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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

7 Regrets From an Old, Cranky Ed. Reformer

By Guest Blogger — August 07, 2017 6 min read
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This month, Rick is out catching up on various and sundry projects that piled up during the rollout of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In his stead, we’ve got a terrific slate of guest bloggers. Up this week is Robert Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice.


My name is Robert Enlow.

I’m an ed reformer, and I’ve been one for a long, long time. Over time, it’s easy to lose oneself in the daily grind that wears us all down, and sometimes we need to revisit our base assumptions. For me, it’s been more than a decade since I dug deep and really thought about why. Given the current political climate and onerous and rancorous divisiveness within the ed reform community, it’s high time for a little introspection.

Most days, I’m still as hopelessly optimistic as the day I started in this movement 21 years ago, when the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice—now EdChoice—opened its doors.

But some days, I feel more like Mr. Wilson chiding Dennis the Menace to get off his lawn, kind of like I’m the neighborhood nag. Except Dennis isn’t a young reformer with a slingshot and poor aim: He’s all of us who’ve been promoting education reform and educational choice for a long time and who presently are soul-searching to figure out how we got where we are—and where we go from here.

This guest blog series is an examination of all these thoughts and feelings from the perspective of an old, cranky ed reformer who believes that in order to continue successfully fighting for K-12 students in America, we have to take a dispassionate look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the road we’ve traveled together.

Like all cranky, old curmudgeons, let’s start with the regrets, shall we?

I regret we didn’t fight for all kids from the get-go. We in the school-choice movement came to the bargaining table ready to accept half-measures to get our foot in the door, firm in our belief that people would come around to the idea of reforming K-12 education if we could show them a few successful examples in certain geographic areas or with certain student populations. Even before there was a real philanthropic focus on building charter schools, many big donors supported privately funded scholarships thinking, if we pay for it, they will come. Back then, we were eager to sidestep the discussion of universality to chalk up smaller wins, and in so doing we traded away access for hundreds of thousands of students along the way. Furthermore, by shying away from talking about a true money-follows-the-child system, we didn’t push those within our movement toward that goal, which has made it easier for some among us to distance themselves from our shared commitment to all students because the politics suddenly got harder than ever before.

Compromise killed the systemic reform. Compromise is a wonderful thing right up until you leave your core beliefs on the bargaining table. K-12 education in America has been failing large swaths of American students for decades. We weren’t going to change it by doodling in the margins. We needed—and still need—the kind of vast, systemic reform that comes only when we have an honest discussion about how we fund education in America. Unless we go after the whole shebang of separating the funding of education from the running of schools, we will never break down intrinsic barriers in a big, bold way. And we certainly won’t break down the ever-solidifying class system that is the result of our system of assigning schools based on ZIP code. We’re a quarter-century into the fight, and we’ve let barely enough become the enemy of good, much less perfection.

Things got way too personal. How do I say this delicately? We have all, including me, from time to time, acted like a bunch of special snowflakes instead of serious, professional people who are committed to improving educational choice for the families across our nation who desperately need more options. We spent more time worrying about what we were saying about each other on blogs like this one than worrying about what families and students are experiencing in their daily lives. From one old, cranky reformer to the next, let’s commit to being a little less cranky and a lot more thick-skinned as we move forward.

We made too many assumptions along party lines, and we put politics over policy. If you look at public polling on the issue of educational choice, there’s strong support on both sides of the aisle. Yet the issue, until recently, was widely viewed as one that tilted right. We did that to ourselves because we made ideological assumptions along party lines, and school choice, at least within policy circles, became unnecessarily partisan. Now, even though we’re a nonpartisan organization with no political arm, I’m not going to tell you it’s easier to talk to a skeptical group of newbies than a group of longtime allies, but for our success to continue, we have to be willing to move beyond our historical political alliances and aggressively pursue new partnerships and conversations.

We also need to make sure we’re not putting politicians on a pedestal: Policy has to come first. Elected officials who are willing to stand up for students deserve our effusive praise, regardless of party; those who put politics ahead of progress earn our criticism. The same goes for those in the world of wonks and do-gooders: Families have to come first.

We were Luddites when it came to judging a quality school. Instead of trusting families, we engaged in a technocratic arms race to find the best way to objectively measure and test and hold schools “accountable.” We love using the word to make ourselves seem acceptable to others, but we never really questioned our assumptions or defined what we mean. We threw around federal programs and sliding scales and cut scores and letter grades, and we lost sight of the fact that most families give zero you-know-whats about those things. They want to know their kids are safe, happy, engaged and learning to the best of their abilities. Testing is a carrot to help students grow, not a stick with which to punish them. Similarly, we need to think twice before we tell educators and school leaders how to do their jobs—ensnaring their ability to innovate and adapt in a morass of red tape and rules.

We created celebrities out of advocates. We seem to be always looking for the next “this great person” or “that amazing person” to lead the movement out of the wilderness. What we should have done instead is focus all our energy, and I mean all our energy, on supporting parents—the real heroes and the best change agents we could ever want. Moreover, we have spent way too much time, money, and effort on sponsoring or attending conferences where experts tell us what to think, much of which is divorced from the realities and communities on the ground. It’s time to get back to what parents actually want instead of what we think or hope they want.

For a movement that believes competitive forces can help improve schools across the board, we let competition get the better of our coalition. “Oh my goodness gracious, did you see what [such-and-such group] put out in their weekly email blast? Can you believe what [that guy] said in the New York Times yesterday? Why are they doing that? Why aren’t we doing that? Our view of choice is better. No, ours is!”

We’ve all had these conversations in our offices, and they focus too frequently on those within our movement instead of those we’ve yet to convince, which are legion. With some exceptions, like National School Choice Week, we have not been a movement that tries to unite.

Keeping up with the Joneses or putting our viewpoint first has hurt our ability to get ahead on our issue. To be fair, in our current political climate, where it feels like ed reform is more persistently in the spotlight and under attack, I actually believe we’re getting better about knowing our strengths and weaknesses—and relying on each other to run in the lanes where we shine. But we could still stand to engage in a little less navel-gazing as we move forward.

Speaking of moving forward, now that we’ve cleared some regrets off the books, my next post will focus on what we’ve done right. Spoiler alert: It’s a lot.

—Robert Enlow

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.