Jan. 20, 2022

Funding Students, Not Systems – School Choice in America – with Scott Jensen [Ep. 106]

Funding Students, Not Systems – School Choice in America – with Scott Jensen [Ep. 106]

The approach to education should never be one-size-fits-all. The school choice movement has grown tremendously since the start of the pandemic, and parents have discovered the wide variety of options available to customize learning to fit the needs of...


The approach to education should never be one-size-fits-all. The school choice movement has grown tremendously since the start of the pandemic, and parents have discovered the wide variety of options available to customize learning to fit the needs of their child. Allowing funding to follow students, not systems, provides greater flexibility for students, teachers, and families, and increases opportunities for students to flourish and become productive members of society. In this episode, Linda interviews Scott Jensen, a senior strategist for the nation’s largest school choice organization, the American Federation for Children. School choice policies affect your family, business, and community. If you are interested in freedom, make the educated choice to listen today! 

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Transcript

Linda:

Welcome. Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Prosperity 101 Breakroom Economics podcast. My name is Linda J. Hansen, your host, and the author of Prosperity 101: Job Security Through Business Prosperity. The essential to understanding how policy affects your paycheck and the creator of the Breakroom Economics online course. The book, the course and the entire podcast library can be found on prosperity101.com. I seek to connect boardroom to breakroom and policy to paycheck by empowering and encouraging employers to educate employees about the public policy issues that affect their jobs. My goal is to help people understand the foundations of prosperity, the policies of prosperity, and how to protect their prosperity by becoming informed, involved and impactful. I believe this will lead to greater employee loyalty, engagement and retention, and to an increased awareness of the blessings and responsibilities of living in a free society.

Linda:

Listen each week to hear from exciting guests and be sure to visit prosperity101.com. Thank you for joining with us today. The last week of January is designated as school choice week. We will be sharing resources and information to help you understand why school choice is important to your freedom and to the prosperity of your business and family. Education should never have a one size fits all approach. Children have a wide variety of learning styles and families have a wide variety of needs that can change year to year or geographic location. Children do not belong to the state. Parents should have the right to educate and train their children in the manner they deem best. Most parents and even non-parent tax payers would like to know what is being taught in public schools and they would like information on who is teaching and how the curriculum is presented.

Linda:

Many bureaucrats believe parents should not have a voice in the schooling or curriculum choices for their children, and they believe that those choices are best left to the government. Many parents who oppose that philosophy have been harassed and some have even been labeled domestic terrorists all because they want to advocate for their children. My guest today is my friend and longtime school choice advocate, Scott Jensen. Scott Jensen is a senior strategist for the advancement of school choice by the nation's largest school choice organization; The American Federation for Children.

Linda:

Previously, Scott served for 14 years in the Wisconsin assembly, including three terms as assembly speaker. He also served as chief of staff to Governor Tommy Thompson. 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 in 1982, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and he earned his masters in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1984. Scott is a repeat guest to the podcast and I thank you, Scott, for coming on this year and last year as we highlighted school choice week last year too. So thank you so much for making time again and thank you for your work in this important movement. Welcome.

Scott:

Well, thank you for having me back again.

Linda:

Well, it's great. And I know there's so many things happening. The pandemic has definitely brought School Choice to the forefront of many parents' minds, and no longer do we take the choices regarding education for granted. Can you give us a little update on what has happened? I know 2021 was a record year for the advancement of School Choice, and I'd love you to have the listeners be updated on some of those advancements and what they can expect for 2022.

Scott:

Well, you're right. It was a really big year last year. The best year the School Choice movement has ever had. And a lot of it is tied to the pandemic. When the schools were shut down and children were forced to, and teachers were suddenly forced to teach virtually, a lot of parents had a chance to actually see what their kids were learning in the classroom. We had a chance to help their kids and look at their textbooks and listen to the lectures and the other materials that they had. And I think a lot of parents were surprised to find out what was being taught in the schools or how things are being taught in the schools. And when that extended into 2021, and the legislatures came back into session, there were a lot of demands from parents to give them more options. And in fact, nearly one half of the states in the country last year either expanded or created a private school choice program.

Scott:

So it was just a banner year. There were four new states that were added to the family of states that have school choice programs. There are now 31 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico that have private school choice programs, but there are other expansions too. Governors pushed for letting kids go to the district next door, if through what program called open enrollment. So if your district was shut down, they let you go to the school district next door that was open. They also expanded virtual education, as you can imagine, but they also expanded charter schools in a number of states.

Scott:

Plus on top of that, the thing that grew the fastest was really private school choice and homeschooling. Those two options really took off. A lot of parents looked it the way their kids were being taught and said, well, I can do better than this. And so homeschooling grew really dramatically across the country. And so public school enrollment is down in the traditional schools, but lots of other options are now available to parents. And I think we were very, very pleased with the reactions we saw from governors and legislatures around the country responding to that parental demand for something else than what they had been offered in the past.

Linda:

Well, there's always a silver lining in every cloud. And I feel like this is a silver lining that came from the pandemic, is that parents became much more involved and aware about their children's education, and they no longer took for granted what was being taught to their children. And they realized that not only were their children maybe not getting the best academic standards, but there were other curriculum choices that were made that parents were opposed to. And when we have school choice, not only do we have more right in terms of the location and style of the school, but we have more choice with the curriculum as well.

Scott:

Yeah. I think you just saw... Parent's eyes were open. They learned a lot more. And as a result of the pandemic about what their kids are being taught, it's an unfortunate way to reengage parents and their children's education, but it's happened. And it's unlikely that it's something that's going to fade away anytime soon. I think the momentum is going to continue to build. You're seeing lots more parents show up now at school board meetings, you see people running for office of the school board to make changes. You see states trying to change their academic standards at a time that the schools are saying, well, can we actually just drop testing for a while? Well, no, we got to see how far our kids are behind and what it's going to take to get them caught up. And I think a lot of parents now know that their kids missed out on a lot of education during the pandemic.

Scott:

And the schools are, in many cases, not doing enough to get them caught up. They might be doing enough to advance them from where they were, but they're not getting caught up to where they should be. And that's going to be a problem that this country will be dealing with for a long, long time, particularly in some of the urban areas where the schools were shut down for so much longer and where many minority or lower income students don't have the supports at home for education that children out in the suburbs or in some upper middle class family might have.

Scott:

Mom might be working when the kids get home from school till fairly late night. She's not going to sit down and help them with math homework. So, those kids in particular and special needs kids who were denied, in many cases, the in-person services that they needed to get at their public schools, those kids, boy, they're going to be paying a heavy price for this for a long, long time, and we need to do everything we can to help them catch up.

Scott:

And so there's been some very exciting, innovative programs around the country where governors essentially used the federal money they got and said, we're just going to give this money to parents and let them go out and buy the services their kids missed out on, or let their kids spend it on... Get a tutor to help them in subjects that mom and dad can't help them in. So there's a lot of innovative things there. And I think that means we're never likely to go back to the one size fits all approach that we have, where we just have these public schools, and every kid is given the same curriculum and taught the same way, even though children we know learn completely differently, and they're all undergoing different circumstances.

Scott:

So, I think you're going to see more and more customization of education to meet the needs of a particular child. And that means that the systems are going to have to change. You can't expect a public school to have a hundred different curriculums to meet the need of a particular kid. You're going to have to give parents the choice to go to the school that best meets their child's needs.

Linda:

Very good points. And there is no one size fits all approach. As you know, I had six children. I homeschooled all of them. And when I first heard of homeschooling, I thought, why in the world would you abuse your children in such a way? So I had the typical-

Scott:

This is quite a commitment from parents.

Linda:

Yes. Yeah. Well, I had the paradigm that most people have that you're depriving them of socialization and they couldn't possibly get as good an education. And, but I began to read and learn and I met a lot of homeschool families and I thought, wow, they're really actually quite normal, and their kids are doing great. And when my oldest child was starting school, I knew that I didn't want him in the public school. The public school where we lived at the time was having some experimental reading programs and things, and he was very gifted.

Linda:

And I had already taught him to read before he was school age. He was a voracious learner. So I enrolled him in a very highly esteemed private school. But even that, they still had the assembly line approach. And it was a square peg in a round hole. He was bored in class. It just was not a good fit. The teachers were great. The school was great, but it was not a good fit for him. And as I began to open my mind and heart to homeschooling, I found that was really the best choice I could have ever made for him. Now, not every parent, every family is ready or willing or able to homeschool, but that was a great example of how I learned that one size does not fit all.

Scott:

Yeah. And this drive towards customization, I think, really picked up speed last year in 2021. We began the year with five states having programs where parents were allowed to take the money that the state would've spent on their child's behalf and go out and buy the education they wanted for their child from multiple providers. So if you want the values based education that you can get at St. Mary's, but are concerned that they don't have a big science program there, well, you can do both. You can go to St. Mary's and then you can pay for your kid to go to either a public high school or a technical college or a college to pick up the science classes that you're not going to get at St. Mary's High School. So, five states had that at the beginning of last year. By the end of last year, 10 states had programs that allowed parents to customize their child's education to meet their needs.

Scott:

And I think this year, 2022, will bring at least one more. Normally, the even numbered years, when it's election year, legislators tend to have short sessions and get back out on a campaign trail. But I think we'll add at least one more this year. And there could be a huge push in 2023 when legislatures return full-time and that's the year that they normally take up education issues. I think you'll see lots of walls being knocked down, lots of new opportunities being available for parents out there and for legislators to try to give parents a greater role in their child's education. And that's what we've all been pushing all along. Right? We want parents more engaged. Well, if you wanted to be engaged, why don't you put them in charge of your child's education?

Linda:

Exactly. Could you name for the listeners those 10 states you were referring to?

Scott:

So the four new states that added programs last year were New Hampshire, Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia. All those states added education savings accounts programs that allow parents to spend the money as they would like to on behalf of their kids. The previously existing states that had the programs would be Arizona, Mississippi, Florida, North Carolina, and I'm forgetting a couple of others. I think in 2022, there's a good chance that we will see Iowa added to the list and quite possibly South Carolina. In both states, the governors are very strongly pushing for an education savings account program.

Scott:

There's also a good chance that Oklahoma will do so as well. So, to go from five at the beginning of 2021. Tennessee was another one. So, five at the beginning of 2021 to where now we have 10 here at the start of 2022, I think that you could have 12 or 13 by the end of this year. And that would really be... There aren't many programs that double each year and the number of states that are doing it and then continue to grow after that. And that's what we are seeing in this demand for education savings accounts.

Linda:

So the states that you mentioned, for any listeners in those states, if you're unaware of those options for you, please reach out to your state department of education or to your local elected officials and even your state elected officials. But for the states that were not mentioned, please reach out to legislators in those states and other school choice advocates, and you can reach out to Scott and his organization too, to learn appropriate wording for legislation and how to make sure that legislation is drafted properly, so that it has the greater possibility of passing.

Scott:

Yeah, if you want to know what options are available in your state, you can go to our organization's website; federationforchildren.org. And there's a map somewhere there on, I think, on the front page, where you can click on your state and it'll tell you what options are available in your state and what kind of programs are available around the country. There's also model legislation all on that website. And it's all growing very quickly. When I first started working for the organization almost 18 years ago now, there were just four states plus the District of Columbia that had programs. And today, as I said earlier, there's 31 states that now have programs. And I think there will be, again, I think there will be states adding programs each year going forward, because the demand from parents is really just credible at the moment.

Linda:

Well, that is encouraging and I think America will be better for it in the end and the world will be better for it. As people are educated in a way that meets their needs and helps them to grow, to develop their own personal gifts and reach their fullest potential that creates greater good for all in a sense. That creates a greater optimization of everyone's talents and helps the entire country.

Scott:

Well, and I think someday we will look back and wonder why we ever thought it made sense to let some bureaucrats decide what was right for your kids rather than the parents decide what was best for their kids. Perhaps there was a time when our society had that level of [homogeneity 00:17:14], but that's not the way it is now, and I don't think it's the way it's going to be in the future. And you see it in all the debates about education. They all circle back to one solution that seems to work for a lot of these things. Parents are out there in a lot of states concerned about the materials that are being used in classrooms, the books that are in libraries, the curriculum that's out there and the things that are being taught and the values that are embedded in that curriculum.

Scott:

Well, the answer is just to let parents choose, take the money that the public was going to invest in their child's education in public school and take it to whatever school they think is best for them. We are seeing a redefinition of public education where in the past it was the government would go and build the school and run the school and raise the taxes, and then you send your kid there based upon where you live, to now, the education has nothing to do with where you live, but what your interests are, and what's the right fit for you and your learning style. So, the idea is that the public investment in education is an investment in the kids and not necessarily in buildings and in school systems, but rather the funding should follow students to whatever education is best for them.

Linda:

Good point. And you brought up parents having more control over their children's education. And I really encourage any parents who are listening, please, look at your children's curriculum, talk to your child, find out what they're learning, how they're learning, be more engaged. And if you don't like what you're seeing, well, then make some changes. I know when I didn't like what I was seeing in the public schools and even in the private schools around me, I just, I thought over my dead body, am I taking a chance on my child's success in education? I knew that if I could teach them to read well and love learning and of course I wanted them to learn about God. I wanted to share my faith with them. But I knew if they could read well and love learning, that if I got hit by a bus, they would be able to carry themselves through to life and be able to learn whatever they needed to learn.

Linda:

And that's one of the things that I think is lost in this canned educational approach, is we take away the love of learning for children. We don't teach them how to think, we teach them what to think. And I think parents are waking up to that fact, that we have lost this incredible thinking skills approach and instead we're telling them what to think and what to believe. And that's a whole nother topic, like what's in all these curriculums and why are parents so upset? But the school choice movement really addresses that. And I'm really thankful for the growth of that. I do have a question. We get a tax credit or we get a voucher, or get this, but what if we just actually kept that money in the first place? Is anyone ever proposing that?

Scott:

I think not, because for two reasons. One, I think there's an overall commitment to public education or public funding of education in this country. People believe that the whole society benefits when our children are well educated and the benefits flow to everyone, even people without children. And it makes our economy stronger. It makes us cutting edge in economic development, in technological developments, if we have a highly educated workforce. So I think everyone believes that there are public benefits. The other problem is the ability to pay, right?

Scott:

So, some families have no ability to pay for an education. And so you have to have a system which provides resources to make sure that everyone gets educated, not just those families who have the resources available to them. And there's an awful lot of people who don't pay any taxes in this country because their income level is not sufficient. The benefits to the society are huge.

Linda:

They are, as long as we have accountability. And that's what school choice is all about. When we have accountability-

Scott:

As long as what kids are being taught is something that will make them productive the rest of their lives. So you made the distinction between being taught how to think versus what to think and I think there's a lot of truth to that. The economy is evolving so rapidly and the kind of skills that are necessary for work are constantly changing, and the shortage areas are constantly changing. That knowing how to think is the skill that will last with you for the rest of your life. And a lot of employers are frustrated that the students they get out of schools really can't think on their own and they have to start from scratch in training them. That's frustrating.

Scott:

The fact that we probably tracked too many kids into the college track and that's not necessarily where some of the highest paying jobs are right now. Some of the highest paying jobs are jobs in which you wouldn't necessarily need to be on the college track. There's a lot of healthcare professions. There's a lot of-

Linda:

The trades.

Scott:

Construction. Yeah. Just lots of these different jobs that are out there that pay an extraordinary sum. A plumber and electrician quite often will make more than someone with a professional degree from a university, and they can lead a very good life and a very rewarding and happy life. So why are we telling people that well, don't do that. You should go get that master's degree in English, that'll really help, so.

Linda:

Right, right. And that doesn't really fit for everyone. And one of my son-in-law's is a teacher and he teaches in an elementary school and his wife, my daughter, actually homeschools their kids. And he continually says that it's a much better choice for them to be homeschooled and he's thrilled with what they're learning and what they're doing. And he talks to me quite a bit about some of the frustrations of being a teacher in the public schools. And when you are a committed teacher, we should give kudos here to committed teachers. I think, we hear reports of these teachers who are way on the fringe, one side or the other, or they're trying to indoctrinate kids with their political views or something. But there are so many teachers out there who have a heart for children and really want to do a good job and help them. And sometimes the public education system and this one size fits all approach really does limit them as well with what they want to do.

Scott:

Oh, it definitely does. I think one of the great things that we found, not only with education savings accounts but this idea of funding students rather than the system, is it opens up opportunities for teachers as well. So during the pandemic, there were a number of teachers who decided, I'm just going to teach from my house, kids who are missing out on education and they created a micro school or a learning pod or whatever they wanted to call it. And the parents paid the teacher directly. Now last year parents had to do that using their own money. Right?

Scott:

But going forward, parents could do that if you funded the students, they could actually go out and buy the education they need. And a teacher who is entrepreneurial could say, well, I'm going to teach a bunch of kids in a setting that I'm very comfortable in. And parents will pay me from the money that would've normally gone to the public school district. And I talked to a governor in a state the other day whose daughter is a public school teacher and very frustrated. And when I mentioned that idea to her, she said, that's the sort of thing my daughter would love. She would love to have the same group of students in elementary school and take them through all the subjects in a setting that she decided, and that she selected and that she could decide how many kids she was going to have and how many she was going to take. She said that would be perfect for her. Well, I think we're going to see more and more of that innovation out there, if we can stop funding the system and start funding the students.

Linda:

That's a perfect way to explain it is we fund the students and not the system. And you brought up a really good point that for any parents listening to that sequential approach, this is one thing that I found to be very, very beneficial as I homeschooled my children is, each year built upon the year before. And it was a very sequential approach that, I could understand what they were learning from the beginning to the end. You have the end goal in mind, like begin with the end in mind and work backwards. Right? But I think a lot of times as children move around, as school districts change their curriculums, as different administrators come in and have different policies, things get mixed up. And then with the pandemic, of course you talked about the catch up that kids need to do and how we can most help them. And sometimes that individualized approach, they can catch up two years in six months with an individualized approach. Yeah.

Scott:

Yeah. And so, there are a lot of teachers who actually would love to follow their students through the grades. Some teachers like teaching the same thing each year and having a brand new group of students and opening up the world to them of the things that they are excited about teaching. Others would love to follow the kids through the system. Well, a public school can only one of those things, right? So if you, again, unlock the system and let the parents have the resources, they can choose whatever is best for them. And the teachers can choose whatever is best for them.

Linda:

Yeah. That's great. So in terms of resources for parents and potentially teachers, I know, could you give your website again, please?

Scott:

federationforchildren.org.

Linda:

Okay. And I know if you go to the website, listeners, you will find a host of information. They have blog posts, they have different maps and things that can help you understand what's going on in your state, news releases, there's a lot of information there. And you will not only learn from that website, but you'll be informed about where you can find more information that could more specifically be beneficial to you and your family. And as you know, like my podcast, while it's helpful for anyone, I think, who cares about these issues, but I do like to talk to business leaders. Those who own companies, who have employees, and in your words, why would you say, school choice is important to businesses?

Scott:

Well, I think parental choice is very important to businesses because they need to, and not only have a highly skilled workforce and students who have mastered all the basics when they come to their company, they would also benefit dramatically from having lots of different types of schools. So there's a charter school in, there's actually in several states now, that is training high school students in areas where there are huge shortages. So there's one that's just a law enforcement and firefighters academy. And so they got people graduating from high school with their degree to be a paramedic or with the credentials necessary to become a firefighter right away or a police officer.

Scott:

Well, that's very, very helpful. Here in Wisconsin, there's a school that has kids who are graduating from high school and having their certified nursing assistant credentials at the same time. They can start work the day after high school is done. And then they can continue to go to the technical college later and move up the ranks of what type of nurse they want to be. So when you open all that up, when you unlock that, then people are able to… well, the people will be responsive to where the jobs are and where the opportunities are. They'll be able to invest in themselves and make themselves very attractive to businesses.

Linda:

Well, that's true. And the other thing I talked before about square pegs and round holes, a lot of times in the education system and especially up through college, and as we get into the workforce, sometimes people do not succeed, or they're not happy and prosperous because they're really in the wrong position for them. It doesn't match their skillset, their personality, their learning styles and employers, when they can look from this pool of individuals who are really trained in that area. It just gives that employee a step up right away and it helps the employers. So it really benefits everybody. It's a win-win.

Scott:

Well, and America really is the land of second chances. Compared to other countries, people are more likely to start over and get trained for a new profession in this country than just about anywhere in the world. And the whole world is going to have to move that way, because the way technology is moving, a lot of folks trained for one job and then they held it all their life in the last century. But in this century, there are people who will end up training for several different professions during the course of their life.

Scott:

And we need to change all the ways in which we fund not only K through 12 education, but higher education and workforce training so that people are able to be responsive. Either I'm not happy in this job, or it's not paying what my family needs. I need to move over to that job over there. How do I get the training for that? We need to make society as flexible, and the government funding for it as flexible as the economy is demanding, otherwise we're going to have all these worker shortages and inflation and all the other problems we're seeing here today.

Linda:

Exactly. Well, and businesses, speak to your employees about this. I always encourage employers to educate employees about these issues that affect their jobs while your employees have children and your employees may need to be thinking about school choice for themselves. Maybe they're a high school student. Maybe they are a young adult who has been told they have to go to college and they don't even realize what the other options are. They just know college doesn't feel right for them. So for employers, I really encourage you to go to federationforchildren.org and see the resources there on the website. Maybe get in contact with Scott and find out what's the best way that you can support the best educational choices for your employees and for their families. And this will help our country now and moving forward. So Scott, if people want to reach out to you, how should they?

Scott:

Let's see, I'm happy to give out my email address. So scottjensen@wi.rr.com.

Linda:

All right. That's great. And do you have any other closing comments or anything you'd like to make sure the listeners hear before we close out this interview?

Scott:

I'm just very, very impressed at how quickly things are moving again. I know I have been at this for a couple decades and I was involved in the creation of the first modern school choice program here in Wisconsin 32 years ago. For a long time, it was lonely. Just a couple of states were following us. Now, a majority of the nation has these options available for kids. 45 states, I think now have charter schools, 40 some states have open enrollment where you go to the district next door, 31 states now have private school choice. It is clearly the direction that we are headed in. Educational freedom, like other types of freedom, it's where America seems to be heading. It's always trying to generate more choices for people and a greater level of freedom. And I think that it's inevitable that we're going to move in that direction. So we just need people to help us create opportunities for children everywhere in this country.

Linda:

Absolutely. And you mentioned how people look for this in other states and move to different states. Educational freedom is what actually had my family moving back to Wisconsin, because we decided we wanted to homeschool. And at the time homeschooling was illegal in North Dakota where we lived at the time. And so we looked at moving actually to Iowa because it was convenient to where employment was. But at the time, homeschooling wasn't legal in Iowa either. And it had become legal in Wisconsin. So it is because of the homeschool laws that I've been a Wisconsin resident since 1985. So school choice matters and families will choose places that they feel are best to raise their family and educate their children. So to all the legislators, to all the governors, all the policy makers out there, please choose in favor of choice, for families and children across this nation. So, and again, please go to federationforchildren.org and you can reach out to Scott Jensen for more information. And thank you so much for being here.

Scott:

It was a pleasure. Thank you very much.

Linda:

Thank you. Thank you again for listening to the Prosperity 101 podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, share, and leave a great review. Don't forget to visit prosperity101.com to access the entire podcast library, to order my newest book, Job Security Through Business Prosperity, the essential guide to understanding how policy affects your paycheck or to enroll you or your employees in the break room economics online course. You can also receive the free e-book, 10 Tips for Helping Employees Understand How Public Policy Affects Their Paychecks. Freedom is never free. Understanding the foundations of prosperity and the policies of prosperity will help you to protect prosperity as you become informed, involved, and impactful. I give special thanks to our sponsors, Matthew's Archery Incorporated, and Wisconsin Stamping and Manufacturing. Please contact us today at prosperity101.com to let us know how we can serve you. Thank you.