Dr. James Shuls: Well, part of it is just what we’ve been talking about and it’s the work that EdChoice does to show the sky hasn’t fallen, right? We’ve put these programs into place, they have a long track record and we’re solving problems, we’re figuring things out and making these programs better all the time. So we hear complaints about, “Well, how do you fund them?” We’re showing how to fund them. We hear complaints about, “There’s no oversight with an ESA.” Well, Arizona’s figured that out. They put mechanisms in place. They’ve made it more secure, and people aren’t wasting government money. We solve these problems all the time as they come up and more and more legislators are seeing that. These reasons, these excuses to not do school choice programs are all moot. If there’s a problem, yo, I solve it. Check out the hook while Drew Catt revolves it. [inaudible 00:16:58], sorry, I’ve thrown in some Vanilla Ice here, I apologize.

Drew Catt: Ice, ice, baby. That is probably… My favorite cameo of all time is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, with Vanilla Ice just in there, “Go ninja, go ninja, go.”

Dr. James Shuls: “Go.”

Drew Catt: Yeah, so let’s shift to a little more personal. So James, I know in, at least when you were in the St. Louis area, you were a hockey dad. Is that something that has translated to Florida? I hear that the part of Florida you’re in is actually kind of big in hockey, or is that something that no longer works with your busy dean calendar?

Dr. James Shuls: We’re still playing hockey. I have two sons that play hockey. Now the big difference here… And the quality of hockey is about the same. I mean, my son’s high school level team here would compete against the high school level team he played for in Missouri. The big difference is how much you have to drive, because you know where we are there’s one local hockey club. In St. Louis there were way more rinks, way more teams that you would have to drive maybe an hour. Man, we’re all over Florida for hockey around here. And so that’s the biggest difference is there’s a lot more time in the car to going to rinks in far-flung places all over Florida.

Drew Catt: Yeah, so more on the competition side.

Dr. James Shuls: It’s good quality, it’s just lots of car time.

Drew Catt: That’s a great way to learn about a new place that you’re living, is to just explore it.

Dr. James Shuls: Well, what I’m finding is the coasts of Florida are pretty amazing. Through the center of Florida, we don’t have quite as much of the beautiful trees that you would have in Missouri or the Midwest or North Carolina or these sorts of places. The middle’s got a lot of flat land, and I hadn’t quite realized that because most of my time in Florida beforehand had always been on vacation.

Drew Catt: Yeah, quite a few lakes though. I mean, you’re in literally Lakeland.

Dr. James Shuls: We are in Lakeland with tons of lakes around our area. So we’re still getting used to Florida. The biggest adjustment has been moving with four kids, moving with four kids to a new place, figuring out new schools. My two older kids went to a public school, they’re now going to a smaller private school. My two younger kids were at a great private school that we loved, we’re now trying to homeschool them. There’s some adjustments in that process. But overall, I mean, again, coming to a university where we’re able to shape the culture and sort of set a vision for what we want this place to be is exciting to me. When I think about what I’d hoped for SEU, at Southeastern University, as I look at what’s going on in the school choice world, and I say, “I want us to be the provider of teachers.” I want us to be the place that people are reaching out to and saying, “Hey, how do we partner together?” I mean, the institution is very forward thinking in this area. With churches, they have about 150, I think, partnership churches where partner with local churches and they provide ministerial training, training to become pastors in those local places. I just visited one of our North Carolina extension sites, an amazing local church. They’re offering classes blended locally in some of the online programming we offer to train pastors, but we also have education programming. Now, we’d have to work out some details to offer in-person classes, but we have virtual programs and we are partnering with all kinds of organizations to do really unique and creative things. And I think that there’s so much possibility here to provide teachers for the huge growing movement of classical schools in other places. Just another quick example, when we were in North Carolina, we have a partnership with the homeschooling group, Classical Conversations. So Classical Conversations, they have really great curriculum and it’s like a community that you participate in. Well, we partner with them to do dual enrollment for some of their high school programming. So they’re taking Classical Conversations, homeschooling, and they’re getting college credit as high schoolers for some of their coursework. We also, for the Classical Conversations educators, they provide training that we have collaborated with them on where leaders of these groups can get a master’s in classical studies. They’re getting that degree through us with Classical Conversations, providing a lot of the content to their folks. So we’re working on all kinds of unique partnerships like this, and I think the possibilities are almost endless when you have the attitude that our university does, which is, if you ask us if we can do something, we’re probably going to say yes. And we got to figure out how to do it, but we’re open to all kinds of partnerships and collaborations. And I’m excited about what the future holds.

Drew Catt: Yeah, especially hearing all the stories about teachers retiring in mass over the past year or two. And really the demand for teachers is not going away by any means.

Dr. James Shuls: What happens if you’re in, whether it’s a state institution or private institution, the educator training programs are highly regulated by the state. And so you have hardly any flare, you have hardly any difference between programs within a state, if the right program that’s aligned to state certification, because the states have regulations, they have the certain classes you have to take, there’s all these hoops you have to jump through. And what we can do through our online program, which isn’t tied to certification, is we could really customize that. And we could build a program, we’re working on this now and looking at it now, to ask, “Well, what does it look like to be a teacher in a classical school?” The training for that should be different than it is for a traditional public school educator. Well, what does it look like to be a teacher at a Montessori school? Well, the training for that should probably be different than it is for a traditional educator. We have of all kinds of unique schools popping up throughout this country, and we want to look for ways in which we can create programming to help provide teachers for those places. Now, certification hoops or barriers, we’re going to have to figure out and jump through, but we’re willing to do that. We want to look at those things to help provide teachers for the unique schools that are popping up throughout this country, because that’s the most amazing thing about school choice is the different types of schools that are available, but those schools can’t be available if we don’t have teachers to staff them, or if we’re hiring all the teachers from the same pool that have all been trained the same way, it’s not going to give us quite the diversity that we want.

Drew Catt: I think that’s a great place to end, really encouraging people to think about what teaching could or should look like and getting more of those beyond just the strict government regulations, but allowing educators to better learn how to more easily navigate the classroom and to better serve all students. And to our listeners, be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you choose to listen to them for more of our coverage of new school choice research, education reform policy chats, and more. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you back soon with more EdChoice chats. [crosstalk 00:24:08].