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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

8 Things the School-Choice Movement Has Gotten Right

By Guest Blogger — August 09, 2017 7 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.

Greetings, fellow travelers.

It’s Robert Enlow, back again with the next take from the mind of this old, cranky ed reformer. Imagine, if you will, that I’m sitting in a rocking chair sipping iced tea—or something slightly stronger—muttering under my breath how young’uns today have no idea what we all went through to get to this point in the school-choice movement. It’s just what we old, cranky ed reformers do.

Last time around, I listed all the things I wish we’d done differently in the quarter-century of reform efforts that finally got us to a place where we now have more than 60 private school choice programs in 30 states and the District of Columbia, along with charter schools in almost every state in the union.

That didn’t happen overnight. School choice wasn’t built in a day. We’ve fought some major battles—in courtrooms and at state capitols—to arrive at this point. It was never easy, but it was worth it. So with regrets fading away like the last ray of sunshine on a hot summer day, let’s rock back and forth together and give ourselves a pat on the back for all the things we got right.

We’ve created an entire generation of organizations and individual champions for choice and reform. Like the early charter-school movement, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice literally got its start around a kitchen table. There were handful of people involved. We all had a vision, but we weren’t exactly sure what we’d be up against or how we could accomplish our mission. We were scrappy but determined to give families more options. Fast forward two decades, and there are literally dozens of organizations—nationally and at the state level—fighting for greater educational choice. There’s also no shortage of individuals who support our mission or who share resources to make sure our voices are heard. And all of that pales in comparison, though, to the support we have from the majority of Americans who believe all K-12 students deserve schooling options that work for them. Scientifically speaking, a generation is somewhere between 20-25 years. That’s how long we’ve been engaged in this fight, and the generation of ed reformers that comes next will benefit from the support network we’ve helped build.

We’ve built a lot of actual infrastructure and helped a lot of families and children. Just look around at the K-12 education landscape that’s come to exist because of charter schools and choice programs. There are more than 6,000 mostly brick and mortar charter schools serving almost 3 million kids. And there are now an estimated 500,000 families using their tax dollars to attend private schools. Sure, the growth has been slower in private-school choice, but we know that demand is high. I believe that with stronger, more parent-centered programs in place that provide stable funding and access, supply will follow. Having that network of school options in place is a big deal because it means we’re not just talking about choice: We can point to cities, states, and towns where you can find it in action. And because of this work, the trajectory of millions of families has been changed forever for the good.

We’ve got the research and the law on our side. This post is loaded with non-curmudgeonly atta-boy accolades, and this particular bullet should get one of the biggest high fives. Over the past 20 years, organizations like EdChoice, AEI, and the Jay Greene research machine have produced mountains of data and original analysis on the impact of school-choice programs. We have a good idea of what works, and an even better idea of what doesn’t. And we always strive as a movement to be forthcoming about both, which is a tad bit more intellectually honest than those who simply defend the status quo because that’s the way things have always been... We’ve similarly crushed it on the legal front, where, thanks to partners like the Institute for Justice, we’ve successfully defended almost every lawsuit brought against school-choice programs. As a result, we’ve learned along the way how to make sure programs are designed to withstand legal and constitutional attacks from those seeking to deny families options.

We punched way above our political weight class. Because of some amazing supporters and groups, we have punched way above our weight class. Millions and millions of dollars have been spent to defeat pro-school choice candidates, and yet it’s very rare that anyone loses their elected position because of their support for educational freedom.

We actually achieved our goal and are close to tipping point. Two years ago, Nevada passed the first universal school-choice program in the nation—an education savings account available to nearly every family in the state. Arizona followed suit in 2017. In Nevada, nearly 10,000 students signed up, even though they weren’t sure what would happen because detractors immediately filed two lawsuits to kill the program. We won the lawsuits, but the Nevada program ultimately didn’t wind up funded this year because folks on both sides failed to listen to parents. While universality isn’t something our entire movement shares as a goal, it’s a critical part of our mission at EdChoice. The establishment and subsequent legal affirmation of the Nevada ESA clears a huge hurdle for other states that can now choose to go big instead of settling for half-measures. Maybe that’s why 25 states introduced education savings accounts this year, many of them with universal eligibility.

We’ve got strength in numbers, if we can just organize them. Americans support school choice, and support is higher among younger generations, presumably because they’ve actually experienced choice. In fact, according to a recent report on how choice has changed the landscape, more than 40 percent already attend schools other than the ones they are assigned. This movement is only going to grow stronger as more and more families come to expect choice instead of having to ask for it. We’ve yet to achieve fundamental systemic reform in every state, but we’ve drastically and positively changed the way people view the issue.

We’re gritty and stubborn, and we didn’t get going when the going got tough. We have an open office space at EdChoice, and our staff often eats lunch together in our kitchen area. It’s often the time for us to talk about what’s going on in our respective lanes, share stories, and on occasion, express frustration over things that are happening in the movement that are out of our control. I can’t speak for other organizations, but when I look at my team, I see an incredible, bipartisan group of the most determined, stubborn individuals I’ve ever met. They, like all of you, arrived as advocates for educational choice from very different backgrounds and for very different and very personal reasons. Their stories are compelling; their strength is unparalleled. They are scrappy, and they won’t give up. As I look back over the past two decades, I see all of us in each of them. It is something we have done well, bringing together people from all different backgrounds. We all care about more than just school choice, but this is our passion, and we’ll never stop fighting. Grazie alla mia famiglia.

We will never turn back because families won’t let us. It’s worth writing twice that we won’t give up because it’s worth highlighting why. I was on a panel earlier this week at the National Conference of State Legislatures. The room was filled with advocates for and detractors of school choice. Regardless of their position on the issue, no one in that room lacked access to an educational environment that worked for their kids. They might practice school choice the old-fashioned way by moving into a “quality” district. They might pay tuition or use a charter school. They may even homeschool. Whatever the case, they’re good to go, and they don’t need us to fight for them. Whether I’m working in our home state of Indiana or traveling to other states that have or are trying to enact choice programs, I see the faces of students who are actually in need. They are falling behind—or off the map altogether—because they are trapped in educational environments that aren’t working for them or aren’t working at all. They are the reason we do what we do, and even in our darkest hour, they won’t let us give up. We owe them their shot at the American Dream of success and freedom, and we know that K-12 education is the pathway to that dream. We’ll stay the course until they have what they deserve and we have shifted the nature of power and control in American education.

Wow, with all this good stuff, maybe I am a little less cranky than I thought.

—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.