School Choice: Past, Present, and Future

Published July 1, 2005

Editor’s note: Robert Enlow, executive director of the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, delivered these remarks at the 2004 Emerging Issues Forum in Chicago.

How well has the school choice message been promoted to the public since we started in 1996? What have we done well since then? And what do we need to do?

In 1996, when the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation was founded, the school choice movement had a very fractured message. There was a lot of conservative rhetoric, a focus on how markets work, and a lot of groups speaking with a lot of different voices–nothing really cohesive. On the other hand, school choice opponents have and will always continue to speak with one voice against the movement. It’s a simple but dramatic difference.

Multitude of Opponents

Whether it’s the school boards, the National Education Association, or their various allied advocacy groups, opponents of school choice speak with one voice, using similar phrasing, labels, and stories to make a persuasive case against allowing parents to choose their children’s schools. The school choice side was handicapped because there were too few programs in place in the country to draw stories from, so we didn’t have enough real-life examples.

We also really didn’t have many good messengers at that stage. Who could deliver this message of school choice and freedom in a credible way to members of the public? It was right-wing white folks who were delivering the message, and that doesn’t sell in many ways.

That’s where we were in ’96, and when the Friedman Foundation started, we said, “We need to change the message on school choice. We need to get groups speaking with one voice.”

Laying Groundwork

The first thing we did was commission a national study to come up with a common message, and we shared the results with everyone. We wanted to create an environment where school choice became a widely accepted policy alternative everywhere in the nation–and frankly, right now, school choice is on the menu of policy options in almost every state. It was not in 1996.

The study produced a “mind map,” a map showing how widely different values and different messages are embraced. The most powerful message for school choice is that children learn more and gain knowledge from school choice, and that leads to a more prosperous future. The story that America wanted to hear was all about giving children a greater opportunity to achieve goals and succeed in the future. We had to claim that ground in order to win the next level of the school choice message. And that’s what we have been doing.

Doing the Right Thing

The “ladder” of values that people climb goes like this: I want a better school with good performance, and I want it because my children are going to learn better and learn faster, and that means they’re going to get a better job. And if they get a better job, that means they’re going to have a chance to succeed in the future. They’re going to have a better life, and I’m going to be less worried as a parent. I will have done the right thing by my child.

The most effective messages are oriented toward child advancement or parental pride in doing the right thing for their children. Those were the two messages we wanted to get out, and we did. Many groups started to use those.

Other messages come out of this new focus, messages that are very simple: School choice is widespread unless you’re poor. School choice works. Opponents of school choice lie when confronted by the facts.

Those were our messages. And we hammered those in many different ways.

Working Together

Since 1996, the school choice movement has adopted a more unified message. The Friedman Foundation, Alliance for School Choice, Cato Institute, and many others are working to advance school choice, using different methods and aiming at different audiences, but working together so that we speak with one voice.

We did a great job getting the moral high ground. For example, opponents of choice often claim we are taking away a fundamental right to public education, a right we’ve had since the beginning of our country. We’ve countered that with, “You know what? If you’re poor, the current system does not deliver on its promise. You’re totally being abused by this system.” Parents themselves got out front with this message, through groups such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

We’ve also linked school choice with performance. All the studies say school choice works not just for parents, who are more satisfied, but for students, who are better educated. Even public schools do better when they have to compete with other schools. This message works.

And we helped destroy several reigning myths about school choice, such as that it helps only those who are rich. Or that it’s illegal. The Supreme Court proved that wrong in 2002 … but we were making that case three years before the Supreme Court ruled.

Exposing Financial Realities

So where do we need to go from here? What are the things we need to do better?

We need to address the financial side of school choice, since for many of the important players in this debate, it is all about the money. We spend half-a-trillion dollars on K-12 education every year. The public does not understand–most think we don’t spend enough. They don’t know how much we actually spend. It’s a pretty well-kept secret.

We need to better understand the public’s attitudes on money and leverage this issue. One thing we do know is that most people don’t think public schools spend their money wisely. We need to do a lot more messaging on just how badly the money’s being spent.

Earning Trust

We also need more messengers the public can trust. The moral message stays the same: School choice is already available for some, but it should be available for all. School choice and the idea of freedom in education should not be for some groups of people only. It should be for all groups of people.

We’ve done a great job at getting the beneficiaries of school choice out in front of the debate, but we have a critical lack of civic and business leaders out front. Corporate America is not on board for school choice, in terms of being willing to speak out for it. We need the president of a nationally prominent company to lead this charge and make calls to legislators. Voters say they are more likely to support political candidates who say they support school choice, so we know this is a winning issue for voters if we do it right.

Explaining Vouchers

We need to better understand the word “voucher,” in terms of our messaging. Does using the “v-word” make a difference any more? We all know that “voucher” is a demonized word, but when we conducted polls asking people’s opinions about school choice, using the word “voucher” in a question asked of one group and the same question without the word “voucher” to another group, there was absolutely no difference in the responses.

We need to avoid defining school choice by specific terms such as “vouchers” or “tax credits” or “charter schools,” and instead position the concept as an objective that can be achieved in a wide variety of ways. Otherwise we get caught up in debates about means instead of benefits.

We need to have a better response to questions about holding choice schools accountable to taxpayers and elected officials. The debate right now often consists of school choice opponents saying choice schools should be subjected to the same kinds of rules as public schools, and we’re saying, “No, no, no,” and that’s the end of it. We should be saying, “We think accountability for schooling should look like this, and this is what we’re going to promote,” instead of being reactive.

Seeking Choice for All

Finally, we need to shift away from the message that school choice is primarily or only for the benefit of the poor, and move instead to a message about the importance of freedom in education. Freedom has no boundaries. According to one of the polls we’ve done, 41 percent want all parents to be able to exercise choice in education, and only 10 percent believe choice ought to be limited to people with low incomes.

We also conducted polls in Washington, DC before and after we ran ads there, to see if people believed school vouchers should be available only to low-income people. Before the ads, 50 percent believed choice should be provided to all parents. After the ads, 51 percent believed that.

In that same poll, 49 percent said, “Let’s just make public schools better.” That’s our fight right there. That is the moral fight we need to be aware of. It’s imperative that we get involved in all aspects of education reform, as people who believe in liberty. It’s not just vouchers, it’s not just tax credits. We live in areas where there are bond issues going on. Here in Chicago, Renaissance 2010 is expanding the limits of school choice. Are we involved in that? If we are not, we can’t be credible.

We need to define a positive, pro-active agenda for school choice, and not be, or appear to be, reactive. We’ve made a remarkable amount of progress since 1996 in doing this. Now we need to redouble our efforts in order to win.

Robert Enlow ([email protected]) is executive director of the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis, Indiana.