Ep. 96: Reviewing the 2019 International School Choice and Reform Conference

February 4, 2019

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, our VP of Legal Affairs Leslie Hiner, VP of Research and Innovation Paul DiPerna, and Director of State Research and Special Projects Drew Catt rehash unique experiences from the 2019 conference. This year, our team traveled to Lisbon, Portugal. This was the first time the conference was held outside of the United States.

Drew Catt: Hi, I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and special projects. I’m back today for another EdChoice Chat, speaking with Paul DiPerna, EdChoice’s vice president of research and innovation, and Leslie Hiner, EdChoice’s vice president of legal affairs. We’re here today to share our varied experiences at last month’s International School Choice and Reform Conference in Lisbon, Portugal.

So, thanks for joining me today, Paul and Leslie.

Paul DiPerna: It’s great to be here with you guys.

Leslie Hiner: Yeah, we just had a wonderful experience with an international school choice conference. It was, for us, and for this conference, the very first time in an international—outside of the U.S.—an international setting. It was in Lisbon, Portugal. So, this was a first experience for us, taking the conference on the road. We weren’t quite sure what to expect. But I think we all agree that our expectations were exceeded beyond our wildest dreams. It was so productive. It was just really highly productive, and we made some great relationships. Don’t you think, Paul?

Paul DiPerna: Yeah.

Leslie Hiner: That this was just perhaps the best one of these conferences ever?

Paul DiPerna: I think so. This was the seventh International School Choice and Reform Conference. This is the first time it was outside of the United States. I think one of the biggest benefits, or values to attendees, and to presenters, discussants, is the networking and the relationship building. We get to see people we maybe get to run into just a few times during the course of the year.

At this conference in particular, because there were a substantial number of professors and researchers from Europe and other countries. There was a lot of opportunity to meet new people and to learn about school choice research in other countries, and so forth.

Drew Catt: I definitely enjoyed being able to have a couple sit-down, face-to-face meetings with some external authors that I’m collaborating on two separate projects with. So, because we are each on different sides of the country it’s usually difficult to have those face-to-face interactions outside of these conference settings. So, I was definitely glad to be able to do that.

Then meet new researchers, start to have the conversations about future collaborations, and future projects, and giving advice to each other on where our projects currently stand.

Leslie Hiner: I was asked by someone, “Who would go to this conference? Why would someone want to go and who shows up?” I hadn’t really thought about that to be honest with you, but in considering that question, I realized that the scholars who attended this conference, these are all the top scholars in the field of education and all together in one place. That alone was just a great benefit. From Eric Hanushek, from Hoover, Stanford, Paul Peterson from Harvard. Of course, with a good showing from our friends in Arkansas, Patrick Wolfe, Bob Maranto and others. It was just really great that they were all in the room together along with Charles Glenn, as well.

But in addition though, the researchers and scholars in education who came from other countries, from South Africa, from India, from a number of different places across the globe. They were also tops in their fields in their countries, and many from the European theater. To get that group of individuals together in one room, to discuss education, to compare what has been working, what’s not working, what’s the most innovative ideas, and to your point Paul, and what can we do to work together and combine some of the better ideas that people have from around the world. That opportunity was just something that I’m privileged to have been a part of it. I feel very privileged to have been a part of that. What I learned from those individuals is just invaluable and will really help me in the work I’m doing going forward.

Paul DiPerna: I feel the same way. Something that struck me this year at the conference was the diversity of backgrounds and where people were coming from and different professional fields. So, the majority of the attendees and the speakers that were there were researchers and folks who work on public policy. But then, there were also people who are at school associations, other types of NGOs, and I think that just brings a different point of view, and for the discussions around the presentations, I think that just added a lot more flavor, and some additional insights than you would get at a typical research conference.

One other thing I would just point out, along with the diversity, is just that it really is an intimate atmosphere there, because it is fairly small compared to other conferences, like AERA or AEFP. Those are much bigger conferences. This one, I think the attendances are a little over 100. So, there’s just a lot of interaction and repeated interactions throughout the course of the day at the sessions, but then also there’s a lot of built in social meet-and-greets throughout the day during breaks, then also dinners that occurred, and the reception, the first night. So, I really enjoyed that way of getting to meet some new people and rekindling some of the friendships and acquaintances I met in the past.

Leslie Hiner: From my perspective, also having just this past year launched the EdChoice Legal Defense and Education Center, I was particularly interested in lawyers who were at the conference. In fact, we partnered with the European Lawyers’ Association, which was just tremendous. Jan De Groof was there.

We were able to engage in a conversation about the court systems in different countries, and how the courts have viewed school choice, we find that across the world, school choice is more a normal thing that’s been around for a long time. Here in the U.S. we’re still continuing to build school choice. Yet, the litigation that has occurred both here for us in programs that are just fledgling versus litigation over seas. Over particular issues and education, where school choice has been around for a long time, we found some real value in comparing the views of the courts and how the courts have approached various education legal issues. It was very helpful actually, to learn a different perspective, different point of view, from different lawyers, and from different courts.

And, in fact, this was really a high point for me, we were able to get a tour of their appellate court in Portugal, and the man who is the equivalent of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was our host. He was our tour guide through the courts. Very gracious, very warm and open. Answered all of our questions. Stayed around to answer all our questions. So, the last one of us finally had to leave. To be honest, I didn’t want to leave. I could have stayed there a whole other day just talking to him and learning about their system.
Again, learning pieces about their views, their legal views on school choice that are very constructive, and that will be helpful in informing us going forward.

Paul DiPerna: And he even shared some of his port with us.

Leslie Hiner: Yes, he did.

Paul DiPerna: That was a really nice tour, too. I was able to be there, at least for the first part of it. It was a very historic building, because Lisbon, hundreds of years ago, had a really severe earth quake, if I recall-

Leslie Hiner: Right, and then tsunami.

Paul DiPerna: … from the 1700s, and this building was able to withstand the shocks of that earth quake. At least, if I remember correctly, the walls.

Leslie Hiner: The walls, right.

Paul DiPerna: Then, they were able to replace the ceilings. But it was just really impressive, neat older building. And a beautiful view, too, of the ocean. That was a nice, social get-together with a lot of the conference attendees and to talk to one another outside of the sessions.

Leslie Hiner: It was. We noticed, and you can’t help but notice in Lisbon, first it’s a beautiful city, but also it’s a very old city, and yet everything is really beautifully preserved. The respect that they have for their own history, their own culture, their own architecture, and then how important that is to the vitality of the city is pretty impressive. I can’t say that I’ve seen another place quite like that. That level of respect was— Well, it was great to see that.

Paul DiPerna: Hey, Drew, what was your experience? Both at the conference, because you’ve been going to this conference now for quite a while. Both a the conference and also just around being in Lisbon and around the area?

Drew Catt: Yeah, so, I think to continue on what Leslie was saying, I feel like I started my trip out right by the first day being there going and walking up five flights of steps of a 500-year-old Belem Tower. Which was fantastic, and taking in some of the local food. Eating some of the pastel de nata, which was these amazing little egg tarts that I definitely want to recreate at some point. Not to mention the ports, and the Vinho Verde, which I didn’t even know that green wine was a thing, and I fell in love.

But, realistically, the strong points for me were the amazing level of feedback that I got on both my presentation and a project that a co-author and I are working on that she presented. The level of feedback that I gained at this conference is unparalleled at any of those larger conferences that you mentioned, Paul, or honestly, any conference that I’ve ever been to.

Again, the setting was fantastic. I didn’t know if we would really be able to top the time in Hawaii a couple years ago. But just the ballroom that I presented in was and probably will be the most amazing room I will ever actually speak in, and have people listen to me and not just stare around the room.

Paul DiPerna: So, hey, Drew, just for those who are joining with us, could you just briefly describe a little bit, your presentation, and even one or two other talks that really stood out to you as particularly interesting, insightful, new, and fresh?

Drew Catt: Yeah. So, the presentation that I gave was in the vouchers in North Carolina and Indiana session. Of course, being an Indiana native, I’ve been doing a fair amount of Indiana work. So, I presented Indiana’s Schooling Deserts: [Identifying] Hoosier Communities Lacking Highly Rated [Schools], Multi-Sector Options. Which, you may very well recall, that that is something that I spent a lot of time on in 2018, and we released late last summer, early fall, with my co-author, Mike Shaw. We’ve got a lot of good feedback from the conference on new ways to go with the research from there.

Great presentation by Dr. Anna Egalite on some of the competitive effects work that we’re doing on the Indiana voucher program, I won’t go into too much on that since we’re still working on the analysis.

But even the session that I chaired that morning was on charter schools. Which is something that I have a lot of interest in, but don’t actually conduct a lot of research in myself. So, just hearing from four different researchers from all corners of the U.S. on different things along the lines of charter schools, such as who can access them, looking at leadership experiences and even charter schools that are enrolling under representative minority and low-income students. It was just very nice to learn more about an area of education policy that I don’t really live as much of my life in.

Leslie Hiner: Yeah, it was very interesting to me. Like you said, you were learning information about other policy areas. What I found to be really interesting in interacting with some of the scholars from other countries, so that it occurred to me that even if you live in a state or in a country where educational freedom is very vibrant, nonetheless, people who are scholars and who are really concerned about educational freedom will constantly, on an ongoing basis, be thinking about new ways to innovate in education. We’re thinking about it at all times, and it’s not unique to us here. That’s very much the case even in countries where their educational systems have been well settled, and they’re doing great and have been for many years. They’re still constantly looking toward, “How can we do better? How can we serve students better?” That interaction, sometimes, was really surprising.

After I gave my presentation, where I spoke to the litigation on school choice in the United States, there was a lovely scholar from Italy who approached me, who had listened, approached me and asked me to send him my PowerPoint and whatever other writings I had on litigation in the U.S., because he found it to be something extremely helpful and that he would be able to use in Italy. That was so exciting.

I guarantee you that’s not something that I anticipated at all. But that really goes to the nature, I think, of the people who were there. We’re all just trying to do better for kids all the time.

Paul DiPerna: You know, I really, not having any legal background, or … I learned from you, Leslie, and something I just appreciated about how school choice really is a salient issue and really a hot button issue, not just here in the United States, but in other countries, whenever we landed in Lisbon. And on the flight over, there are about seven of us that were attending the conference, that we all just happened to be on the same flight from Newark to Lisbon. And as we were walking off the plane, and I was next to Michael Donnelly with the Home School Legal Defense Association, and as we were turning on our phones, his was blowing up, and apparently there had been a case that he had been working on for, I think he said seven years. It was a homeschooling case that had gone, I believe, all the way up to the equivalent of the Supreme Court in the EU, and I guess it was a German family whose home schooling one or more of their children. To be honest, I don’t remember the specifics of the case besides it was a homeschooling case, and the state tried to intervene and say that they were breaking the law essentially, by home schooling their children.

Leslie Hiner: Right.

Paul DiPerna: The decision was a ruling against the family and in favor of the state or the EU, I guess. That really struck me. It was an interesting way to kick off landing there in Portugal. But it just drove home just how there are these issues, legal or otherwise, around school choice and the freedom to choose one’s education outside of the United States. That just really drove it home for me right away.

Leslie Hiner: There’s a lot that we can learn from each other, just a couple examples. There’s a woman from the Netherlands that I spoke with, and she was really surprised that we don’t have educational freedom and universal vouchers in every state all across the country. She just couldn’t understand why that wasn’t the case in a country that holds itself out as being the freest country in the world. Why is our education not also the freest education system in the world?

So, I started to point to a couple obstacles that we face, and one of the obstacles, of course, was the teachers’ unions that block innovation at every turn. She was shocked by that. She was to the point of being angry. She couldn’t believe that we would allow any union or association of any kind to take over control of education like that and out of the hands of parents. She could hardly believe that was true. We got into a very vigorous discussion about that. Her viewpoint was, well, it was constructive to me, and she had some good pointers for me.

Then, I also discovered that at the United Nations, now, for some many years, they’ve been developing the issue of the right to education. In the U.S., our U.S. Supreme Court ruled some years ago, there is no such right to education in the U.S. Constitution, but there are some state constitutions that may have a version of that. Most do not, but they have some, maybe, complimentary language, but not exactly an education as a human right type language. Yet the great controversy that our friends in Europe, in particular, and some countries and other continents are facing, is that the definition of a right to education is starting to fall off a cliff as people who come from a more communist and hard socialist background are driving in a very, very different direction, and they need our help. That’s something that I looked at and said, “How can that happen?” How can a human right of education not be based in true freedom? Just doesn’t make any sense that it wouldn’t be.

So, they’ve asked for us to help because, just as the woman from the Netherlands brought a new perspective to the work that we have as we’re dealing with the teachers’ unions, I was able to bring a new perspective from a freedom perspective to our friends who have been really struggling to get this right to education figured out at the international level.

Again, it was just a valuable conference in many ways. For anyone who’s listening, who is a scholar, researcher, we will continue to do this conference each year. Next year it will be in Florida. The year after that not sure, but I think we’re going to have to go somewhere outside of the U.S. for the conference after Florida.

Paul DiPerna: Be on the other side of the globe in Australia or New Zealand.

Leslie Hiner: Oh, that’d be fine. OK, I could do that.

Paul DiPerna: Go in a different direction.

Leslie Hiner: Yeah, that would be great.

Drew Catt: Because the eight-hour flights weren’t long enough, Paul.

Paul DiPerna: No! That’s right. Yeah. Think of the three of us, I think I was the biggest wimp. I lasted about three or four hours after getting there, then just wiped out. So, yeah, I’m the last one to talk about.

Leslie Hiner: It’s a little tricky.

Paul DiPerna: Right.

Leslie Hiner: Well, in wrapping this up, we would be remiss if we failed to mention the fact that Bob Fox and Nina [Buchanan] from Hawaii, they’ve been chairing just a group of people who have found this to be something of value right from the very beginning. They’ve done just a great job in pulling people together, and I think we’ve all felt like we’ve had a great voice in building the conference up to what it is today, which is, as you have heard from us, something that’s really quite outstanding. We look forward to continuing this conference.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah.

Drew Catt: Speaking of outstanding, I think that we would also be remiss not to mention the outstanding work of Friedman Fellow Ben Scafidi who did yeoman’s work on putting the program together, and that of Keri Hunter, who ensured that everything went off without a hitch.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah. The planning committee, Keri and her team, Ben, and the planning committee, Bob, Nina, Patrick Wolf and their leadership. And also Rodrigo.

Leslie Hiner: Mm-hmm, Rodrigo from Portugal.

Paul DiPerna: From Portugal.

Leslie Hiner: Our favorite guy, he was so welcoming.

Paul DiPerna: Yup. He and his organization were amazing for hospitality and the hosting that they were able to provide for this year’s conference. So, hopefully next year we’ll get to see more people, and maybe even more graduate students, too. There were more graduate students there, I think, this year than in years past. But I think that’s definitely a positive trend for this conference to really be a great place for younger researchers and scholars to showcase their work and to get feedback if they’re thinking about submitting to a journal or looking to maybe other conferences. This is a really good place to, Drew, you mentioned, to get that constructive feedback. And sometimes hard hitting feedback, but that’s a good thing.

Leslie Hiner: That’s right. So, we look forward to the next conference.

Paul DiPerna: In 2020.

Leslie Hiner: That’s right. We thank you all for listening, and stay tuned for perhaps some international updates as we go forward.

Paul DiPerna: Yup, it’s great talking with both of you.

Leslie Hiner: Likewise.

Drew Catt: Well, that wraps up this edition of EdChoice Chats. Tell us what you think on social media by tagging us. We’re @edchoice. Also, be sure to subscribe to our podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes or Sticher so you never miss another episode. Until next time, take care.