By Robert Enlow
The famous Irish poet W.B. Yeats once wrote:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The midterms are over, and the picture remains the same. We are still deeply divided as a people, and, sometimes, when you look around America today, it feels like anarchy has been loosed on the world. Those full of passionate intensity on both sides of the aisle are releasing a blood-dimmed tide that is drowning innocence.
This is even more true when you look at the education reform debate happening in America today. On one side, passionate education reformers on both sides are on the attack. Just look at the Twitter-sphere: It’s aflutter with people calling people out or calling people names. And, so little of the debate is building bridges to help children.
So, I am left with the simple question of what should an old education freedom fighter do, particularly in light of the now historic wins for universal choice in states like Arizona and West Virginia and with the Supreme Court decision in Carson v. Makin?
First, it is important to say that there are very real issues of race in America and in our schools. There are racists and there is racism — and anti-Semitism — in America and in our schools. Combatting it is imperative, and we won’t work with anyone advancing it.
There are also very real issues surrounding ideological curricula in our schools. There are serious issues with how we teach our children to think about issues of race and gender. And, there are radical ideologues that exist who want to reduce people to their roles as parts of a group or class instead of seeing everyone as individuals.
In the end, none of these arguments are sufficient for the challenges we face and none of them change the fighting amongst reformers or the system of schooling that is loosing a blood-dimmed tide of under-educated children into our society.
We all know how bad it is. The recent NAEP scores say it all. As Mike McShane wrote, “The results from the 2022 National Assessment for Educational Progress are out and they are terrible. From 2020 to 2022, reading scores for 9-year-olds saw the largest drop since 1990. Math scores saw the first drop ever.” In two years, we have erased decades of hard work to improve education results in America.
So, what is the best way forward amidst all this unproductive debate and rancor? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can share with you how we at EdChoice see it going forward.
The first and easiest thing is that we will not be driven by social media. Dave Chappelle is right: “Twitter isn’t real life.” In fact, according to the Pew Charitable Trust only 23 percent of Americans use Twitter. Of those 23 percent, the top 25 percent of users create 97 percent of the content. That means that the conversation on Twitter is happening among about 6 percent of Americans.
Also, there is little doubt that at times we will be forced to make prudential judgments about certain individuals or organization whose ideologies or behavior do not comport with our organizational values and standards. We will not do that based off of social media furor, inter-or intra-group jockeying for power, or because we think it will score points with the right people.
If there is one thing that this election taught us, it is that Americans are done with extremism on both sides.
Second, and more important, we will focus on our real customer, stay true to our core principles, work to build authentic relationships with anyone interested in educational freedom, and stay steadfastly focused on building non-partisan bridges where everyone can gather.
Who is our customer? Children and the families who love and care for them.
Right now, families have practical concerns about schooling. Kids have lost years of learning and parents are not getting the kind of education for their children that they want. From our most recent poll, 87 percent of K–8 parents said it was “extremely” or “very” important to focus on teaching independent thinking; 85 percent said the focus should be on core academic subjects; 84 percent want schools to focus on teaching children how to interact with others; and 80 percent want children to learn to be good citizens. Forty six percent of parents think their local district is on the wrong track, and almost 75 percent of all families want multiple learning options for their children.
Simply put, the vast majority of parents want something different, and we will work with anyone from the right or left who puts the educational freedom of parents and children above the politics of the day. We want to represent the 94 percent of Americans who are tethered to the real world and who have every day, practical concerns about their child’s education.
Third, we can’t cooperate with each other if we don’t recognize some core values and principles that underpin our work to promote educational freedom. We should be humble knowledge seekers who respect and empathize with each other as we come together to promote educational freedom and justice.
I am reminded of Milton Friedman’s founding letter about his namesake organization, which is now EdChoice.
“We have concluded that the achievement of effective parental choice requires an ongoing effort to inform the public about the issues and possible solutions, an effort that is not episodic, linked to particular legislative or ballot initiatives, but that is educational. It requires also the cooperation of the many groups around the country who are devoted to improving the quality of our schools, whether governmental or private.” (italics added)
If we are going to cooperate with each other, it requires that we get to know each other, really know each other. That means we have to spend time learning about each other — our interests, passions, history, and trauma. Listening to each other and building authentic relationships is hard, but meeting each other’s felt need is worth the reward. Not only is it a benefit in and of itself, but also it helps us all be better at our jobs. Todd Rose has it right in his book Collective Illusions when he says that there is far more that binds us together than we realize. The only way to prove that is to get to know each other better.
Lastly, EdChoice will focus on building bridges and not burning them down. Bridge building is tough work but necessary if we are ever going to get to universal educational choice that can withstand the winds of political change and the shifting sands of ideology. I am reminded of the many times I was in Milwaukee in the early days of school choice. We were bringing policymakers and community leaders to see how choice was working in Milwaukee. Often times, it was a group of right-of-center leaders, and every time we got on the bus our guide Zakiya Courtney would start off by saying something like, “I am pretty sure I disagree with almost everyone here about a whole host of issues, but we agree on school choice. And, as long as we focus on that issue, we will always be able to work together.”
In the end, the EdChoice bridge is open to all with two conditions: a belief or willingness to believe in universal educational freedom that changes the nature of education in America and a commitment to a broad and diverse coalition.
Now is the real time to choose. For the last few years, it seems that both sides of the debate have wanted to destroy the other. Both might succeed, and then who is left?
The children are still not well and there is much work to do. So, join us on the bridge.
Robert C. Enlow is the president and CEO of EdChoice. He has been an integral part of the foundation since its founding in 1996. Under his leadership, EdChoice has become one of the nation’s leading advocates for universal educational choice.