I was the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s point person in Ohio for twelve years. I never met Robert Pondiscio but have followed his writing since leaving Fordham in 2013. I am also a former New Schools Venture Fund (NSVF) Pahara fellow (class of 2008). Pondiscio’s piece, “The Left’s drive to push conservatives out of education reform,” has triggered an important conversation about race, power, politics, and school reform.
I was the only Republican in my cohort of Pahara fellows, which included the likes of progressive education leaders John King, Cami Anderson, and Andy Rotherham. I had philosophical disagreements with some of my New Schools colleagues, and I wasn’t nearly as excited about the election of President Barack Obama back in 2008 as they were. But every single one of my NSVF friends treated me and my opinions with respect. What’s more, they actually wanted to hear what I had to say.
I attended the New Schools Venture Fund Conference in California that was at the center of Pondiscio’s piece. My take is different from his. I was less offended by the “push” of the political Left than I was disappointed by how voiceless the conservative ideas around school improvement efforts have become at the national level. Our voices are lacking not because the Left is pushing us aside, but because we aren’t unified in what we are saying—or even what we think actually works. This despite history and facts being on the side of the conservative school reform agenda.
When I started with Fordham in the early-2000s, Republic governors were in the ascendancy. Charter schools, school vouchers, and online learning (all matched by standards and accountability for performance) were the big ideas animating conservative school reform efforts. Big-state Republican executives like Jeb Bush in Florida, Bob Taft in Ohio, John Engler in Michigan, and Mitch Daniels in Indiana were driving school reform, and President Bush (a former big-state governor) was also a strong supporter. This was the high-point for conservative school reformers in America, and I was lucky to be a part of it in the Buckeye State.
I was in Ohio when the Supreme Court declared the Cleveland voucher program to be constitutional. I was able to work with the state’s Republican leaders to expand vouchers statewide and create private school opportunities for students with disabilities and autism. We worked to expand Ohio’s charter school program and participated in a string of court cases that resulted in the state supreme court declaring Buckeye State charter schools constitutional. These were big victories for Conservative school reformers.
Unfortunately, these wins would have been better—and, I suspect, resulted in even better programs for families and kids—if at least some progressive Democrats had supported our early school choice efforts. This was well before groups like Democrats for Education Reform and 50CAN were working with left-leaning reformers in places like Cleveland and Columbus. In all the charter school debates in Ohio during the 2000s, only one Democrat (an African American House member from Dayton) ever voted in support of charters; she was promptly tossed out of her party as a result.
During the heyday of these conservative school reform victories, the New Schools Venture Fund and its allies in philanthropy took to heart the advice of Milwaukee’s Howard Fuller. In every public appearance, Fuller insisted that activists needed to work to open up and make the school reform ranks more diverse. The fact that innovators like Teach For America, TNTP, KIPP, and many others have consciously built more diverse (both racially and intellectually) leadership, staffs, and teams over the past decade is one of the true successes of the school improvement struggle. Great conservative ideas are those that bring more people together over time.
While I agree with Pondiscio that the Left has become the louder voice in the school reform space in recent years, the big ideas around conservative education reform are still prevalent and worth fighting for. Consider the numbers: All but six states have enacted charter school laws. There are now 6,700 charters across the country serving almost three million students. Most of these students are at risk children of color. There are twenty-six voucher programs in fifteen states, five states with education savings account programs, and a further fifteen states with tax credit scholarships.
Conservatives need not apologize for the work they’d done leading public education improvement efforts over recent decades, but we need to do a better job of explaining our successes and lessons learned. We also—and this is Fordham’s sweet spot—need to compete vigorously in the battle of ideas. Hopefully, Pondiscio’s piece can help make this happen.
Terry Ryan is the CEO of Bluum, an Idaho-based school reform organization.