Americans love choices. We prefer to choose where we live, work, and play. So why have we allowed government to limit our choices for K-12 education? Why does that matter to you, your family, your employer, and our country? What choices should be made in the age of COVID-19? Listen as Scott Jensen, Senior Strategist at the American Federation for Children, shares with Linda the high-stakes impact of school choice policies.
Linda J. Hansen: Thank you for joining for this episode. Today I am brining a very relevant topic to our podcast. It’s school choice. My guest today is Scott Jenson. He is the senior government affairs advisor for American Federation For Children. Scott is the senior strategist for the advancement for school choice by the nation’s largest school choice organization, The American Federation For Children. Previously Scott served for 14 years in the Wisconsin Assembly, including three terms as Assembly Speaker. He also served as Chief of Staff for our mutual friend, Governor Tommy Thompson. And Scott played a crucial role in the creation, expansion, and defense of Milwaukee’s pioneering School Choice Program. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics from Drake University. And he earned his master’s in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University. Scott, thank you so much for being here and bringing us your wisdom and insight regarding school choice it’s such an important topic today, thank you.
Scott Jensen: Thank you.
Linda: Thank you. I’d like to get started a little bit; this has been such a topic in the news mostly because of the Covid-19 crisis. I mean those of us who care about school choice and education, we’ve always paid attention to it. But now parents are being thrust into decisions that they never thought they’d have to make regarding their children’s education. How have you seen this impact parents that you work with in the school choice movement?
Scott: Well, we’ve never had so many people contacting us, asking us questions about how does school choice work, what options do I have available? We’re really being flooded not only with questions from parents, but from legislators. Essentially, there was a system that was set up. Everybody was comfortable with it, or lots of people were comfortable with it. Then it was completely disrupted. And the polling shows that parents, in the spring, were very forgiving. They public schools and the private schools didn’t have much notice. They had to suddenly flip from in person instruction to try and figure out how to teach kids at a distance. The parents suddenly were recruited as teachers. Some hadn’t done some of this work in a while and I think they were all very forgiving then. But if you look at the polling and you say “Would you be willing to accept that quality of instruction this fall?” Parents are like “Oh my goodness, no.” They have had four months. They should have figured some better out than we had before.
There are far too many public schools who are calling virtual education or online education sending emails with worksheets. And making the teacher available one hour a week for Zoom call like this to ask questions. That’s not real virtual instruction and it’s certainly not going to help kids maintain their pace in their schooling. So, parents are expecting a lot more this fall and unfortunately you are seeing conflict coming here, where the parents are saying we’d like our kids back in school. We think it’s important not only for learning but for their social wellbeing and their mental health for their kids to be back with their friends and their teachers in the classroom. And you are seeing a pushback from the teachers union who are saying “We don’t think this is safe for us, and we would prefer not to be back in school in person.” Now schools are suddenly saying “We are going to go back to virtual again for a while.” And as a result, we are seeing parents look for other options. There are people of means, upper middle class families are calling private schools at a rate we have never seen before asking what sort of programs they have? How many kids they have in a classroom? What sort of precautions are you guys taking? We are seeing parents who got frustrated during the “teach at home” in the spring saying “well, we need some professional help here, so what if a whole bunch of us from our neighborhood got together and we hired a teacher who would assist all of us. Because some of us parents need to get back to work. Some of us don’t understand calculus or may not understand Spanish so we are not going to very helpful to our kids in teaching them that. So, they are hiring teachers, sometimes public school teachers, who are retiring to go into this new business of teaching to groups of kids that parents have collected together. But again, that’s for parents who have the money. Parents who can afford to do that. In our organization we’re trying to make sure that every kid in America gets the chance to go to the school that’s right for them. So, our main focus is trying to help poor and middleclass families get the same options that wealthier families can have. If they want to go to a private school, great. If they would like to go to a charter school, wonderful. If they want to home school, great. We’re in favor of whatever options parents think is best for their kids. And increasingly parents are trying to mix them. Some public and private, some virtual. Whatever they think works for their child, we are supportive of and we are trying to make sure that the government resources that are right now invested in the institutions, would be put in the hands of parents. So that parents could buy the education that was best for their kids.
Linda: I really applaud that, as someone who has always believed in the school choice movement, and my listeners know I homeschooled my children. And have just really appreciated everything that that brought to my family and my children. Not everybody can homeschool, especially the way I did. I totally understand that. But being able to have options like you mentioned and have the dollars that these families have paid out for education to be able to travel to whatever institution or method They choose to educate their children is so important. I’ve heard many parents complain to me that they are paying taxes all the time for schools they are not getting right now.
Scott: We’re hearing that a lot from Parents. They are saying “I’ve paid my taxes here and you are not going to open up and I am going to get this substandard virtual education. How about just giving me some of the money back and we will figure it out here in our house. This is costing us money.” Sometimes it is costing for childcare, sometimes it is costing for a new computer. Because of all the kids sharing one, they are going to need to be able to study all day long, you are going to need more computers or better internet hookup. So, people are wondering why can’t I have some of that money back. You are not actually doing what you were supposed to do with it so why can’t I have some of it. We are hearing that a lot from parents. The other thing, I think is fair is to say the federal government gave these schools an incredible amount of money. And it wasn’t just for making sure the schools are safe and medically sanitized and the like. But it was supposed to train the teachers in how to do virtual education. You know, if you were a teacher, a math teacher or a reading teacher, and you’re used to doing it from the front of the classroom with 20 some kids in front of you and you do that for twenty five years and you’re really good at it. That doesn’t mean that when they say now we are going to do this virtually that you know how to do virtual education. And it’s unfair to the teachers to expect them to make this transition without any sort of training or anything. Some states did it. Some states were really good at it. In Florida they already had a god virtual school network. It had 250,000 some kids in it. They then were immediately able to crank it up in the space of a month to 4 million kids. And they paid teachers, when they were at home, they were paying public school teachers to take their training program. And then all those teachers were then added to the system and that is how they were able to ramp it up. So that state was very smart and did it very well. Other states, nothing. And it’s just really unfortunate that a lot of kids are going to be going back to school this fall and getting the same substandard education that they got during the first days of the pandemic when everyone was surprised.
Linda: And that has such long lasting effects.
Linda: I think people, you know we often have the tyranny of the urgent. You know we look at what is urgent instead of what is important in the long run. And you know I realize that in the beginning it’s just like the shutdowns. You are trying to put out a fire, a fire is raging. You don’t really know the source of the fire, you don’t know how to put it out yet, so you just put out the fire. You just try to do that. So, they did that with school, I understand. But the long term implications especially these at risk students that you mentioned, who don’t necessarily have the same advantages of middleclass or upper-class family may have. They are going to fall through the cracks. And then the gap between rich and poor I guess, would be widened. I look at it even more broadly than that. That this hurts our economy for the future, because these children are our future entrepreneurs, our future business leaders, our future employees. But it also impacts our national security in a very long term way when we are compromising the education of our young people. It’s hard for them to catch up. Other nations have figured this out. How are we comparing to other nations right now?
Scott: Well, you know it kind of depends on which country you pick. There are some countries that actually appear to have done this remarkable well. They were able to reengineer their schools for students to return and to be socially distant from each other. I am sure there are some schools in America who will figure that out as well. Others will stumble along and there is some who are just delaying the start of school hoping that some great idea will strike them about how they are going to pull this off. You’re right. We should be looking at other countries who did this right. There’s also some good recommendations that have come out. I think in general you should make both options available to parents this fall. In school or virtual. And you should make both options available to teachers. Because about 25% of teachers live in a home where someone has a compromised immune system. And I think that is legitimate, that I can’t really expose my grandmother or expose my special needs child to this. So, you should make an accommodation for that teacher to be able to teach from home. But the same full classroom like they had before, time for the students to be able to ask questions, not just this one-way instruction which is what I think a lot of people experienced earlier in the year. If you give people both options, I think that makes sense. There’s also lots of spaces in schools that can be used in different ways. We are not going to be having gym classes, but that gym has got a lot of space that people can be socially distant from each other. There are some folks who say that it is probably safer for younger kids to return to school. And it’s also easier for older kids to learn virtually. So conceivably some elementary or middle school kids could be using the high school spaces or the high school gym or whatever to keep them socially distant from each other. There’s just a lot of thing that can be done and we can learn from other countries. I’m just really nervous that what I am seeing, it’s almost like they were stalling, hoping something would happen and they wouldn’t have to face this question. But they are going to be facing it now in a very short period of time. And I don’t think we are ready. I think you will find that it’s not going to go smoothly and many parents of means will choose to do something different.
Linda: Right, well, you know I’ve heard from so many parents, who know my passion for school choice and they come complaining about what’s happening in their school district from all over the country, really. Like you said, they I think waited, and didn’t really prepare for the worse and so that last minute preparation, again, it’s the tyranny of the urgent. People are scrambling trying to piece meal together a plan. And typically, when that happens the most at risk students and or families are the ones who get lost in the shuffle.
Scott: They really should have taken this summer here to train all of their educators in how to do virtual instruction effectively. And there are people who have been in the virtual education field for decades who know what works and doesn’t work. They would be happy to train those teachers or whatever to make sure they are effective in this. We, some states did a good job in getting money out to families to try and hook them up to the internet, to get them the computers they need, but others states with more rural areas have big problems. Here is our home state of Wisconsin, I think they say 15% of kids live in a home that doesn’t have access to the internet. That’s a problem for virtual education. So, we could have solved all those problem. I’m hopeful we will get them right. But in the meantime, we are quietly educating parents about all their other options that there are. There are private schools out there, there are charter schools that plan to open this fall. There are virtual schools that have been at it for decades and are very good at it. There’s homeschooling and there is this new type of cooperative homeschooling where parents are working together with local teachers. All those are available, but again, we need to get the resources in the hand of parents so that all parents have that option. Not just those of us who have done well.
Linda: Right, that’s really good. And you brought up space concepts, different ways to use space in schools. And maybe somebody is listening today who hadn’t really thought about that. I know before we were recording we were talking about how this impacts bussing. I’m sure there is school bus companies across the country who, they are pulling their pulling their hair out trying to figure out what the schedule is going to be. And how to plan for their employee scheduling, workload, how many buses they need, where and when. I mean, this is a nightmare for them. You talked about space, but we are also looking at, if we have socially distanced classrooms. Say you have 30 kids in a classroom. And then now you have to separate them by six feet. Now you may not be able to put those 30 kids in the same classroom. You need more classroom space, which means you also need another teacher. But sometimes we don’t have those teachers because like you said, 25% of them can’t come back to work in the workplace. So, it is just a storm on all fronts where these different impacts to education have just come together. But there are really good solutions out like you mentioned. And I think you are really pointing out that money that parents give to the government for the education of their children should really be something that could be portable for the parents. No matter where they live, no matter the age of the child, no matter the income bracket of the family. This should be something that is portable and able to be used for the students education.
Scott: Our old definition of public education was an investment in public schools. It was an investment in an institution. I think the new definition of public education is it is an investment in the child, it’s an investment in the child’s future. And unfortunately, too many of these decisions right now in school districts are being made as to what’s in the best interest of the adults, and not necessarily what is in the best interests of the children. But if the money was put in the hands of the parents, the schools would be listening to the parents. Believe me, they would be putting them first, like in any other business they would be paying attention to their customers. So, we’re hopeful that we are on a track to eventually get to a time which this is an investment in the child’s future and the parents are empowered to make decisions about what’s best for their child’s education. We started 30 years ago here in Wisconsin. I was a very young Chief of Staff to Governor Tommy Thompson when I was lucky to be in the room where it happened. We had a conservative Republican Governor from a small town, meeting with an African American democratic state representative, Polly Williams, from Milwaukee. Polly felt that here community had been, her parents had been shutout of all the important decisions about their children’s education. There was a white superintendant, a white school board, and she represented the African American part of the city and felt that no one was listening to those parents. Bad decisions where being made because they weren’t being made in the children’s interest. And so, her first idea was let’s create a black school district. Well Governor Thompson used to be a lawyer said I don’t think we can do that and I don’t think that would be the right answer. But what if we, what if we gave the money to the parents and let them choose where to send their kids to school. What if we empowered parents, and Polly accepted that idea and thought it was a great idea. That was a good alternative for making sure that people had to listen to the parents, and the African American community were empowered to be in control of their children’s destiny. So, that was 30 years ago, and the first year there was 341 students attending 7 schools in Milwaukee. Today in that program alone there are 28,000 children attending more than 100 schools. And something approaching 1/3 of all the children in Milwaukee attend a private or charter school in the city. A school other than the one they would have been traditionally assigned to. And that model has been spreading all across the country. And that is what I do for a living. So, when I started 15 years ago, there were just 4 states besides Wisconsin that were giving parents the option to go to a private school or a charter school. Today there are 28 states that give parents the option go to the private school of their choice. And there are 44 states I think, 45 that give parents the option to send their kids to a charter school. So, it’s slowly happening. It’s taken longer than I would have liked, but we are making progress, and events like this most recent corona virus crisis really are making parents rethink education. And it’s not just I bought a house in this neighborhood so we go to that school over there. It’s now I should have the right to send my kid to whatever school is best for them and the public investment should be made in my child not in the system.
Linda: Very good points, and as we look at this crisis, not only has corona virus brought that to light, but it has also, I say, given families and people all across the country a very strong example of how policy can affect, obviously students, but paychecks, companies, your livelihood. And a lot of times people go through their lives and they don’t really think about these things. Like how what happens in government affect their daily life. But now they are paying a lot more attention. And I think that now that we see what is happening with the violence and the unrest as well, I’ve heard from a lot of parents that come to me and say “what did they learn in school? Didn’t they learn what a great country America is? Didn’t they learn about our constitution?” You know, these are things that I’ve heard parents complain about in droves over the years, is that they are not getting taught a quality education. And I’m not you know, I obviously support a lot of teachers who are trying to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And I have a relative who is one of those. But I do feel that we need to really look at that. So not only should the crisis help parents to look at what’s happening with their dollars, but also what’s happening with the quality of education for their child. They can actually start to look more at what is the curriculum that is being taught and how is this going to affect my child for the future, but also my country for the future.
Scott: Yeah, I think there are a lot of parents, who now that they are teaching their children at home that they are seeing the textbooks and are reading along with their child and looking at the worksheets, or watching short videos, telling how certain things or about certain things, parents are beginning to get a closer look at what their children are learning. Some are comfortable, some would like to have other options because they don’t share the values, this isn’t the way I was taught to do that and I think it was easier to teach the kid the way I was taught and I don’t understand this crazy new math system that they have or whatever. That is just stirring parents to ask for more options. And we are hoping that in the long run we can achieve that for everyone in this country. We do know that from the early results, it’s not so early now in Wisconsin it’s been thirty years, but in Washington DC it’s been almost 20 years now. In Florida it’s been almost 23 years that they’ve had it. A lot of studies have been done and the studies show that at least in these private school choice programs, that students who attend a private school under a choice program, in these gold standard studies, show that the kids are more likely to graduated from High School. They are more likely to go on to college. They are more likely to graduate from college. They are less likely to ever be arrested. And they are more likely to be civically involved in their communities. So, all of those are positives. When we look at the test scores there is actually not much of a difference in the test scores between the kids at public schools and the kids from the same neighborhoods who got a chance to go to a private school, except slightly higher in reading and math scores. But it is the long term outcome that has dramatically changed. And I think that there are higher expectations in private schools. There is an inculcation in people that you have what it takes to go to college. You have what it takes to succeed in life. And we see that as well in the charter schools. The numbers in the charter schools are pretty dramatic in how much better students do there when they come from the same neighborhoods as other kids who are going to a failing public school. The gap is dramatic. In fact, in New York, there is a chain of charter schools that not only has closed the achievement gap between minority children and white children, they actually have some of the highest test scores in the state. They are doing better than the average white student in the schools that are overwhelmingly, almost 90% African American or Hispanic. So, they are just blowing the doors off, and you would think that we would see people saying we need more of this. We need all kids to have this option. Parents are slowly but surely finding that, but there is a lot of push back from the teachers union. There’re just not interested in that sort of competition.
Linda: Right. Well, if people want to look at more detail in some of those studies, they can go to federationforchildren.org and there is a host of information there. There is the School Choice Fact Sheet, on there and you can see where school choice issues stand in your state. You can look at some of the results from the testing. The record keeping that Scott mentioned. There are also types of programs like educations savings accounts, scholarship tax credit programs, parental tax credit programs, voucher programs, charter schools, public school choice, virtual schools. Course choice, which we talked about that, what they are actually learning in school. We have course choice, and then of course home school and I think that sometimes people don’t realize that all this is available. Now, in my podcast, as you know, I always try to help people understand Foundations of Prosperity, Policies of Prosperity, and how to protect prosperity by becoming informed, involved, and impactful. And I like to have people understand the connection between policy and paychecks. Now this policy is affecting companies, and parents, employees nationwide. I have heard from employers who say this is a nightmare. This ad hoc thing that is not even standardized across the board, state to state right now in terms of what is happening in response with corona virus. It’s just creating a nightmare for employers. What are some recommendation for employers as they go into this fall time with parents which are trying to figure out which end is up?
Scott: Well, obviously in the long run it’s really important that our children receive world class education. Unfortunately, despite all our wealth and the fact that we are among the countries with the highest amount of spending on education, we are not among the highest performing countries in the world. Our students are quite a ways down the list. And it is not just the countries that you would think, you know like the Asian countries or Finland is ahead of us. Canada is ahead of us. I mean we are quite a ways down the list and yet we are making this huge investment. So, we have to figure out how to make that investment more effective, more productive. That will affect business all over the country. If we want the United States to be competitive globally, we have to have an education system that is among the best in the world. There is no doubt about that. I think in this short term, in the midst of this corona virus crisis, employers need to be very generous in dealing with employees who have to keep their kids in school or keep them on task and learning in homes. And I think employers have been. Everything I hear is the employers have been very understanding. Now at some point their patience may run out because of course they have products they have to get out the door, or they need to make sales in order to keep the doors open on their business as well. But the same people who are making all those decisions about education are policy makers who we elect or can un-elect and that is why it is important for people to pay attention in politics. It does matter who you elect to office. You get different people who produce different policies and those policies will have different effects on both business and on education.
Linda: Right. And ultimately it is healthy business that is the provider of the funds that fund our education system. Because without a healthy business, that business cannot pay taxes to the government, and that business cannot employee people who therefore can also pay taxes to the government to fund these things. So, we have to make sure these businesses are profitable and thriving and they can function well while they are helping their employees take care of their families.
Scott: Well, and just look at the state budgets across the country. The state budgets have been devastated, Why, well because we shut the economy down. And if we shut the economy down then business aren’t making money, there’re not paying taxes, and we are not able to invest in our kids future and the education system. So, it is all connected and it is absolutely important. We can’t get anywhere without the engine of capitalism driving us forward.
Linda: Exactly, I was just looking at a list of recommendations that different people have made for employers in terms of how to help their employees manage their children’s education during this time. And it included, you know flexibility in shifts, and maybe hiring more part time workers vs. fulltime workers or creating stipends for educational use for educational recourses. There’s just a lot of things so if employers are listening I invite them to just be creative and I’m always encouraging employers to talk to employees about all these issues. So, ask employees what they need. We can’t just assume what people need. There will be trends that show and based on your workforce you will be able to see what would be most helpful there. It may be something, there is a daycare set up at your place of employment and that could help with some of these parents who have nowhere to go with their children.
Scott: Yes, it’s going to be really difficult to get the economy back up and going until we solve this problem. Because if the kids aren’t in school and then the parents need to be at home with their kids, or put their kids in child care which then diminishes their take home pay because they have to pay for all those additional expenses, we are just not going to be able to get the economy back on its feet and roaring like it was just really months ago. We need to get back to there. Part of the answer is not just, part of the answer is with the business community being understanding. But we need some understanding from the education establishment as well. Too many of these decisions are being made as to what is easiest for the people in the education institution, not necessarily for the families. So, I was looking at one states policy the other day, they are talking about or one districts policy in another state, and they were talking about one week in person on Tuesday, Thursday. And the next week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. So, they had time in between to clean the school and that sort of stuff. Well that is for you, but what kind of person is able to strike a deal with their employer that says this week I am available Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Next week I am only available Tuesday and Thursday. Other than that, I have got to be working from home, but I actually have to be educating my kid at the same time so I may not be able to get to everything right away. That doesn’t work in the long run. I am sure we will work our way through it but in the short run, be we need both sides of the equation, both the businesses and the education establishments to understand the needs of families. And to make sure they are focused on that.
Linda: Exactly, and it really comes together as to what will really help the families. You talked about your organization really helping low income people and children in low income homes. What would you say could be most helpful? How can we help talk to legislators about what is needed to bridge that gap? To really help those at risk students and help them have a sequential education? Education is so sequential in order to be done properly. We need to not have these gaps for children. So how can we all help?
Scott: Well, absolutely, so right now there is just 28 states that have private school choice. We would like to make that all 50 states. And that means that people need to pay attention to the positions politicians on whether or not they are in favor of increasing choices for parents or if they are trying to decrease them. There are some states where politicians are standing up and saying “we are going to put a moratorium on charter schools or a moratorium on giving anyone else options to go to private schools.” Because they are trying to prop up the public schools. Well, we are certainly sending them enough extra money here in this crisis. They don’t need to be propped up. What we need is more choices for parents. Let the parents decide what is right for their kids particularly in this time of uncertainty. So, our goal would be to pass more private school choice programs across the states. Get to 50 states with regards to doing charter school programs, and to make them widely available. Some of the states in the school choice camp have very tiny programs or they are only focused on special needs kids, which is great for those families, but everyone should have that option to go to the school that is right for their child. We all know, especially those of us who have multiple kids, like you and I do, that they all learn differently. It’s just remarkable. I have got three children and all three of them learn differently and so, now when it is college time, they are all choosing different colleges that are right for them. We should be able to do that for K thru 12 as well. Let’s pick the school or type of education that works best for your kid. That’s what our goal is and to make that available to every kid across the country.
Linda: Well, that’s great. For parents who would like to reach out and learn more about how they can learn about school choice, but also how to bring about school choice legislation in their state. They should visit your website federationforchildren.org. Would you like to leave some contact information in case they would like to contact you directly?
Scott: Sure, I think, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. People can reach me there and ask questions and I’ll get you in touch with the right person. Our organization works in about 15 states around the country right now and so we’ve got local organizations who we can turn you over to who would help you figure out what options are available in that state for your family and for your children.
Linda: Thank you for that, and for employers listening as well please reach out to him for more information, because employers can be a big part in helping to impact this policy and educating families about what’s available to them. I know our time has come to a close, do you have any closing comments especially for employers educating employees, or for the parents out there who are struggling to think about what to do next.
Scott: My field of study when I was in graduate school was the business/government relationship. I am still doing that I guess in a way in that nothing is more important to the future for this county and for the future of businesses than the quality of education that our children receive. And it’s not a job that we just send money to the government and they take care of it. It’s is something we all need to be involved in. So, businesses need to be involved. And there are lots of creative schools that businesses are very involved in all over the country. We are excited; we need more people involved in the fight. The same is true for parents. Right now, the decisions are all being made by insiders. By adults who are making decisions that are best for adults in many cases. They run the organizations, they run the schools. We need to transform the system and make sure that parent’s voices are heard and the decisions being made are what’s best for the children. And the only way that happens is if people get involved. And so, you can contact our organization and join the fight.
Linda: Well thank you for that, and again, I always say, “Ideas have conquests and policy matters.” And we are seeing it play out day in and day out here with our businesses and with our schools. This is just really important, so to all parents and to all business owners, we invite you to contact Scott and learn more and please join the fight. So, thank you Scott Jensen for joining us today.
Scott: Thank you for having me.
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