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Straight Up Conversation: American Federation for Children President John Schilling

John Schilling is the president of the American Federation for Children (AFC), one of the nation's most influential organizations advocating for school choice. Before taking over as president last month, John had long served as AFC's Chief Operating Officer. He has worked in education reform for over two decades, serving on the Arizona Department of Education and Education Leaders Council in D.C. I recently had the chance to chat with John about the American Federation for Children and the school choice landscape as we enter an election year.

Rick Hess: John, can you talk a bit about the American Federation for Children and what it does?

John Schilling: AFC is the largest school choice advocacy organization in the country. We are the only national group that focuses exclusively on parental choice in education, and are structured to do state elections, lobbying and advocacy, and private-choice enrollment work. Specifically, our team analyzes and invests in state legislative elections. We lobby and conduct grassroots mobilization and advocacy work. And we develop high-quality legislation and do extensive communications and program-implementation work.

We work in 12 to 15 states plus D.C. each year, and while we are active at the federal level, most of our work is focused on the states, where the real action is. Our approach is straightforward: elect and defend the right policymakers, pass high-quality laws that will help the greatest number of kids, and make sure parents are aware of their options and that the laws work for families and children.

RH: It's been quite a year for school choice, what with Trump's presidency, the criticism of Secretary DeVos, and stark divides among education reformers. Does all of this leave you optimistic or pessimistic about what's ahead for private-school choice in 2018?

JS: Optimistic! An old political saying is that the louder the opposition screams, the more you know you are doing your job. In 2017, we witnessed a significant elevation of private-school choice as an issue and an unprecedented wave of attacks—even hysteria—from the other side. Yet support for private-school choice among likely voters remains very strong. AFC's recently released 2018 national survey showed that 63 percent support school choice, including 41 percent who strongly support it. Support includes 72 percent of Latinos, 66 percent of African Americans, 75 percent of Republicans, 62 percent of Independents, and 54 percent of Democrats. Policymakers ignore these numbers at their own peril.

RH: That same survey seems to suggest that the public is pretty sensitive to how choice programs are labeled. For example, 47 percent of respondents said they supported "school vouchers," while 65 percent supported "scholarship tax credits" and 75 percent supported "education savings accounts." These are pretty big differences given that these are all broadly similar. What's going on here?

JS: For the past thirty years, the phrase "vouchers drain money from public schools" has been repeated so often in the press and by opponents of school choice that many people reflexively believe it. Even though the word voucher has been demonized, we put it in our surveys purposely both to measure support of the word and for comparison purposes. There are differences, though. Vouchers are just one type of choice program. Tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts are different types of choice programs. It's just easier for the other side to say, "Voucher, voucher, voucher!"

RH: Given how polarizing the president is, what impact has Trump had on support for private-school choice?

JS: The conventional wisdom is that the president is unpopular and therefore what he supports is unpopular. We conducted surveys in eight target states and learned that the president's support for school choice did not depress popular support. Once informed of the president's position, 39 percent said they would be more likely to support the issue, compared to 17 percent who said they would be less likely. Education Next also measured the impact of the president's support on tax credits and charter schools. On tax credits, citing Trump's position kept support at 55 percent overall; on charters it resulted in a six-point increase in support from 39 percent to 45 percent.

RH: How has the impact of Trump, and shifts in the larger national climate, affected the way you've gone about your work at the AFC?

JS: We're obviously sensitive to the deep polarization that exists in the country, which is terribly unfortunate considering how many critical issues we face as a nation. We also know that educational choice is an issue that brings people together. What has made the school choice movement successful is not allowing peripheral issues—however important they are—to interfere with our work to help as many families and children as possible access more and better educational options. Our hope is that the school choice movement can stay laser-focused on helping as many kids as possible and not be distracted by other issues. 

RH: In the states, what are you seeing this year as far as new school choice legislation?

JS: Last year 36 states and Congress introduced private-school choice bills, including 18 for education savings accounts. While I would love to say we're going to get 20 or 25 high-quality bills over the finish line, that simply isn't realistic in an election year. We are hopeful for a few new and robust statewide private-choice programs and that we can strengthen and expand some existing programs.

RH: Are there any places where something is unlikely to pass this year, but where you see signs that something significant is coming down the pike?

JS: Our philosophy is to always look for opportunities, no matter how unlikely they might be. Illinois last year was a great example where lightning struck in a landscape that was unfavorable to private-school choice by conventional standards, but leaders from both parties managed to come together. I will say that the state elections this year will determine just how robust school choice activity will be in 2019.

RH: Speaking of which, how do you think the state-level landscape for choice is going to be altered by November's results? Are there particular races or contests for legislative control that you see as especially significant for school choice?

JS: This is a huge election year for school choice advocates. There are open seat gubernatorial elections in some big school choice states like Florida, Ohio, Tennessee, Nevada, and Georgia. Governors Walker and Ducey, longtime school choice champions in Wisconsin and Arizona, are up for re-election. Governor Rauner in Illinois, who was instrumental in passing a $100-million tax-credit scholarship program last year, is also up for re-election. There are hundreds of open state-legislative seats in states with strong school choice majorities. Victories in these states for school choice advocates will mean robust activity in 2019.

RH: When he was a candidate, President Trump talked about launching a big federal school choice initiative. In practice, the administration has primarily supported school choice via the bully pulpit. What do you make of that and would you say you're more disappointed or pleased with what they've done on choice to date?

JS: We are only one year into this administration, so let's see what happens. The president campaigned on advancing parental choice in education. There's no question that Vice President Pence and Secretary DeVos are the strongest supporters of educational choice to ever hold these positions. My sense is the administration remains committed to the issue, and the secretary has indicated in her public remarks that whatever they get behind on school choice will be something that's deferential to states.

RH: Obviously, the one concrete federal victory for school choice was the Cruz amendment's expansion of 529 plans in the big, year-end tax bill. Families can now use 529 plans to pay for K-12 schooling, making contributions tax deductible in states which offer that tax break. How significant a victory do you think that was? What are the upsides and the downsides of that approach?

JS: I would characterize it as a good first step. Families should have the freedom to use their 529 funds as they see fit. If you have a 529 account and the means to withdraw those funds each year to help with K-12 tuition, that's great. However, this is unlikely to help lower-income families who either do not have 529 accounts or the means to withdraw the funds for K-12 tuition. Some say private donors will fund accounts for lower-income families and that 529 account holders will be big beneficiaries of baby-boomer wealth transfers. That would be great, but there's a lot more that Congress and the administration can do. We remain hopeful that Congress will pursue bolder action to help kids in lower-income and military families, and those in Bureau of Indian Education schools.

RH: On a different note, you've previously expressed frustration that reporters can seem uninterested in news which paints private-school choice in a positive light. For those skeptical of such claims, can you point to any examples of what you have in mind?

JS: There have been 15 gold-standard studies of private-school choice programs: Eleven are positive, two are neutral, and two are negative in the early years of the program. Last September, there was a groundbreaking study from the Urban Institute that looked at long-term outcomes in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which awards scholarships to eligible children from low-income families. It showed that participating students were 15 percent more likely to attend college, and 40 percent more likely if they had been in the program four years or more.

We see all kinds of stories that are critical of a particular private school, of a choice made by parents, or which highlight first-year test-score snapshots in a private choice program. But there are few stories on the success of students participating in these programs, the positive impact on their lives, and ultimate economic benefit to students and the nation if we have more high-school graduates and students attending and persisting in college. Moreover, while many in the media seek to put private choice and charters under a microscope, those options are still only educating 5 percent of K-12 kids. When the majority of our public-school students are not proficient in reading and math, when one student drops out of high school every minute, and when families are forced to spend billions on remediation because high-school graduates are unprepared for college or the workforce, you would think more attention would be paid to these urgent challenges that affect a much larger portion of the student population.

RH: You've noted before that school choice tends to fare far better in legislatures than it does when put before the voters as a ballot initiative. Any thoughts as to why that is and what it means?

JS: There are a few reasons for it. The teachers' unions always manage to get the "no" position on the ballot and then spend millions trying to confuse voters. When there's confusion, voters tend to vote "no" and retain the status quo. Most school choice advocates have learned that we can make far more progress and help far more kids by working through state legislatures. At AFC, we work very hard to ensure that any piece of legislation we pass is allowable under a state's constitution. While the teachers' unions usually sue when we pass a large program, because the laws are well written, we usually win these cases for parents and kids.

RH: Last question. When we look back on the Trump years, any sense one year in whether you think this period will be judged as good, bad, or indifferent when it comes to the fate of school choice?

JS: I'm an eternal optimist. When I look at the administration, Congress, and the state legislative landscape across the country, I see opportunity. When there's opportunity, we need to go big or go home. If school choice advocates, philanthropists, and policymakers are willing to put our collective foot on the accelerator, we can help transform this antiquated K-12 system into a 21st-century, student-centered model where every child can reach their potential. While choice in and of itself is not a silver bullet, it's a catalyst for positive change. I hope when we look back, we will know that we seized the opportunities and America's students were the beneficiaries.

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