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.  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. 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?

Comments (12)

helen - August 4, 2017

One of the biggest problems with our education is the liberal brain washing in our schools and colleges. Can anything be done to fix this? Where do we stand with Common Core?

Ananta Gopalan - August 4, 2017

How fast can we get to close Dept.of Education? That is necessary for improving education in our country

Enoch B. Thweatt, Jr. - August 4, 2017

Welcome back to Heritage, Jonathan!
When so many hateful voices are raised against the concept of “right or wrong” or good and evil, and these voices have much financial backing, and have done, and will continue to do, anything to destroy these basic concepts, including not allowing the teaching of “right or wrong” in the classrooms of America, how can these basic human values be returned to the curriculum on all grade levels?
And, with so many single parent families, how can the teaching of these very basics be re-kindled in all parents? Decades ago it was learned that some of these basics must be taught before the age of FIVE or it becomes much more difficult to make the teaching stick because it is more than “academic learning” that is needed for real learning to take place. So, as I understand your own observations, your job will include a huge amount of parental involvement.
God bless, EBT

Elaine Liming - August 4, 2017

As a retired educator, I welcome you and wish you well. You have a good understanding of the problems in education today.
My question is how about putting prayer back in our schools-? Is it possible—
I think it is needed.

David R. Snyder - August 4, 2017

In Colorado we are supposed to think we have a shortage of teachers. We are run by liberals and they lie about something else because they have something else in mind. We are a country that has a lot of Demoncrats who are anarchists and they get away with it. Education is such a big problem; can it Be Fixed?

Linda Tanner - August 4, 2017

Welcome aboard!
Graduating from Worthington High School in 1959 & OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY IN 1970. With a marriage in 1960 and 3 children while attending full time each quarter I can attest to Total attempted brain washing!
From John Dewey, Marxism, Humanism, etc.
They did not even teach phonics. Terrible education for an elementary teacher
Trerible

Nancy Beutel - August 4, 2017

Jonathan welcome back! I am impressed with your initiatives to implement ESAs and your work on a proposal to protect free speech on campus! How exciting! These (especially free speech) may seem thorny issues and difficult to settle in the current hostile climate on many campuses, but with every step toward freedom of choice and freedom of speech on campus the snowball of collective euphoria will grow larger until we are once again accustomed to breathing the pure air of liberty. Worth every sacrifice to preserve life and liberty for ourselves individually and for the rights and liberty of all people everywhere.

Daniel Green - August 5, 2017

I think the Bible should be allowed in public schools as well as prayer.
We need to turn back to God, putting Him first, as all things work together for good for those who place their trust in God first, then all things will work together for good for those who place their trust in the Lord!

William Coates - August 5, 2017

How about working at the county level? Go to renew1787.tumblr.com and scroll down to read item 7.

Dennis Crouch - August 5, 2017

Please address Common Core. It seems that regardless of school choice, what’s being taught in K-12 by the books being used is an attempt to change our children into liberals without any understanding of conservatism and what that really means. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Stephen Casey - August 6, 2017

Public Primary Education is perhaps the biggest Institution in need of transformation in America. The Progressives in charge of our public schools indoctrinate our children and debase our values.

Jonathan pursues a noble cause and I wish him great success!

Theresa Lancaster - August 6, 2017

Thank you for dedicating your life’s work for the benefit of children. I am waiting for the day when children are no longer treated as property, but are treated as the unique and precious smaller members of humankind that they have always been. There are many problems in our education system, but one of main issues for me is how we have managed to turn so many naturally curious, inquisitive, and beautiful little creatures against ‘learning the curriculum.’ Too many children in our public schools are acting out, tuning out, and dropping out. How can we instill a life-long love of learning into our Nation’s children? When will return to teaching children instead of teaching a Common curriculum or ‘teaching to the test?’

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