About two-dozen states have considered Education Savings Account (ESA) legislation in the past 4-5 years. Six have ESA programs in place. We are truly moving into a golden age of school choice now that the debate has shifted from, “should there be school choice,” to “what are the best practices for education choice.”
Heritage recently brought education expert Jonathan Butcher, of the Goldwater Institute, onto our education policy team. Jonathan began as an education research assistant at Heritage in the early 2000s. We are excited to have him back and to share his story with you.
This week I had the privilege of speaking with Jonathan to talk about highlights of his career, recent victories in education policy, and the work he is doing at Heritage.
Interview with Jonathan Butcher
Kathleen: What did you do before Heritage and what brought you to Heritage?
Jonathan: My previous position was at the Goldwater Institute as their Education Director. What I’m most proud of is that our team at Goldwater was creating the first Education Savings Account program in the nation in Arizona. We took that program and expanded it almost every year that I was there, until this year when we helped to craft the legislation that would make the program available to every child in the state of Arizona that wanted to apply. We also helped make ESAs possible in five other states while I was there. So being able to expand the nation’s oldest ESA program and helping create laws in other states and expand the program to other states – we’re very proud about that. And then this year we created, at Goldwater, alongside Stanley Kurtz at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a proposal to protect free speech on campus. The legislators in North Carolina used that proposal and just passed a law based on our proposal on Monday. They became the first state to do that and there are three other states considering the legislation.
Kathleen: How would you describe your role at Heritage on the education policy team?
Jonathan: We will be continuing to research how ESAs are having an impact on the children that are using them and the communities those children are a part of – so the impact they are having on the way that families choose their family’s educational experience, the way that families customize their child’s educational experience. Heritage has an important role to play in holding the line on the truth about how parental choice in education benefits children. And that is a high profile issue right now because the president has voiced his support for school choice, the secretary of education obviously has a background that is strong in the area of school choice, and that has made this issue a hot button one in the media. Heritage has an important role to play when it comes to putting the truth in front of people about how parental choices in education have helped children succeed from all walks of life all around the country.
Kathleen: Have we influenced public opinion enough when it comes to explaining why our conservative solutions are the best solutions on school choice?
Jonathan: Surveys show that when parents are asked what they think about public education in the United States, they generally give it a poor rating. But when they are asked what they think of their local school, they tend to over-estimate how well-performing their local school is. What we’ve found is that public schools have a similar place in their communities, and people still feel an affinity towards their local public school while thinking the overall public school system is low-performing. That makes for a challenging dialogue when you talk about giving people access to other learning options. I think the people who understand the value of school choice the most are those that have children that, for whatever reason, don’t fit in in their local school. Families that have children with special needs often find themselves arguing with their school districts about how their children should be taken care of in the classroom, and they tend to be very open early on to finding other options. But it could be something as simple as a child being bullied in class, a child who had a great teacher one year and a sub-par teacher the next year and parents can think – gosh this up and down isn’t really going to work for my child; we can’t have this 50/50 chance that a child is going to have a quality instructor each year. And that will open their eyes to what else is out there. I think we also find in surveys that when we say every child is different, and every child deserves the chance to succeed, people in polling agree with that sentiment. I think when we come at the issue of parental choice in education from that perspective – from the perspective of we are trying to give every child a chance at the American dream, regardless of their zip code—I think that helps to open up people’s minds to the idea that those quality options could be something besides an assigned public school. And you know we see in states like Florida and Arizona in particular that have had private school choice options for many years that even families that don’t participate in some kind of school choice program, they somehow feel the culture of school choice as a part of their state and so they don’t think its foreign when people want to do something else in the school choice world, or add another option, or expand another option that’s available. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Arizona was the state that was the first to pass ESAs. We have the nation’s first tax credit scholarships in Arizona, we have a public school open enrollment law. we have one of the nation’s oldest charter school laws. And then the second state to enact ESAs was Florida, which by the same token has had vouchers for many years, has had charter schools for many years. You know when you make the idea of choosing how and where your child learns mainstream and normal, people grow accustomed to it and if they don’t start to demand it they’ll at least think it’s normal and not strange that families want more choices in education. So that’s what we have to do…
Kathleen: How did you first get involved in politics and how did you get interested in education choice?
Jonathan: When I was working for a small think tank in Northern Virginia, I met someone…who was working at Heritage…I got to know [him], and I came over to Heritage and worked my way in as a temp and then as an intern and then the position opened in education research and I was in the right place at the right time. So I had to learn very quickly what was going on around the country with state laws. Now remember this was 2002, so school choice was still pretty new, right on the horizon…So I scaled the wall of information pretty quickly doing research at Heritage, and after that I went and did various other things, I worked for a school district, a charter school authorizer. I worked at a university and was able to try different parts of education research. The foundation that Heritage gave me prior to doing those things was really a great place to lift off and be able to do different things in the policy world in education policy because of what I learned at Heritage. And now coming back, hopefully I bring back with me the experience from working in a variety of places around the country on this issue.
Kathleen: Why are you a conservative?
Jonathan: There is a difference between right and wrong. There are things that are true and there are things that are false. Our worldview as free market conservatives – about what is best for individuals, family and liberty, protecting liberty and what that means – is all built into that free market conservative worldview. And I think that protecting that and interpreting that for people as they come across the complicated questions in policy and the news and our world today is really an important role. And I think being able to decipher for people and help them understand why things like the minimum wage are harmful to young workers, why public school assignment is not the best answer for every child…those things aren’t obvious to people who don’t study these issues. So being a part of a movement that helps translate these important lessons to the general public and to lawmakers…is a blessing.
Please join me in welcoming Jonathan back to The Heritage Foundation. What questions do you have for Jonathan?