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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

Important Lessons for Better Reform—and the Reformers Who Taught Them to Me

By Guest Blogger — August 10, 2017 5 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.

As Thursday draws to a close, I’m left looking optimistically toward the future, despite the mistakes we’ve made along the way and the hurdles we have had to overcome.

Even though I am a self-avowed old, cranky ed reformer, I wake up every day knowing that I am one lucky person. That’s because you can’t be at the same job for 20-plus years without experiencing some incredible things and getting to know some amazing people. This is especially true for the small fraternity that doubles as the wacky, often dystopian, world of ed reform.

Reflective curmudgeons like me often think in linear terms. So, my first post focused on all the things we have messed up and what I regret about the education reform space. My second post--in order to balance out the bad--focused on what we have done really well to advance educational liberty.

Got the bad and the good out of the way, but before I get to the last post in the series--how ugly or awesome the future could be--I think it’s high time to reflect on some of the truly amazing people, dead or alive, that I have gotten to know over the years, and who have taught me some important lessons about how to be a better person and a better ed reformer.

But, before I jump in, it is imperative that I say that this is a truly incomplete list of people. As you age, you don’t only lose your eyesight and grow hair in odd places, you literally lose your mind. So, for all of you who I have been lucky to meet or know and do not mention, I salute and thank you, too.

Also, for those of you worried that I might publish a tell-all about some of the amazing but strictly confidential experiences in the last 21 years, don’t worry, I won’t talk about the roller coaster experience or Zachary’s disease. Those experiences will forever remain shrouded in the confidential mist of history.

Finally, except for the first two, this list is in no particular rank or order. Moreover, my hope is that the values I learned from these folks will be of use to you the reader.
Here goes.

Be parent centered. Thank you to Tracy Richardson, Heather Coffy, and the hundreds of parents I have met. What they have done for their children and families by supporting parental choice pales in comparison to the work of those who make their living as reformers. I am forever grateful to have met each and every one of you, and have learned to always keep your stories at the forefront of what I do. It’s what drives me.

Be dedicated to liberty and rigor. Thank you, Milton and Rose Friedman. They--along with Mike Walker, Patrick Byrne, and my entire board--gave me a chance to experience the rarified air of brilliant and passionate people. Thanks to the Friedmans, I learned the meaning and value of liberty for all. I am truly one lucky person because of them. Rest in peace.

Be humble and take advantage of opportunities. I can’t mention Milton and Rose without thinking about John Walton, who, despite his vast resources, showed me and everyone else around him the value of humility and opportunity. Because of John Walton, a thousand flowers are blooming all over the education-reform world.

Keep focused on what matters. One of those rare and beautiful flowers is Virginia Walden Ford, who is my rock and my heart in the good and bad times of this movement. She has always had my back and always kept me focused on why I am really in this movement.

Be challenged and have great thought partners. Howard Fuller. I will never forget the first time I heard him speak in Milwaukee: With his wisdom, sonorous voice, expressive hands, and commanding presence, he challenged everything I thought. He still does. The same is true for my thought partner Derrell Bradford, who in great conversation after great conversation has made my life and this movement incalculably better.

Be strategic. Speaking of Milwaukee, how can I forget the mentoring influence of the always strategic and thoughtful Susan Mitchell? The private school choice movement owes her and her husband, George, a huge debt of gratitude, and so do I. She taught me so much.

Be inclusive, have the right message and have fun. The same can be said of Tracy Gleason. Tracy, the Gleason Family, and Clare Mullin are my North Star in this movement. They shun the spotlight despite its deserved glare, and they are masters of bringing groups from across the spectrum together to highlight effective education reform. Oh, and they are a blast and they do their work with incredible panache.

I also value the lesson taught me by Zakiya Courtney, who, on the many bus rides in Milwaukee, showed me how to keep a coalition together by focusing on what keeps us together, not what drives us apart.

Understand people and politics. When I got back from England, Gordon St. Angelo took a huge chance on me. He took an idealistic, mixed up semi-Marxist with a faux British accent and guided him in the ways of non-profits and politics. He became my family, and if there was ever an award for the unsung hero of the school-choice movement, it would have to go to Gordon. Not only was he a political genius, but he was able to spearhead a project while ensuring that everyone else felt like it was their idea.

Be around great people in your field. John Kramer and Dick Komer from the Institute for Justice are two great people. John is a master communicator from whom we can all learn, and Dick is a master lawyer and legal tactician whom we should all have in our corner. The legal victories for school choice would not exist without these two. There are too many other great people who have been great to work that I can’t name them all but some of them include Lori Armistead, Betsy Wiley, Darrell Allison, and Dan Peters.

Be three dimensional. Matt Ladner, who is my traveling buddy, friend, sounding board, and superb disruptor. Matt’s three-dimensional approaches to problems—much like my other brothers Ed Kirby, Jay Greene, Rick Hess, Pat Wolf, Caleb Offley, and Mike McShane—have made this movement more successful and certainly more interesting. Karoake on!

Work with amazing people. Lastly, over the years, I have been so blessed to work with so many amazing staff at EdChoice. These individuals who give their time and talent at EdChoice each day—and for every team member who served our mission from the day we opened our doors as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. There just aren’t enough words to describe the joy of knowing and working with you.

To quote the musical Wicked, “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” All of these people have combined to teach me so much and enrich this movement. From one old, cranky ed reformer to other old, cranky reformers—as well as all the reformers waiting in the wings—I encourage you to keep track of all the people you meet in life and remember what each of them have done to improve your life.

—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.