Ep. 100: Fireside Chats With Robert Enlow

February 19, 2019

In the first episode of our Fireside Chats series, EdChoice President and CEO Robert Enlow takes us back to our roots. He discusses the Friedman legacy and the importance of EdChoice’s vision.

Robert Enlow: Oh, hi. I’m Robert Enlow, and I’m the president and CEO of EdChoice. This is our 100th podcast at EdChoice. And we’re really excited, so we decided to start a new type of podcast called Fireside Chats. I wanted to call it Riffing with Robert, but they liked Fireside Chats better. This adds to our podcasts that have been including Cool Schools, School Choice in Pop Culture, our researcher profiles. It’s amazing how many podcasts can get done in just two years.

So, today on our Fireside Chat, my riff is really about remembering our vision. And so what I want to do with you today is share with you the vision that we have at EdChoice and why we think it’s so important.

It’s been over 12 years since Milton Friedman died and 22 years since he and Rose started the foundation that has now become EdChoice. To those who knew him, Dr. Friedman was a great many things. He was serious and quick- witted, rigorous and humorous, willing to talk to anyone but dismissive of nonsense. And he liked a good scotch. Simply put, Milton Friedman was an intellectual giant who is sorely missed in our current and contentious social and political climate. And regardless of your ideology, he is someone whose ideas need to be regularly remembered, discussed and debated.

In our office here at EdChoice, we remember Milton Friedman in a variety of ways. Sometimes we will ask each other in meetings, “What would Milton say,” or, “What would Milton do?” Other times, we challenge each other and say, “Milton wouldn’t agree with that,” or, “Milton would agree with that.” Other times, we’ll watch old YouTube videos where Milton does a take down on Phil Donahue or some other unsuspecting student. We have even gone so far as to preserve our very own Uncle Milty, a life-sized cutout who stands in the corner of our conference room overseeing every meeting and reminding us of our intellectual heritage.

Now, you’re probably saying to yourself, if you’re listening, “All right, Robert, apart from all this nostalgia, why should we give a toss about Dr. Friedman? Why should we care? What does he have to offer any of us, particularly given all the controversy that surrounded him in his lifetime?” There are many answers to those questions, but one lies in my favorite quote from Dr. Friedman. “Only a crisis,” he said, “actual or perceived produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas lying around at the time. That I believe is our main function,” he said, “to make sure that the idea is lying around at the time are good enough to stand the test of time.”

It’s a pivotal and important quote from Dr. Friedman and one that carries a lot of weight with me. The author, Naomi Klein uses that quote actually is the backbone of her book, The Shock Doctrine, where she basically blames Milton for creating what she calls “disaster capitalism.” And that is a type of capitalism that has allowed the U.S. and its various nefarious private companies to supposedly use free markets to exploit, quote, “disaster shocked people and countries.” Think about the response to some, or by some, about the privatizers who were coming in to capitalize on the hurricane in Puerto Rico and you’ll understand exactly what she means and what they think.

As you might imagine, I disagree with this. I think this quote is yet another instance of what I call Dr. Friedman’s practical and observational brilliance. And just so you know, this is coming from someone who did postgraduate studies on liberation theology and who intended some living Marxist party meetings before I started working for the Friedman Foundation. So, just as an aside, I came to this foundation as someone who was not really ideologically in the same ballpark as Milton Friedman. I call my transition from liberation to liberty. But all Dr. Friedman was doing, in my opinion, was observing and commenting on how he thought change actually occurred.

And if you understand history at all, it is patently obvious that his quote is true. A crisis does produce real change. Just think about George Washington, who faced the real crisis of tyrannical colonialism and in that crisis led his country to freedom. Or Gandhi, who faced the crisis of British imperialism and oppression and led his country to freedom. Or Dr. King, who faced the very real crisis of racial and economic injustice and led to a movement that ensured the right to vote for all African-Americans. These are just three well-known examples. There are literally millions and millions of examples of how crises can lead to real change and in many cases, positive change, not just change for change’s sake, but positive change.

Now, when I think about Melton’s quote, I break it down into three parts. First and most obviously, there needs to be a crisis of some kind. That’s like a, “Duh.” Now, no one who is serious questions that there is a crisis in K–12 education. There surely is, and while I won’t belabor this point, it does merit a few minutes of conversation. Did you know, for example, that there are over 20 million dropouts in the last decade alone? Where do you think they are now? Based on federal and state data, we know that these dropouts are more likely to use social welfare programs, more likely to be incarcerated, and less likely to pay taxes.

Did you know that according to the most recent data from the National Assessment of Education Progress Test, fewer than half of all fourth graders in America are proficient in reading, and 15 percent of African-Americans are proficient. So, basically, very few can read. Did you know that we have increased the number of non-teaching staff by over 700 percent since 1950, and that yet pay our teachers less and spend more on education? Moreover, only 4 percent of graduates now say that they want to go into education.

I mean, my goodness, we can’t get people into education, and we pay them less even though we spend more. And did you know that there are thousands and thousands of students with exceptional needs like my son, who, despite federal laws, don’t receive a free or an appropriate education? Maybe that’s why the fastest growing type of private school choice programs in America are the ones that serve special needs students.

So, for me, I think about a mother I know in Indiana who is working hard to break the barriers into the middle class and who literally has to decide which child gets to go to the private school that will change their lives and which one doesn’t. She can’t afford to move, and she doesn’t quite qualify for our choice scholarship program, but she can afford tuition for one child to go to a private school. The other one is assigned to a poorly performing school. Can you imagine as a parent? One child gets the chance, and the other one doesn’t. I can’t think of many crises in a mother’s life or anyone’s life that are much bigger than that.

The 1983 Nation at Risk Report put it this way. It said that “if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.” Now, in my opinion, not only we allow this to be done to ourselves, we have doubled down on that very same system, supported it, encouraged it, and let it continue and basically unbalanced and unabated for the last 35 years. It’s time for that to stop.

So, this leads me to the second point about Milton’s quote: the quality of ideas. When a crisis occurs, it is the quality of ideas lying around at the time that matter. Now when it comes to K–12 schooling, there have been plenty of ideas about how to improve education in America over the last 50 years. In fact, education reform kind of feels like the Johnny Cash song, “I’ve been everywhere, man.” But in the case of ed reform, it’s more like, “We’ve tried everything, man.” Or in the case of our traditional school systems, “We do everything, man.” You may not know this, or maybe you do, but public schools are not just places of education. They are big, big business. Let me repeat that. They are big, big business. They run food companies, real estate companies, building companies, transportation companies, recruitment companies, and almost every other kind of company that you can imagine it takes to run a multi-billion dollar, heavily bureaucratic state-run industry. And that’s just the bricks and mortar stuff.

Now, think about what we’ve tried when it comes to policy, pedagogy and education reform. Think about it for a second: standards, testing, state tests, whole language, charter schools, achievement districts, funding reform, portfolio districts, calm and enrollment, school grading, open enrollment, pre-K–16, E–16, tenure reform, site based management, state takeovers, and on and on and on. Now, if any of these ideas have worked over time longitudinally, then maybe it could be forgiven, but we have literally tried all sorts of ideas, and they haven’t worked to improve our overall system of K–12 education. In fact, where we were once in the top five compared to the rest of the world, we’re barely in the top 20 now. And with the number of billionaires behind some of these ideas, they’re not going away anytime soon. Jeff Bezos is putting big, big money into pre-K, which has a very mixed track record of success. We know Reed Hastings of Netflix fame and others are doubling down on portfolio models. I’m not even sure what the Gates Foundation is doing now, but I’m sure that they’ve already moved on to the next big thing.

The point is, is that we have tried so many different ideas that we’ve created what I call an education reform Frankenstein’s monster, a monster that has not empowered teachers, parents, or students. This brings me to the third basic components of Milton’s quote: real change. What is real change? Have none of the ideas that we’ve tried led to any real or lasting change? Have billionaires literally spend billions of dollars to get very little or nothing back? OK, so I don’t think it’s all that bad. There have been successes, and we’re grateful for the support of so many people who care about education. But to quote Melton again, “The true test of any scholars work is whether it withstands the test of time,” and many of these reforms simply have not shown much evidence of success over time.

So, what is real change? Real change in education is actually quite simple to state, but really, really, really, really, really, really hard to achieve. What is that change? Every dollar must follow every student to any quality school or learning environment that they and their families choose. People may call this universal choice or vouchers, but the idea is actually far more radical than the mere mechanism we’re discussing. Why is it so hard? Well, to create a system where every family truly chooses would require that we eliminate one of the greatest educational injustices of our time: zip code assignment or residency-based school assignment.

Schooling in our vision, whether it is public, private, charter, at home, online, or in some other form we have yet to recognize or imagine, would be organized around what a family and a student needed, not around what a bureaucratic system wanted. Moreover, we believe it would be truly community led and community focused. Learning would be based on pluralism and self-actualization of children. It would lead to a society of equal rights and mutual benefit. Accountability would center on a student’s progress towards competency, not on whether their backside is in a seat or not. And it certainly wouldn’t be based on whether they can pass a minimum skills test.

Ultimately, real change should come from this unifying vision of educational freedom for all. It is a vision where all educational reforms should lead to and lead through. It is a vision that cares less about school type and more about the best learning environment for each child. It’s a vision that requires us to rethink all of the reform de jour through a different lens, a lens of educational freedom, teacher empowerment and family opportunity. It’s one that requires us to not care whether the school is public, private, charter, online, at home. It’s also a vision that is catching on around the country.

In Louisiana, where there’s a Democrat governor in charge, families are free to choose from public, private, charter, and online options. In Arizona, there’s an education environment where over 30 percent of the students attend schools of choice. Whether those schools are public schools outside of their assigned district, or private schools, or charter schools, or through its first in the nation Education Savings Account program. The same is true in my home state of Indiana, where now almost 20 percent of children attend schools outside of their assigned district, in schools that they want to attend, environments where they want to go. And in Florida, where some are saying that Governor [Ron] DeSantis owes his election to thousands of low-income African-American mothers, families have the freedom to go to a variety of different school environments that work best for them.

What these states and others around the country are realizing is it isn’t just about public or private. Whether it’s government run or privately run, independently run or charter, it’s about what works for kids. It’s about ensuring that those families have the opportunity to do what works for their kids, to customize an education that works best for their families.

People from both sides of the aisles in all these states are talking about it, not in terms of who is losing now, but on how everyone is actually winning. That’s what makes choice states so unique. Ultimately, I believe this is the kind of real change that America needs. Importantly, the kind of change that I’m talking about puts the hopes and dreams of students first so that they can lead independent lives, control their own destiny, and act on the dreams that they have so that they can change the world.

This is not where we are now in American education; it’s a unifying vision for the future. And unless educational freedom for all becomes our unifying vision, we will, in my opinion, continue down the piecemeal path of reform where everyone is afraid of the education reform monster that we have created, where everyone fights over the idea of what is best, and where everyone says that we don’t spend enough money, or it takes money away, or any of the other comments you hear all the time, and where many remain satisfied with the status quo of our educational crisis. This is not a future that bodes well for America unless we do something to change it.

Join us at EdChoice as we fight to get away from a standardized type of education that serves the interest of adults, that doesn’t give parents freedom and doesn’t give teachers opportunity. Join us as we work to ensure that we create a system of education, a system of learning opportunities where families are free to choose, teachers are free to teach and that everyone has a personal plan for their own future.

Thank you very much.