Some members of the EdChoice state team tell us about their experiences at two recently attended conferences.
Jordan Zakery: All right to our viewing audience, we are here with another update from the EdChoice state team. Currently, we have not a lot of action going on in the states, but we’ve had the opportunity to go to a couple wonderful conferences where school choice was being discussed, where a lot of great conversations about education reform and the direction of education were happening. Those two conferences were ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, as well as NCSL, the National Conference of State Legislators. We just want to share a little bit with you guys about what was going on, what we learned, and what were some major takeaways we took from these conferences. First, I’m going to go ahead and pass it on to Marc LeBlond our director of policy so he can talk to you a little bit about his experience at that ALEC.
Marc LeBlond: Thank you, Jordan, appreciate that. As you mentioned, we here at EdChoice we’ve been busy. We’ve been trotting around the states, visiting various conferences in Denver, in Atlanta. But fresh off the heels of ALEC, my takeaways were twofold. For me, the themes were excitement and transformation, so excitement for what’s to come in terms of new school choice developments, interacting with folks in places like Arizona, places like New Hampshire and yes, even West Virginia. West Virginia, who has suffered a setback, despite their setback, they’re still hopeful. They’re not downtrodden, they’re looking ahead, they’re looking forward to good things to come in their future. Secondly, transformation, the transformational effect of education and educational choice. Now here, I’ve got to give some love to our friends over at AFC, American Federation for Children, for the school choice reception that they held at ALEC.
Now, one of the things that AFC does well, particularly Katie Lenihan with Voices for Choice, and Walter Blanks and those folks over there, what they do very well is closing the loop on school choice policies. Not only are there K through 12 students presently benefiting from these programs, but once they finish, once they’re adults and they get out, how are things going for them now? How are things going for them as adults? To that end at the AFC reception, they had graduates from these programs, they’re giving their testimonials. It was very emotional and it was some phenomenal evidence of the transformative power of these programs. First was this was a real treat for me personally. First was a gentleman by the name of Myles Slade-Bowers. Now Myles is a former Harrisburg student. He also happened to be my three time intern at the Commonwealth Foundation. Now, he’s a guy I met at 15 when he was just a teenager and at the time he was potentially going to lose his scholarship and a lot of history, a lot of daylight in between then and now, but now he’s a thriving adult and he’s giving speeches at a conference like ALEC.
Then second was Ashley Elliot from Florida, incredible moving story. She’s a graduate of Florida’s Tax Credit Program, the FTC, Florida Tax Credit Program, and she was born to parents who struggled with addiction, ended up being raised and adopted by her grandmother. Ashley had struggles of her own and if you look at her life at a point in time, say, when she’s 12 years old, say, when she’s 14 years old, most of us would not predict a happy, positive outcome to that story for Ashley. But thankfully, Ashley got into Florida’s program. She was accepted into a school where she could heal, where she could thrive, where she could grow and she gave that testimonial that night at AFC’s reception.
As I’m listening to Ashley, first of all, I found it tremendously moving, but I thought to myself, I know there are Florida folks in the room and I’m not going to name any names, but I look over to my right at the table where Florida’s think tank is gathered and I look over and I could just see from their faces, they were visibly moved. One gentleman in particular, who we know, but I’m not going to name any names, just tears streaming down his face. Just the evidence of that transformative power and the satisfaction that results as a policy person, these policy solutions that we work on day in and day out and seeing the transformative effect in people’s lives and seeing it actually play out for real people as they end up as thriving adults after they’ve been through the school system.
Jordan Zakery: Marc, that’s really powerful. It’s really wonderful to hear these testimonies from students who have been in programs, they’ve been the beneficiary, and they’ve gone on and they’re doing wonderful things. I think that makes a lot of people very encouraged and it’s a reason for us to keep working hard in our advocacy around this issue. Ed, You were at ALEC also and I know you worked the booth and I know you participated in some other things. Can you tell us what some of your favorite takeaways were from the conference?
Ed Tarnowski: Yes. I did have the opportunity to attend ALEC as well and I just want to say how much excitement there was around the school choice issue all across the conference. I had the opportunity to work EdChoice’s booth, where we had dozens of advocates, legislators, and others coming up to the booth, talking about how excited they are about the issue, asking us for more information, and of course taking our wonderful materials and our research. But yeah, there is a ton of excitement around school choice. I’ve kind of been saying, it almost seemed like the unofficial theme of ALEC was school choice this year and you could just really feel the energy around the issue in the room and moving along with excellent policy making in the states.
Jordan Zakery: Well, Ed, it sounds like you gained a lot from this conference. Your remarks echoed what Marc was saying that school choice was buzzing as an issue around ALEC. I also got the opportunity to attend NCSL, the National Conference of State Legislators in Denver, Colorado, and school choice was also a really discussed and important issue during the conference. Actually, speaking of manning the booth, I manned the booth along with Sarah Bosso on our team and Lauren Hodge on our team and we ran out of many of our publications, including the ABCs of School Choice before we even finished the conference, which was great because that means there was a lot of people wanting to have conversations and there was a lot of people from my experience manning the booth that maybe they were not school choice experts, maybe they have not been sold on the issue yet, but they wanted to learn more. That was a really valuable part of this conference.
Another great thing is EdChoice had the opportunity to sponsor a luncheon at ALEC and this luncheon specifically was about innovative approaches to education and we co-sponsored with a group called Stride Education. During this conference, our own Robert Enlow, CEO, had the opportunity to give some of his takeaways from how we think about education and where education is heading in this post-COVID world and just thinking about the lessons we learned. He was able to show a lot of our polling actually from our EdChoice /Morning Consult partnership to create the Public Opinion Tracker and he pointed out that now after COVID 60% of parents would like at least one day of at home learning. That was very, very interesting because that number was much lower during pre-pandemic times. Additionally, another figure he was able to show, as we were thinking about the importance of education, what it looks like, was what are parents wanting from the schools and were seen during this time of the pandemic where we’ve started to empower parents, realize how important it is to have parents involved in educating their children and that process.
One of our recent pollings that Robert discussed was that the K through 8 level core academic subjects and independent thinking were the two largest vote getting responses from parents and from the 9th to 12th grade, it was skills for future employment and core academic subjects. I think that this information can kind of inform us for where education is going to go and what parents need. They want parents focusing on literacy, math, those core academic subjects. They want that from their education and they want flexibility. They’re looking at different ways, different modes of delivery for education. That was what this luncheon was about. There were a lot of great questions between the audience and then even a great dialogue between the individuals on the panel. This audience was filled with many policy makers and legislators from around the country, along with people in the ed space.
It was a wonderful, wonderful event to just have a great dialogue and then education was still a theme throughout the rest of the conference. All in all, I think EdChoice, and I can speak for myself and I can also say for the others from our team, that EdChoice really enjoyed NCSL and thinking about where education is going and school choice was another big issue at the conference this year. As we start to wrap up, I want to take it back to Marc and to add one more time to see if they have any final thoughts on this conference season and what they look forward to as we plan and start to head into legislative sessions.
Marc LeBlond: Final thoughts are look, lots of excitement heading into 2023. The excitement is in the air. Parents want more freedom in their education. Legislators, policy makers, policy advocates, it seems like everybody is turning and facing one direction and that is the sovereignty of parental choice and just in terms of children being the primary focus of education, that the money should follow the child, and that the education system should serve the needs of the students above all else. Really looking forward to 2023 and let’s make it another year of school choice, let’s make 2023, the year of school choice that’s above any other year of school choice.
Jordan Zakery: Ed, what are your thoughts? What are your final takeaways from these conferences and then what are you inspired about? Just any thoughts going into legislative sessions? We’re not quite there yet, but they’ll be here before we know it. Do you have any final thoughts, Ed?
Ed Tarnowski: Yeah, Jordan. I mean, I’d say my main takeaway is keep an eye on next year’s legislative session. We saw a lot of excitement at these conferences and generally we see in off election years more legislation like this getting passed and more momentum behind it. Yeah, again, I’d say keep an eye in next year, I think it’ll be an exciting one.
Jordan Zakery: Well, Ed, thank you for that takeaway. I think as we can all see, legislators are pumped up. We heard that at these conferences. We’re in a great opportunity to continue to advocate, grow, expand. That means more students, more funding for school choice proposals and to just make sure that we are delivering what parents need. As we wrap up, I just want to say thank you to our audience and we look forward to joining you next month for another state team update.