Thanks to a Network of state policy organizations, more American children have access to educational choice programs than ever before. In 2021, states across the country passed nine new school choice programs and expanded 21 existing programs. The Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, for example, helped West Virginia pass an historic Education Savings Account (ESA) program; TEF Iowa helped state lawmakers adopt several policies that place the interests of students first; and the Show-Me Institute helped Missouri pass the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program.
But when you think about organizations working to expand educational freedom, one group in particular stands out among the rest—EdChoice.
EdChoice is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization pursuing a K–12 education system that empowers every family to choose the schooling environment that fits their children’s needs best. EdChoice was involved in all of the 2021 educational choice victories. In fact, the organization has been involved in every major school choice victory in America since 1996.
It recently marked 25 years of advancing educational freedom and choice for all children. To celebrate this milestone, we sat down with EdChoice CEO Robert C. Enlow to learn more about the organization’s accomplishments over the years as well as his take on the next opportunity for the educational choice movement.
Robert: EdChoice was originally the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation for Education Choice, a nonprofit started by famed economist Milton Friedman and his wife Rose in 1996. The Friedman’s pioneered the idea that universal school choice was a key mechanism to improve our country’s education system. Since our founding we’ve strived to carry out the Friedman’s vision of universal educational choice. Specifically, our mission is to advance educational opportunity for all children as a pathway to a successful life and a stronger society. It really is about giving parents the ability to choose the education environment that works best for their kids.
Robert: September 23, 1996, was my first day on the job, and I was the first employee in the door at the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation. Surprisingly, because I’d spent so many years working in England, I didn’t know who Milton Friedman was when I started. But two things in particular drew me to the Foundation. First, I always wanted to start a boarding school for inner city kids, and I thought this idea of educational reform might be a great way to get involved and do that. Second, I believed, and this is very much a belief of Milton Friedman, that you cannot change the stratification of society without giving individuals the power to choose. Working for an organization like EdChoice that empowers parents to choose where their child goes to school—regardless of where they live or how much money they make—resonated with me.
Robert: Our education system is built on a one-size-fits-all model, and that doesn’t reflect who we are as a country. We should be built on a model where parents and individuals are free to pursue their own individual interests to the benefit of society. Milton Friedman used to say: “the benefits that accrue to me also accrue to you.” Our education system should enable children to self-actualize and become the best version of themselves. Expanding educational choice will give children the opportunity to become the best person that they are, whether that’s through a traditional or a nontraditional school.
Robert: We’ve been involved—in some way or fashion—in every major school choice victory in America since 1996. And we’ve been very excited to be a part of that.
One of the things I’m especially proud of is our work with startup organizations. EdChoice has helped establish and seed fund more than a dozen organizations across the country that promote educational choice. From School Choice Indiana to School Choice Ohio to Educational Freedom North Carolina to Nevada Action for School Options, we were the seed funders for several influential parental choice groups. And it’s exciting because those organizations have been able to grow and sustain themselves.
We’re also proud of our work with the Institute for Justice on legal cases, especially Zelman v. Simmons-Harris—the 2002 US Supreme Court case that ruled school vouchers are constitutional. The case set the precedent that school choice is legal.
Finally, I’m really proud we’ve kept our focus on education. Milton Friedman once said:
“We have concluded that the achievement of effective parental choice requires an ongoing effort to inform the public about the issues and possible solutions, an effort that is not episodic, linked to particular legislative or ballot initiatives, but that is educational. It requires also the cooperation of the many groups around the country who are devoted to improving the quality of our schools, whether governmental or private.”
At EdChoice, we’ve made education the bedrock of everything we do. We’ve trained more than 2,000 legislators, parent advocates, and parent organizers to help them understand and advocate for educational choice policies.
Robert: The Wall Street Journal called 2011 “the year of school choice.” At EdChoice, we’ve been calling 2021 “the year of educational choice.” With nine new and 21 expanded parental choice programs, this year has been the most expansive year for educational opportunity that I’ve seen in the 25 years I’ve been working on education reform. And that’s because we’ve moved our messaging from “school choice” to “educational choice.”
Robert: If you look at what Milton Friedman and other economists would say drives a good market, you have unencumbered supply, you have free demand, and you have informed customers. As a movement I think we’ve done a very good job of generating demand in the private school choice marketplace. The next step is informing parents of the opportunities available to them. Take West Virginia, for example. This is a state that now has an ideal education policy with their expansive ESA program. How do we inform West Virginia parents about these new options? We need to move from focusing solely on demand and supply to information—and specifically informing families about their options.
Robert: We’ve been blessed to work with several state think over the years. From the Mackinac Center to Goldwater Institute to Texas Public Policy Foundation to The James Madison Institute—we’ve been lucky to work with so many influential state-based organizations and I want to stress how grateful we are for those partnerships. I think we have an opportunity as a Network to work together to become better thought leaders, especially on the data and analytical side of school choice. There’s opportunities to partner with one another to get good data out there, which can lead to good policies. From media outreach to parent trainings, I think there’s lots of ways to work together.
Robert: It has been great to have a long-term partnership with SPN over the years. And our relationship has been growing especially in the last few years. The work EdChoice is doing with SPN’s Katherine Bathgate around the country, and our participation in various education trainings has been valuable. SPN has facilitated some of the partnerships we’ve formed with state-based groups, and we look forward to continuing our work with state think tanks to advance educational opportunity to even more families.