Ep. 25: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going? with Robert Enlow

December 19, 2017

In this podcast episode, EdChoice Vice President of Communications Jennifer Wagner chats with President and CEO Robert Enlow about the year behind and the year ahead. They discuss the major school choice events of 2017, including Arizona’s education savings account (ESA) expansion and EdChoice’s own rebrand. Then they dive into what we expect and hope for in 2018, as we continue our mission to advance educational opportunity for all Americans.

Jennifer: Hello, and thank you for joining us for another edition of EdChoice Chats. I am your VP of Communications here at EdChoice, Jennifer Wagner, and I am joined today by our president and CEO Robert Enlow. Thank you for being here, Robert.

Robert: Always happy to be here.

Jennifer: All right, and today, we are talking about some big picture stuff. We want to get your thoughts on what went really well in 2017, what didn’t go so well, and then what we can expect in the year ahead. Nothing little there.

Robert: Yeah, where to start with that small little topic? So where? Yeah, that’s the question: where do you want me to start?

Jennifer: Let’s go with the biggest success in 2017 for EdChoice and the educational choice movement.

Robert: I think the biggest success in 2017 was the expansion of the ESA program in Arizona to nearly universal. The growth of the program in New Hampshire to almost passing the House to now passing the house in 2017 and going back to Senate. I think ultimately what’s been really positive for this movement is this understanding that we need to A.) make sure everyone benefits from educational opportunity, and B.) the real focus on customization. Really focusing on what families need, not making an argument about school this or school that, or private school this or charter school that. It’s really putting the focus back on family. I think the most successful thing that has happened this year has been a sense that we need to make sure everyone benefits from opportunities.

Jennifer: Okay, that’s all very positive. I guess we should probably touch on some of the negatives as well. You mentioned Arizona. That is the program that is kind of up in the air right now because there’s a referendum push. Douglas County, Colorado was not such a great story. How are we going to deal with those things going forward, and what happened in your estimation those couple places?

Robert: Well Douglas County, as everyone hopefully knows by now, was a voucher program enacted by the Douglas County School Board that really didn’t get off the ground. A lot of lawsuits involved, and then the school board changed hands. It’s obviously disappointing that the families in Douglas County will not have the opportunities that they once had, but it also shows the perils of working on a school board reform only. The idea that somehow you can do this only through school boards is probably a little naïve, to be honest with you, although it’s always important to try.

Arizona’s a little bit different. I think as you expand this program in Arizona, as you get more opportunities for everyone, those who are against school choice are organizing more and more to take things to referendum. That’s what they’re doing in Arizona; they’re going to try and take the expansion of the program, not the whole program, just the expansion of the program, to the ballot in 2018. They gathered enough signatures, and so the question will be, will they be successful?

I think one of the challenges that lie ahead for us, certainly in 2018, we have to do a better job of engaging the public and understanding what this issue is. We have to do a better job in explaining that educational opportunities are not a threat; they’re a positive thing. That there’s an opportunity here, not a damage or harm here.

Jennifer: Along those lines, I think one of the big successes we have seen in this past year is the growth of our training and outreach programs reaching out to new audiences. If you could talk a little bit about why we’ve been doing that and why that’s important to continue?

Robert: Look, you cannot advance an issue unless people know the facts of an issue. We at EdChoice have always been believers in that the facts will out—the truth will out through the facts. It’s really important for us to make sure that advocates, influencers, policymakers alike all understand the facts in how this movement works. That’s why we’ve doubled down on our training programs. I think we had 14 this year plus a whole bunch more that we sponsored in states, to try and help policymakers and advocates and influencers know the truth of what’s going on, also question some of the things about this movement. Why are we putting accountability regimes in the way we’re doing it? What do we mean by “test scores” and what do we mean by “quality?” There’s lots of questions to be had still in this movement. I think that’s why we want to double down on our training.

Jennifer: Also, could you talk a little bit about, in addition to the training and outreach efforts that will continue and continue to grow, the Legal Defense and Education Center that we’re bringing online in January of 2018?

Robert: We’re excited to announce the Legal Defense and Education Center. One of the things that Dr. Friedman would always say, “If you don’t grow, you’re not getting better in the world and you always got to keep getting better.” We’re really excited by that. It’ll be part of our sort of programs that we can bring to states. How do groups and legislators and policymakers understand the legal issues around educational choice and freedom, and also all the other ancillary issues: what does it mean when you talk about accountability regimes in non-public schools in terms of the legal impact? What does it mean when you talk about trying to control admissions policies in non-public schools? What are the legal impacts of that? We’re really excited that we’re going to have a legal center to have that kind of conversation, and also to write amicus briefs to the Supreme Court and on the cases when we need them.

Jennifer: Our very own Leslie Hiner loves to do it.

Robert: Absolutely.

Jennifer: I’m excited about that too. I know we don’t want to talk too much about specific states because it’s probably too early to really know what’s going to happen. Legislative sessions will start up again in the next couple of months, but are there places where it’s looking more positive than other places for real change, new programs, expansion that’s coming online?

Robert: Well let’s take a look at ’17 as a whole. ’17, there were 16 different states that either enacted new programs or expanded existing programs. In fact, there were 23 separate laws that affected school choice that were enacted. Three of those laws enacted new programs and twenty laws were passed that expanded seventeen different programs. There’s significant growth this year again, right? When you have choice, people want more choice. When you have the access to the opportunity, you realize that, “Hey, everyone should have that opportunity.” That’s what’s happening in America. When you have a place like Indiana and we have opportunity, they want to grow it. When you have a place like Ohio, they want to grow it. When you have a place like Florida, they want to grow it. The more you have opportunities, the more people want them. That’s certainly what’s happened in ’17. In ’18, I don’t expect that to change.

I expect us to try and bring on new states into the fold, be even bolder. Places like, as I said, New Hampshire. Would love to see Mississippi get on the bandwagon here, love to get Nevada funded finally for its program. Would love to see South Carolina, North Carolina continue to expand and grow. Would love to see Texas get ready for ’19 and have something happen there. I think there’s a lot of opportunity here to advance this movement, and I think people are frankly getting frustrated with the lack of individual control that they have over their dollars.

Jennifer: This hasn’t been, though, a year without controversy, without contention around this issue, in part because of a dialogue that’s happening outside of our control, but you don’t see any slowdown. In fact, you see things picking up and you don’t see that affecting our work at the state level, right?

Robert: I thought we’d escape a conversation about the federal school choice policy in this podcast, but clearly we’re not, and that’s fine. No, first of all, the reality is educational opportunity happens at the state level. That’s where the game is in education and it’s always been where the game is in education: at the state and local level. You need to make sure that we continue to work in states because look, every state’s different. Every child is different, every state is different.

The federal government role in education is one that we’ve got to think long and hard about. I think there’s been an expansion of the federal government into K–12 education that’s probably been unhelpful over the course of the last maybe 10 to 20 years. This year, there was a lot of debate about it because of our past election. Some of the rhetoric and ideology has been unfortunate, and we’ve got to stop that. We’ve got to make sure that we start focusing on what the role of the federal government should be, not whether we agree with the ideology of someone in the White House or the partisanship of someone in the Department of Education.

That’s a conversation that is actually, to me, cross-partisan and certainly bipartisan. Is it the role of the federal government to enact and create state-level programs? Probably not. Is it the role of the federal government to allow parents the opportunity to spend more of their federal tax dollars on their own schools of choice? Absolutely. Is it the role of the federal government to help military families choose? Absolutely. We’ve just got to keep refocusing here on what is the proper role of the federal government in the same way we focus on what’s the proper role of the state government in education.

Jennifer: I think there’s a piece coming out next year about the new role of government in education that maybe you and one of our other researchers are offering…

Robert: Well, so Dr. Scafidi has been a great partner in this effort here to talk about the new role of government education. I think we felt it was time to start revisiting what Milton Friedman’s original concept was. When he talked about the role of government in education, what is the appropriate role? It changes over time, as it should, but we think this conversation about school choice or charter schools or vouchers or tax credits or ESAs, all that is actually underneath what the proper role of government should be. I think we as a nation, frankly, have forgotten that conversation. We’re not really having the kind of upper level conversation we need to have about where should our government be in relation to schools, how should we be expecting our government to behave. In many ways, these are the exact questions we’re having in criminal justice that we’re not yet having in education.

Jennifer: We’re not EdCrim, we’re EdChoice.

Robert: Yes, yes.

Jennifer: I think that’s kind of where I want to leave this conversation. Obviously in 2016, our big news was that we went from being the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice to being EdChoice. Where do you think we are, not that I want you to think about what Milton Friedman would say because he’s not here to say it, but how do you think we’re doing in terms of living out his vision for universal school choice?

Robert: I’m not going to tell you what Milton Friedman said because he’s not here, you’re right, and he would not want me to speak for him.

Jennifer: What would you say?

Robert: I can promise you Milton Friedman would not want me to speak for him, so I’ll tell you what I’m going to say. I’m going to say that this organization as EdChoice has been able to redouble its efforts and actually dramatically expand its influence because of the name change and because of our reorientation and refocus on universal choice. I think what we’ve realized in the last year is the idea of educational opportunity for all is actually bipartisan, is actually for everyone, and we cannot be ashamed to keep promoting it loud, strong, and proud.

I think we’ve come to that conclusion; rather than saying, “We’re going to accept every kind of choice,” we’re not. We’re going to focus on the kind of choice that needs to be out there, that’s already out there in our traditional schools if you can afford it by moving from one district to another. I think at EdChoice, we’ve reoriented our work to even stronger focus on universal choice and more stronger work on the education.

I will then quote Milton Friedman to add when he said, “This effort requires an ongoing effort to educate the public about the need and the solutions.” I think that’s where EdChoice has sort of come back to its home but expanded it dramatically.

Jennifer: Well I can’t really add anything to that, so in the words of Dr. Friedman, we will close this out and say thank you Robert for all the work that you continue to do and we continue to do as a team. We’ll see you all in 2018.

Robert: See you in 2018, and thank God we have a great team here.