The Great Antidote – Lisa Snell

On this episode of The Great Antidote podcast with Juliette Sellgren, she is joined by guest Lisa Snell. In their discussion, Juliette and Lisa cover funding for schools, the current state of education, and school choice.


Guest Bio

Lisa Snell serves as the director of K-12 education policy partnerships at the Charles Koch Institute. Prior to joining CKI, Snell served as the director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation where she oversaw research and outreach on school choice and school finance reform efforts. She has testified before the California state legislature and numerous government agencies and has authored policy studies on school finance and weighted student funding, universal preschool, school violence, charter schools and child advocacy centers. In 2015, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey appointed Snell to the Classrooms First Commission to help redesign school funding in the state.

Snell’s commentary has appeared in The Wall Street JournalSan Francisco Chronicle, New York TimesLos Angeles Times and numerous other publications. Earlier in her career, Snell coached Forensics and Debate and taught public speaking and argumentation courses at California State University, Fullerton where she earned a master’s degree in communication and rhetoric.


Episode Transcript

Juliette: Welcome back. It is my pleasure to welcome Lisa Snell today. Lisa is the director of K through 12 education policy partnerships at the Charles Koch Institute. She served as the director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation where she oversaw research and outreach on school choice and school finance reform efforts. In other words, Lisa, does that mean that any question I have about education policy you can answer?

Lisa Snell: Any question, hit me up.

Juliette: Okay. Well, welcome to my podcast. I will be asking you a lot of questions.

Lisa Snell: Thank you so much for having me this afternoon.

Juliette: So my first question to you, which I ask all my guests, is what is the most important thing that people my age or my generation should know that we don’t?

Lisa Snell: Okay, well, I’m going to do that as a two-part question. But the lesson, I think that young people should learn and really anybody is we worry so much about what other people are thinking, and really most other people aren’t thinking about us at all. And so it’s important to focus on what is important to you. Obviously, you have to function in the world and be respectful to other people, but constantly worrying about how others are judging you and what impact your decisions will have on other people, isn’t as helpful as you would think. Because they’re much more worried about themselves and everything in their own lives than they are about you. And we tend to overestimate that. Then the other thing I would just offer, that I think young people could use, especially now at least the younger people that are in my orbit, things tend to be fairly hectic and competitive in terms of there’s a lot of ranking and sorting and trying to get into college, finish this score high here, do these internships it goes on and on. And I would recommend just taking a longer time-horizon that you don’t have to accomplish everything by the time you’re 18, 21, 25. And that you should take some time to actually be aware of where you are and enjoy the process and acknowledge your surroundings rather than always thinking ahead to what’s next and putting yourself in that rat race without being able to appreciate some of the things that you’re experiencing while you’re there. If that makes sense.

Juliette: Yeah. I like both of your responses! To the first thing, I would say definitely the iron law view. You think about yourself at least 90% of the time, whereas everyone else thinks about you, maybe 5% of the time, probably less. Russ Roberts taught me about that in a book I was reading. I’d never thought about it, but it makes so much sense because then I think about how much time do I spend thinking about like X-random person, and then you’re like, “Oh, not that much.” So why would they be spending so much time thinking about me? And it really puts things into perspective. Which is nice. But then also about kind of taking it slow. That’s also good because I mean, I’m sitting here awaiting college decisions, college responses, and it’s stressful. And I’m like, what can I do to better myself so I look like they need to have me? Because I want to get in. Right? But at the same time it’s kind of about finding that balance. Okay. Well be a good student look good, but also you’re a kid. You’re not going to be a kid for forever. So there’s that. I’ve been trying to be appreciative of that and of my age and kind of making the most out of it, which is also hard while being at home and school is not yet really open. So there’s that, but as much as I can in the current situation.

Lisa Snell: I mean I can’t even imagine how hard it must be being at the end of your kind of elementary, secondary school, like K-12 during the pandemic, right? Like my daughter graduated from college last year and her last semester of college she did from home and there was no graduation and it was kind of anti-climatic for sure. You know, and it is tough. You don’t get to go through the normal rituals of recognition or be with other people during a really important time of your life.

Juliette: Yeah. It’s pretty weird, everyone in every grade is like, “Oh, I feel so bad for this person or like these people or this other grade”, but it’s kind of like, Oh, well, it all sucks for all of us for different reasons, because there’s a different milestone or a different experience you get at each grade and not being able to experience that. And even in college, I mean, also apart from that, we’re just missing out on like prom, and graduation, which is really important, like in terms of traditional American Rite of passage type of thing? But in terms of development for younger kids, I can’t even imagine what- I mean they don’t realize how bad it is because they’re young. But I wonder how the parents are feeling about that. And if they’re worried and how it just seems like such a mess for so many different reasons. So let’s jump in cause that relates to school. Let’s talk about school choice. I liked the way that the Institute for justice describes the idea that fuels the school choice movement, which is that “every child deserves the best quality education and every parent deserves the freedom to choose the school that best meets their needs.” The idea of school choice started in 1955 with an essay that Milton Friedman wrote titled the role of government in education. In this essay, he argued for “giving parents vouchers, redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year, if spent on approved educational services.” Can you tell us more about his idea and about how groundbreaking and radical it was at the time?

Lisa Snell: Yeah, so really for a couple hundred years longer, we’ve really had this very industrialized model of education right? Where it was really, the kids would go through school and when they got out, they would go from the school door to the factory door. We have this idea that there’s an average kid that as long as we’re producing like relatively good citizens that do X, Y, and Z. We’ve set up our whole system as this kind of cogs. You do certain things at each grade, you stay with your same age cohort, you’re in your classes for a certain number of minutes. You take these subjects before you take these other subjects. I think Milton Friedman was really one of the first people to recognize that that’s really not how we live. Like that’s not how people actually live the rest of their lives. And so what really was meaningful was even just an idea of diversity of solutions or pluralism or options at all. Really our education system is built on the opposite. Even though it’s supposed to be like the community center and the melting pot where everyone meets up at the school. Certainly the nostalgic, and good feelings we have about our formal education in terms of what you were talking about earlier, the prom and graduation and school plays and football games and things that families and schools do together. There’s absolutely like a lot of positive things there, but at the same time we have kind of this top-down technocratic one best way to get there. And that really doesn’t breed social entrepreneurs, innovation critical thinking, autonomy, personal agency, if you’re always like pushed along in a very standardized way that doesn’t recognize your individualized capabilities. So, we have a lot to thank Milton Friedman for in the sense that he was the first one to even challenge the idea that maybe it isn’t a good idea to put everyone in a room together and they have to do the exact same things at the exact same age. And that that is the best way to organize learning.

Juliette: Yeah. When you were kind of listing the way that schools were- I was thinking that kind of sounds like the way my school is, but in a way there’s also a lot of change that we faced because of that. And since Milton Friedman first introduced this idea, the first school voucher program designed for low-income families was adopted in 1989 in the Milwaukee school district. And today DC, Puerto Rico, and 28 other States employ some sort of mechanism that provides public funds so that parents can have school choice for the best education for their children. So can you tell us a bit about the different types of mechanisms or tax credits or vouchers that are available for parents? And what level of government is this working on? Is it federal or state or local?

Lisa Snell: Yeah, absolutely. First let’s just step back for a minute. I mean, the way K-12 education is funded in the United States kind of writ large is that there is local property tax funding, state tax, and federal dollars that go to schools. And they go to schools by going to a government institution called a school district usually, or a school parish or county office of education. But it’s some kind of like medium level government institution that gets all of these funds. And then they decide, and they buy things like teachers and counselors and curriculum. So compared to other kinds of things, it’s a very “single-provider” and “single-payer.” And it’s not related to the customer. So if you went to a restaurant or a grocery store, you would choose things that were directly paid for. But with our K-12 system, the way the money is spent is really far removed from what the student does or where they go. And so that means that most education is local in the sense that kids are assigned to school based on their home address. So you have a lot of inequity there where things like redlining in the past, still determined in a lot of cases, the school boundaries and where kids get to go. And there is in most places very little choice. And so people have done things like they buy an expensive house so they can get into a better school district and they can get their kids access to a better school if they can’t afford private tuition or sometimes, that’s their choice instead of paying private tuition. So it’s really complicated how we fund schools. And it’s nothing like if you think if you’re about to go to college and say you were to get a government subsidy from a Pell grant or a state grant, that money actually follows you to whatever university you go to if you were to get some kind of financial aid. But in public schools, the tax money go to these government institutions. And it’s really disconnected from where kids actually go to school.

Lisa Snell: Obviously the districts do get paid on a “per-pupil” basis based on enrollment, but they don’t then spend the money on the student. Like if your district generated 20,000 for you Juliette, it’s not like that $20,000 goes to your teachers or even to your direct school. It’s spent on pensions and police for the district and all kinds of things. And then there’s a much smaller amount that might follow you. So the really novel thing here is that having families have direct access to the money is what is novel about what Milton Friedman was first pitching and that it actually gives families autonomy or agency to make decisions about how to spend that money for education. So in our field right now, we have $800 billion a year that’s spent through the local state and federal on K-12 education. 800 billion. And school choice programs right now, not counting charter schools, but count for about 2 billion of that money. So that means that the other 798 billion is still captured by the public school system. And so on the one hand, we’ve made a lot of progress because like you say, there’s these 28 programs and we know what it means to have a tax credit. So I’ll just kind of go through the different options right now, and then kind of talk about the North star about what we would love to see, or at least me personally would love to see as the way we would finance education. For the most part all the money’s going to the district, but in these programs like in Milwaukee or in Florida, or in Washington, DC, that you alluded to have some kind of a school choice program.

A tax credit program is really where either individuals or corporations get to keep some of their own tax dollars and they can then give them to scholarship granting organizations. So in Florida, for example, they have a large tax credit program where a bunch of companies get to donate off their bottom line. And instead of giving the money to the government to pay their taxes, they can give them to scholarship organizations. And then a certain set of kids that are qualified for the program have access to those scholarships to go to private schools. And that’s really what a tax credit does. The money doesn’t ever actually go to the government. Whoever is getting the tax credit, whether it’s an individual or a corporation in these kinds of designs of these school choice programs, they then give the money either directly to a school or a scholarship granting organization to use it, to pay for somebody’s tuition. Usually not your own tuition. Usually they’re giving it to a more generalized scholarship granting organization that then often spends it on more disadvantaged kids.

Now, a voucher on the other hand is literally like, if you think about food assistance or housing vouchers, when people have subsidized housing, you can take that money to pay rent anywhere you want, or to buy food anywhere you want. So with the voucher, it really is the concept that if the voucher is worth $6,000, your funding for that voucher, which is in most places, except for Washington,DC, Is state funds. So it’s a state education voucher, and that money has come from some kind of state revenue. Like in Milwaukee, the oldest, and one of the most famous school voucher programs. And then that money goes to a private school. So instead of the per-pupil funding going to your public school, your parents can designate which private school they want to enroll you in. And it can go directly to a Catholic school or a Montessori school or a progressive school. And that’s a school voucher.

And then probably which people sometimes call the school choice 2.0 or it’s in the last few years, it’s been, the more recent conception of this, is really the idea of direct grants to families to customize education. And this comes under different names like education savings accounts, family empowerment accounts. But the idea here, and this really kind of goes to our modern age is- if you think of Spotify or you make a playlist of music you don’t have to- like in my day, and in your mom’s day, we had to like buy a whole album to get the music that we wanted. And we couldn’t customize based on a platform, the kinds of music that we wanted to listen to. So the idea of an education savings account is really taking it to that next level where if I get $15,000 and my parents then want to have me take a couple online classes from Minerva or Stanford or Arizona state, and then also they’re going to use some of it for tutoring, and then they’re going to use some of it because I need some kind of special art supplies or materials for what my interest is. But it really is the idea that you could drive through individual arrangements, your own education, and you could build the playlist. So you didn’t just have to go to one school. And in places where there are these education savings accounts like Arizona, sometimes parents want to use it all to go to one school. So it doesn’t preclude you from saying, “Oh, my school is going to be great hearts Academy, and I’m going to use, you know, my whole $10,000 to pay tuition there.” You can still do that, but it also opens up lots of different individualized opportunity.

Juliette: The Spotify analogy makes a lot of sense. It kind of makes it very clear. I like that. Can you tell us about how charter schools fit into school choice and public schools and all of that?

Lisa Snell: Absolutely. So, charter schools in some ways have made the most inroads of any kind of alternative option. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. They’re still public schools. So one advantage that charter schools have over other forms of school choice is they are incorporated into the regular funding formula. And I won’t go into it because it’s complicated, but it basically- like the Washington DC voucher program every year has to fight for an appropriation for the students that are in the private choice, because it’s not part of how DC public schools are funded. So charter schools get the same per-pupil- like they’re considered what might be called a local education agency. So in the same way that Los Angeles unified with 600,000 students is a local education agency and gets that money. A charter school is also mostly considered a local education agency.

And if those 300 students enroll all their money from the federal, state, and local funding goes to the charter school directly. And so in some ways, the school choice component is similar to a voucher. Compared to public schools, which have residentially assigned students and are built-in. And in a lot of cases, they’re not forbidden, but it’s more difficult for them to go somewhere else, and they have students assigned to them. Charter schools have open enrollment and they have to get kids to come. And so they are like vouchers in the sense that they only get the per-pupil funding from all those government funding streams if a child enrolls. And so sometimes charter schools have failed because of fiscal reasons. If they can’t attract enough students to their vision and their mission. And so charter schools have been easier to get done because basically there’s different authorizers for charter schools. Oftentimes a district, but sometimes a state agency or a university or a mayor or a nonprofit. And so basically you’re getting authorization or permission to operate one school at a time. And you compare that with a statewide school voucher program in somewhere like California, where you have to get it on the ballot, and then you have to get everyone to agree. It’s much more politically feasible to approve one school at a time, especially if you can get a bunch of stakeholders behind the mission of the school. And then also some places where there’s been a lot of charter schools, like where I live near Los Angeles, when they first got very popular, there was a lot of overcrowding in Los Angeles. And so there was excess capacity that could take on those students. Now it’s flipped and they accuse charter schools of stealing students, but there was a time where charter schools helped with overcrowding and growth. And so that demand overflowed to charter schools.

But the bottom line for charter schools is they have to give parents what they want in order to get funding and to keep their kids enrolled in a way that public schools don’t have to. But right now there is about 7,500, so 7,500 charter schools in the United States. About 3.3 million students are enrolled in charter schools. But what makes charter schools competitive or interesting is that they tend to be clustered in different regions. So, New Orleans has an almost all charter district and almost every school is a charter school. And then you have other places like Los Angeles, like where I live, where the district has lost close to 200,000 students to charter schools over time. And they are a significant percentage of the makeup of the schools in a geographic location. And so there’s a bunch of markets or cities or places in the United States where charter schools make up a very significant number of the schools. And so then they can have real impact because they’re not just one-offs across the country. So they tend to be clustered in different regions. They tend to be managed by non-profits and there’s a wide range of them from school networks that are more famous, like KIPP charter schools or Great Hearts Academy charter schools, or Success Academies in New York, to lots of individual kind of mom and pop charter schools that might have one or two schools.

Juliette: And it seems, along with what school choice means, school choice is like options. It seems to give options to lower-income parents, whereas before it’s like, “Oh, if you’re rich, you can move to go to a better public school district, or you can put your kids in private school”, but it just extends the options to people who can’t put their kids in private school or can’t move just for the purpose of schools. So can you talk to us about kind of the benefits and the successes of charter schools, but also the areas where they could be improved?

Lisa Snell: Yeah, so think this kind of goes to charter schools, but it’s also like a lesson for schools everywhere and there’s a few different lessons. I mean, the first one is really a political lesson. It’s both been the great advantage of the school choice movement, and it’s kind of Achilles heel to overly focus on disadvantaged students. And that is that when there is political challenge. So in the state I live in, in California, we have a moratorium on charter schools right now. And largely the reason is because the majority of people don’t benefit from that. And it’s been narrowly focused on people that don’t have a lot of political capital. And so then when the argument that they’re stealing from public schools and they’re undermining public schools come up, there’s not like broader acceptance or popularity. Now I do think that’s changing with the pandemic where you’ve had a lot of people that have switched to like, not necessarily school choice or charter school, but having unconventional experiences and are much more interested in pluralism and a diversity of solutions in a way that they may not have been a year ago.

So that’s been one of the underlying things is all kinds of different arrangements like micro-schools and learning hubs and homeschooling hybrids, and kind of mixing up and unbundling in the way, going back to that Spotify list, where you could be at a micro-school that is organized by the boys and girls club, that’s using a remote online curriculum, but also you’re still enrolled in your charter school. And we’ve kind of had scrape mixing of the sectors in a way that has never happened before where people are realizing that they really can’t unbundle or match up to meet their own individual needs. So that’s been something that’s super positive, but getting back to your charter school question- One of the downfalls of the charter school movement, and we haven’t talked about this yet, but I think this is a key point to make about school choice is what is the purpose of school choice?

And a lot of people originally, it really was that we were going to try to make public schools better, that we were going to evaluate kids to show that charter schools had more student achievement. The fourth-grade reading scores were higher, that we ranked and sorted kids and had a standardized education system that is slightly better than how I described the industrial model versus the individualized world that we live in now. And so at the Charles Koch Institute, and I can’t speak for the whole school choice movement, we really think that the purpose of education is to help every person rise and to discover, develop, and apply their own abilities and individualized talents. And it’s not about improving standardized test scores or making taxpayer money be spent more efficiently. It’s actually about increasing individual opportunity and breaking down barriers to opportunity. And so one of the great disadvantages of the charter school movement is it attached it’s wagon, if you will, to the standardized traditional school movement and went down that route.

Not that we were going to create demand for interesting things that people might want. In the way like a clothing sector or a restaurant sector or a music sector might do. They attach to the school reform school improvement that we were going to prove that we can teach reading, or our math scores are three points higher than your math scores. And instead of really fighting for that more autonomous individualized space. And so the two disadvantages are really being a narrow product instead of realizing that everybody could benefit universally from more autonomous schools. And other things that help people, things like the democratization of communication through telecom. Early adopters spent a lot of money on cell phones, but it is low-income people that benefit the most from cell phones now and having smartphones and access to instant information because it makes everyone equal in a way and makes information more equalized.

And so the other thing that probably differentiates our version of school choice or a diversity of education options is that we think that you should create more universal programs. So one of our organizations is called Yes, Every Kid. And we mean every kid in many ways, right? Disadvantage kids for equity, for sure, but also that these solutions should apply to everyone so that they get normalized. So they’re not just seen as “this is just for disadvantaged kids.” If you have an individualized education program or you get to choose between many different education options? That helps disadvantaged kids, and it helps non-disadvantaged kids, but it needs to be a normalized way because that’s how we act in every other sector besides education. You know we have demand-driven by individual interest. Even your higher ed choice, right? Like obviously there’s standardized things about it, but you don’t pick a college based on your residential assignment or based on your fourth grade reading scores. It is largely based on your interest. And so even just trying to move, K-12 closer to higher ed. I think charter schools in some ways have been a transition trap where they mostly look like regular public schools and they had to prove themselves against the traditional model instead of truly being able to offer something different.

Juliette: It is interesting to see that. I mean, in my county we have one school, well, one elementary school, it’s, it’s called a magnet school, but it’s like a charter school, basically. It’s just different, but it’s the same in a way, but it’s a lottery school. So you have to like apply to get in. If you win the lottery, basically then you’re in. And it succeeded, not like it wasn’t really proving that kids were like, “Oh, we’re doing better.” That was just the result. The way that they taught was different. And the way that it was structured was different. And that was what was appealing and that’s where its success came from. And I think that is the good goal to have because then, well, if that works and if people like that, more people are going to go and more people are going try to apply to go there.

Lisa Snell: You’re exactly right. And the thing is like with that magnet school, while most people can’t go there because it’s oversubscribed and because it’s a scarce resource in a way, because they have to have a lottery it’s fair though, in some ways, right? Because everyone can apply. And to a certain extent, you have an equal chance of getting in. There may be something that’s weighted, but the rest of the K-12 public school system that is non-charter or non-magnet- so charter schools as well, they do sometimes look too similar to the public system, but the one thing that they have going for them is their open admissions. And then if they’re oversubscribed, they have to have a lottery. But the rest of the K-12 world is often divided up based on wealth and those higher-income areas, in general, tend to have better schools.

Lisa Snell: And if you can’t afford to buy property in the area, you have no chance of getting in. Even if you’re in the same district and your property taxes are going there, you can’t go to that better school if you can’t afford the property. So to a certain extent, having neutral open admissions is another thing that we really get behind, and we would like to see. One of our campaigns at the Charles Koch Institute and Stand Together community more general is called “no more lines.” And it really is this idea that schools need to open admissions. Especially now because you have certain States like Arizona, where there’s so many there’s education savings account and charter schools and open enrollment. And all of these options where the district boundaries start to make less and less sense because there’s so many kids from Scottsdale going to Phoenix or going around and not even that you have to drive far, but the options are robust.

You should just have open admissions and then you should have a neutral or fair way when something is overcapacity. But right now, because of built-in residential assignment, there’s no incentive to improve, to attract students because you know that your same number of kids that live in the neighborhood are mostly going to come. And even- like in Los Angeles, there’s a lot of schools that are 40% of capacity say the district will still pay all of your bills. Even if you can only get, like your building could hold a thousand students and you have 200 and you can’t attract anymore. Like if you’re a regular K-12 public school, you don’t have anything to worry about. So you don’t ever have to stop and think like, why are only 200 kids coming to my school when there’s 600,000 kids in the district. We would hope for a world that was much more like how you go to the grocery store or how you go to a restaurant and then if it’s overcapacity you either have to come back later or there’s a lottery or there’s some kind of way to get it. But then the other side of the coin is that if you had a more service-oriented, open-admission system, schools would have an incentive to attract people because they would get more money if more kids came, which is not true now.

Juliette: So I want to talk a little bit about how Democrats are not a fan of charter schools. So Jonathan Chait wrote a piece and he notes that “the charter school breakthrough has been a bitter backlash within the democratic party. The political standing of the idea has moved in the opposite direction of the data.” Can you tell us why Democrats are opposed to charter schools?

Lisa Snell: There’s a faction within the charter school movement of people that are Democrats that are not supported by the overall Democratic party. And if anything, as Jonathan points out, the democratic party is moved farther away from charter schools. And there’s probably two or three reasons for that. The first one is what I alluded to in that Democrats serve a narrow part of the citizenry. So you don’t have a wide group of people from any political party supporting the idea because they’re not personally experiencing it. But more than that, and this is where the just straight-up politics come in, is the teacher’s unions have been a staunch ally of the Democratic party and it’s in their vested interest to protect the status quo, which is not charter schools. And when 200,000 students leave Los Angeles, although all of those kids aren’t leaving directly for charter schools that may be in LA the story is the charter schools are stealing from the public schools in some way. And that they’re bad actors, even though it should be the student’s money, the taxpayer’s money, but that’s not how it’s portrayed. And then it really is very political in that the teacher’s unions and the Democrats want to protect the interest of their members, which are tied in the interest of the status quo. And it’s not as intentional as it might seem, right. I mean, obviously, the Democrats and the teacher’s unions write on party platforms that they’re against charter schools and whatnot, but there’s mixed feelings. The secretary of education that Biden just appointed approved charter schools where he was from in Connecticut. But the party line is really that charter schools are taking money away. And it really is just like the same kind of argument. A lot of charter school members have tried to differentiate themselves from the rest of the diversity of options, education market, by saying, “we’re a public school. We’re not like these other schools, we’re still a public school.” It hasn’t helped them in that traditional public schools don’t like competing with them any more than they like competing with a private Catholic school or a Montessori school or a homeschool.

Juliette: It’s easier to win a fight with another public, well, to win the fight against charter schools than a private school. Right?

Lisa Snell: Yeah. So it’s complicated, but it’s just mostly partisan politics, right? That you have a status quo organization that doesn’t want to change and they don’t have an incentive to change. And they’re one of the most revered public institutions. And people on the school choice side or the individualized education side have a harder case to make because we’re not- like with criminal justice reform, nobody wants anyone to be incarcerated, right? And especially incarcerated for like unfair reasons. Not that criminal justice reform is easy, but like education, we are making the argument that schools are failing, that they don’t serve kids well, the kids aren’t engaged, that they don’t graduate from college, but the proof is on us because most people have positive nostalgic reactions.

It’s not like families are saying “my kids are miserable. I’ve made a terrible choice. This football game that we’re at together as a family is so terrible.” Most of your childhood memories are wrapped into your school experiences. Most people like their individual teachers. And so it is a system that everybody’s gone through that most people like, and even though we make all these claims about the negative parts of it, it’s not like people are miserable on a day-to-day basis. And so the burden of proof, the teachers union, and the Democrats, they don’t have to that hard because they just say, “people are trying to tear apart an institution that you love.” And we haven’t been able to show the better way yet. Right? Private school enrollments remained mostly the same charter schools have grown, but still, they’re at less than 10% in most places of the school population.

And so we’re fighting against this common experience. So my hope really lies, and I’ll end with this, in something that people don’t know that they want, and that is a different way for education. And that’s really what our mission is at the Charles Koch Institute. It could be so much more engaging and interesting and individualized in the same way that you didn’t know that you wanted to Spotify playlist, or you didn’t know you wanted a smart phone, or you didn’t know that you wanted an Uber, right? I mean getting in a car with a stranger to give you a ride, like who could sell that business model ahead of time? And so I think that’s part of our problem is we haven’t stood up enough experiences and options that truly give people something meaningful and different. And that’s what we have to work toward. What is that individualized experience that people would really like that looks more like the rest of the way life is moving?

Juliette: Yeah. That kind of reminds me of when I was in, I don’t know, I guess this was probably like five, six years ago, which is like a while ago. I had this idea that when I retire, instead of becoming a professor just doing nothing or doing little projects or whatever, I wanted to make a school because I knew that school, it’s not that it wasn’t working, but it could be so much better. And I could be wasting less time doing random things for school or spend less time in homeroom and go outside or something like that. So I decided I wanted to make a school at some point. And I think I decided those school days were going to be half days. You were never going to be in school for more than four hours and you don’t get lunch. You get out before lunch. So then you go eat lunch wherever you want. You can go home, and then like figure something out. It wasn’t a fully formulated plan. But I think that the idea that we don’t know what it could look like, that’s better. People don’t know what they want yet. Well, it’s not the idea. It’s more like the product. The school model that works and the different models that are possible for individuals that work best for different types of people haven’t entirely played out yet. So we don’t know what that looks like, but I think we will. Who knows if I’ll actually make a school, but I might, and I could, and that could be something. So kind of moving forward a little bit, I just watched the movie Miss Virginia, which is about Virginia Walden Ford, who was a single mom who led the fight for parent empowerment and created new educational opportunities for underserved children and their families in DC, which was called the DC opportunity scholarship program. Can you tell us a little bit about her story and what she was fighting for?

Lisa Snell: So first of all, Virginia is a close friend of mine and I love her. And I love- like right now, she lives in Arkansas back close to her founding home. One of the first things we ever did when I worked at the Reason Foundation when we were supporting school choices, we had a panel with Virginia Walden Ford that was much closer to when she first got the opportunity scholarship program approved. But that is who we depend on, right? Is people like Virginia Walden Ford. And that’s both the great asset of the school choice movement because everything is about people and their capabilities and what they’re able to get done. And hers is an amazing story of David and Goliath and coming up against this huge political machine and actually making a change for kids. So it’s something that we can all aspire to. My hope though, is that we don’t have to stay in the lane where it’s always going to take something like Miss Virginia to get people options and opportunity. That we can move to a decentralized system that respects families. That in the long run it’s just normal, right? Like it’s normalized. And right now the sad thing about education- there’s all Miss Virginia, Waiting for Superman, The Lottery, there’s all these education movies, and it’s feel good in the sense that it’s good triumphing over evil and fighting for education opportunity and giving kids a chance. But on the flip side, why have we designed a system where story after story, after story has to be that the only way kids can get like a minimally decent experience is by waiting for someone like Virginia to fight for them instead of opening up access and opportunity as the normal part?

It’s not something that you have to fight for. So, I guess I’m so inspired by her, and the movie and the DC opportunity program has been a tremendous success. And those kids have gone on to have higher graduation rates and better economic earnings and less negative outcomes, even like divorce and incarceration and things that we wouldn’t want to happen to anybody. So, it proves the point that when people have self-agency and can determine what their education options look like that in the long run they have good outcomes, but it’s also the great frustration that everything has to be oriented toward this battle. I am living for the day- I know I keep going back to the dumb Spotify analogy, but why can’t education opportunity be that easy and that transparent where you can direct, and the rest of life it kind of is. Like, I’m sure this already happens to you, Juliette. If you get obsessed about something, you can find out everything about it. Like you’re not waiting for permission from a teacher class or a grade to learn. And so I think to the extent that we don’t learn in school, the way we learn everywhere is the reason that I keep working on these issues.

Juliette: I mean, that’s also, that’s part of the reason why I started this podcast. So this podcast, it’s kind of like my Spotify playlist of things I want to learn. Especially because during the pandemic, right when it started, my school just went completely- We didn’t even have actual class. It was like one assignment a week per class, max. And we didn’t have grades. I wasn’t learning anything. And I was like, “I don’t need to wait for them. They’re not doing anything for me at all.” But you’re right about the battle. That movie, it made me cry and that’s like the first movie that’s made me cry in so long. I think the last thing was like a free speech documentary, like a really long time ago. I’m kind of nerdy a little bit. But it made me cry because it was like happy tears and sad tears because you’re right. Why does this have to be all we hear about this? Why is the battle like this? Where it’s not “Oh, this is what people want. This is what helps people.” It’s more like we succeeded this one time with this one circumstance that worked with this one person that took all of her efforts and put them towards betterment of opportunity for everyone. And that’s, it’s rare. And if the battle wasn’t like that, and if more people kind of understood that, it just, I would think it would come much easier, but I have hope. What’s interesting for me. And what I’ve been wondering about is kind of- the way that it starts is she realizes that the federal government at least in DC, spent about $14,000 per kid. And not that that money went to the kids directly, not that it followed the kids. And that was the idea that kind of came about. But it made me think about these schools are failing, but if they’re roughly spending $14,000 per kid, how does that explain the failure? What does that connection- if the lack of funding is not the problem because obviously $14,000 per kid is not a lack of funding. What explains why schools are the way they are?

Lisa Snell: They would argue of course that it is lack of funding, but part of it is because the funding side of it is there’s all kinds of debt that doesn’t go to kids in the actual cost of learning. So over a long period of time, things like staffing up administrators, capital costs, pensions, healthcare costs, and long-term obligations to families after they’ve left the system. They encroach on that 14,000 So that by the time it can be left to spend on kids, there’s not too much left. A simple analogy is like if there’s $10,000 a kid and there’s 20 kids and there’s $200,000 and the teacher’s salary is 60, where is the other $140,000. And a private school even, or a charter school, I mean, one of their great advantages is if they get the $10,000 a kid, they don’t have all these costs that the districts have that suck away that 160 or $140,000. And so the system’s horrible with the money, and it’s like a black hole. If you give them 25,000, the kid still gets 2000 in the end. It’ll spend what you give them and it likely won’t be on the student and the opportunities for the student. And so it is tied up in the monopoly. It’s tied up in these like tight, standardized structures that are technocratic and from the top-down and the rules. So everything, right? Like you have to be in school so many minutes a year. You have to have a seat time. You couldn’t possibly get credit, like for an art class that you took at a museum for your visual, whatever credit high school. I’m spacing on like what they call those credits.

But you know what I mean? Like if you did a theater art project or you couldn’t get physical education credit for being on a club team for soccer. It’s just so narrow and kids get all of their engagement kind of outside of that system, but that system is spending so much more money than the other opportunities that are out there and available. So, it’s all self-reinforcing because these things were based on contracts with the unions, contracts, with the employees. So it’s not legally easy for them to ever cut down on expenses and spend more money on kids. And so it’s like a vicious cycle constantly calling for more money. Don’t spend it on the kids. And from an outsider’s perspective, looking in it’s crazy, right? It’s like you have a lot of money, you’re generating a record amount of money. And Juliette, if you want to start a school and you had 10 kids that each got 20 grand, and that was 200,000, I’m sure you could figure out how to make that work. Right? If I gave you $200,000, you could probably come up with a pretty cool school, you know? It’s complicated and it’s nonsensical because it really is just maintaining the current system and the standardization and the status quo because it’s political and we’re not brave enough to break it up.

Juliette: So really fast before we start wrapping up. What are some of the benefits of that program in DC? What were some of the benefits that the kids saw?

Lisa Snell: At the margins, it’s not as much as you would think. I think what it is is that the orientation is towards the family and the student and helping them thrive when you go to a private school because the incentives are completely different. So, if I have a school and I have a paying customer, it’s in my best interest for them to be successful. And so I really focus on what are the learning gaps that they have? What do they need? If they’re ahead or behind, can I accelerate them? Can I meet them where they are? And parents have a lot more influence in those kinds of places. But they are incentivized at the end of the day, if their customers are dissatisfied, which are the students and the families, they won’t stay at the school. And that’s such a flipped incentive to public schools. Because they will get paid whether they do well or not, or families are happy or incentivized. And especially for the kids that fall through the cracks in the public system, they don’t have a reason to figure it out for them. So, there’s obviously lots of other advantages. It’s usually private schools are smaller, there’s more sense of community, the teacher isn’t as overworked, there’s not as many rules, it’s not as bureaucratic. The parents and families directly benefit from adding different kinds of activities and programs. So it’s much more like a community organization than it is this large kind of district bureaucratic organization, and it’s oriented to the families in a fundamentally different way.

Juliette: Yeah. Thank you. So finally, what is one thing you believed at one time in your life that you later changed your position on and why?

Lisa Snell: Probably the biggest one, and this has to do with school choice actually, is I really used to think like the reason to have private school choice obviously was to have education options for families and to give people more opportunity. And I believe that, but underlaying that I really bought in that it was about competition and school improvement and that it would be important to have higher test scores and that things like standardization and standardized testing are important. Where I’ve really come around over the last – like I worked at Reason on these issues for over 20 years and now here for a couple of year- is that there isn’t like an average standardized person, kind of the end of average, nobody has the same brain scan. Nobody runs the same way. People are allergic to different foods. And to the extent that we’ve tried to like have school choice mean very little actual choice that it’s just about improving test scores. I definitely used to be in that camp. Like writing an op-ed where I would say, “charter schools are better because they save taxpayers money and kids have better performance” and that’s a side benefit of anything, right?

As a restaurant is better because the food is better and because it serves customers better, but that’s not the reason that people should go to a restaurant. Because it has better outcomes than another restaurant. They should go there because it has what they individually are looking for. And so I think that’s the biggest thing is I have completely shifted. That we need to focus on helping every person rise. But anyway, I think that’s the biggest thing is I would never write an op-ed now in favor of school choice that was overly focused on “Oh, fourth-grade reading scores have improved on some state standardized test and that’s why we should do it.” Or “private schools are more efficient. It’s spending taxpayer money.” I would much rather tell the story of this new model called cadence learning that’s come up since the pandemic. And you could have probably used this yourself when you were having one assignment a week or whatever your terrible experience was with remote learning. Their model is they find the experts on a subject, so like the best person at teaching history, and then they partner with partner teachers. And so the way the model works is you have a subject matter expert that is so interesting that then designs curriculum and online synchronous learning with kids where they can ask questions. But then they work in partnership with local teachers that then help build relationships, trusted relationships with the kid, help them discuss it locally, help them do the homework. And it’s this whole new model that we’ve never thought of before, right? Where you take advantage of a great teacher, but you still keep a local trust and relationship, and you can do it anywhere.

The cadence model can work in a micro-school. It can work in a homeschool. It can work in a public school. It could work in a charter school, but it really respects things like wellbeing and learning science. And it’s just much broader than I think the original narrow conservative narrative that schools need to be more efficient, we need to spend money better. That lacks such imagination as for why we should do school choice. And it really needs to be focused on the fact that individualized education is the future. Foundational lifelong learning are going to happen forever. And even the construct of like K through 12 is very artificial or higher education and lower education. It constrains us in all kinds of ways from having mixed groups and mixed ages and a lot of really different, interesting models. So I’d much rather try to imagine for people what the experience could be in the future than try to like prove myself against the existing system. And that’s a big change for me because when I first started doing this, I sounded like every other education reformer. “Oh, There’s higher graduation rates scores are better.” Instead of saying like, no, this actually helps humans reach their full potential. This is actually helping people discover what they’re good at and becoming better humans as the reason for making the change.

Juliette: Yeah. I would say that also kind of makes it about overall growth instead of just academic growth. Which kind of is a beautiful aspect of it in a way, very hopeful. Well, thank you so much. That’s all we have time for today. Thank you again for all your time and your insight into this issue. I also want to thank everyone who listens, subscribes, and shares the Great Antidote Podcast. If you would like to be on the podcast, or if you have a guest in mind, please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] Bye.


CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.