“I’ve met a number of politicians and like you would perceive them as one way, based on what you see in their media or what you read or hear or what not, and then you meet him and you sit down and you speak with them and you get to know them, and they’re very different in person than they are in the public domain. And I don’t know if they know that and they do it on purpose or it’s different individuals. Most of the people that I’ve met along the way working in public policy, do it because they truly love their state. They love their country. They want to try to make a difference. They believe this is a way to do it and a way to get it done. I hope that answers the question.”

That’s Terry Ryan, CEO of BLUUM, discussing his role as head of an organization focused on education in Idaho, how he got there and why politics and public service matter.

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Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Why Public Service?, a podcast of the R Street Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, DC. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar. In each episode, I speak with an individual who made the choice to participate in governing our nation. Some of my guests have worked for the government. Others have toiled in various private sector organizations, including think tanks, philanthropies, and political groups. All of them share the same goal, however, which is to improve our country through public service.

Kevin Kosar:

Today’s guest is Terry Ryan, chief executive officer of BLUUM. It is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Idaho, dedicated to ensuring Idaho’s children reach their fullest potential by cultivating great leaders and innovative schools. Terry has been in public service for more than two decades. He’s been a teacher in Poland, and he has conducted research on education policy in both Poland and the United Kingdom. He spent more than a decade at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, where he advanced education reform in Ohio. Terry has also coauthored two books on education reform. Presently, Terry, in addition to his CEO duties, is chairman of the board of the Idaho Charter School Network, and he serves on Idaho Governor Brad Little’s Education Task Force. You can learn more about Terry Ryan by visiting BLUUM.org. That’s B-L-U-U-M.org.

Kevin Kosar:

Terry, welcome to the Why Public Service? podcast.

Terry Ryan:

Kevin, thank you for having me. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak with you.

Kevin Kosar:

You’ve worked in education policy from a variety of positions for many years. Now you’re in Boise, Idaho, leading BLUUM. What led you to BLUUM? What was your career path?

Terry Ryan:

Teaching. I became a teacher after I graduated from college. I taught in Poland in the very early ’90s. And then I went to the University of Denver Graduate School of International Studies, and upon graduation from there, I received a fellowship to go back to Poland, to work with educators in Poland, both as a teacher, but also I was working with a foundation there called the Foundation for Education for Democracy, and it was an organization committed to basically trying to help Poland and other former communist countries redesign their education systems to prepare young people for success in democratic governance, as well as capitalism.

Terry Ryan:

And I got very lucky to meet some amazing people there. A gentleman named Viktor Kulerski, who had been one of the Solidarity leaders in Warsaw. He’d been the first vice minister of education in post-communist Poland, became a mentor and dear friend to me. Part of the work that he engaged me in was putting together a conference on sort of what’s the proper structure for education? What’s the role of central government or the minister of education? What could or should be the role of local government? What could or should be the role of local schools? They wanted to revisit all of that, the belief being that the more control you gave to locals, the more democratic it would be.

Terry Ryan:

And so we organized, convened a conference, and brought people like Chester E Finn, Jr. He worked in the Reagan administration, long-time education reformer, former president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Institute in DC. Al Shanker was somebody that came to Poland. He’d done a bunch of work. He’d been the president of the American Federation of Teachers, had done a bunch of work in Poland with the Polish Underground in resistance to communism, brought people of similar ilk from the United Kingdom, from Germany, from Israel, and then brought lawmakers and others, not only from Poland, but from other East European countries to talk about sort of the proper role of central government.

Terry Ryan:

It was a fascinating conversation, and from that, I was invited … I actually was given a few job offers. This was the 1990s. The economy was booming. It was interesting. I took a job with an Englishman named John Abbott who was putting together a group that was going to look at the nature of human learning. What did we know about learning from neurobiology, cognitive science, and other areas of study? Brought together people in the United States for a series of conferences. And I was basically the kind of junior researcher taking notes and helping to organize the conferences, doing whatever needed to be done, but creating a 501(c)(3) for us to function in the United States and met a lot of great people through that job. John Abbott was another great mentor to me. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have wonderful mentors going all the way back to my history teacher in high school. But John Abbott was an Englishman. We worked together for six years. We literally traveled around the world together talking about what we were learning when it came to the latest around human learning.

Terry Ryan:

And we had this idea of, we needed to do a lot more in the early years because the brain is just so much more malleable and open to learning than, in later years and got into a lot of issues, spoke to a lot of different groups, had the good fortune of actually going to 10 Downing Street in, I think it was 2000, and brief the policy unit there. And then I was actually about to move my family to England in 2001. My wife is from Poland, and at that point, she didn’t have her citizenship yet. She did have her green card. Had two young children. September 11th happened, and about 10 days after September 11th, I was on one of the first planes back to London. Went to London, spent two weeks in England, and just realized the uncertainty of the time. Should I really take my young family and move to England where I was worried about my wife being able to get her citizenship and what that would mean, and things like that.

Terry Ryan:

There was a lot of tension at that moment. We had not yet invaded Afghanistan. And there was a lot of concern about what the United States would do in Afghanistan. So anyway, long and short of it, I reached out to my friend Chester Finn, Checker Finn, and said, “I’m not sure it’s a good time for me to move my family to England.” And he said, “Well, I happen to have a job open up in Ohio, with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.” Thomas B. Fordham was an industrialist from Dayton, Ohio, died in the ’40s, but his wife outlived him by, I don’t know, 50 years, and they created the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and Checker at that point was running it and hired me to kind of be the Ohio guy.

Terry Ryan:

At that point, we didn’t know what that really meant. But then I spent 12 years working for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Ohio, mostly in Dayton, but got deeply involved in work in Columbus with state government, as well, because in order to try to get anything done in Dayton, inevitably you had to deal with state public policy issues as well.

Terry Ryan:

2013, after 12 years, I’ll admit I was getting tired. I was getting burnt out in Ohio. It was tough, a tough political place. And elections really do matter in Ohio. You’re going to have, go from one where there’s strong support for things like charter schools to overnight a governor that wants to defund them and navigating that stuff.

Terry Ryan:

I had a head hunter reach out to me in 2013 asking if I’d have any interest in moving to Idaho and helping to launch a nonprofit out here to focus on trying to grow high-quality charter schools and decided to take that job. Actually, my wife fell in love with Idaho, fell in love with the mountains, and told me that I’d be an idiot not to take it. And she proved to be right, as usual. And so I’ve now been here for seven years. I launched this little nonprofit called BLUUM. We focus on new school development mostly, but not exclusively. We’re getting drawn into other areas now. We’re trying to work with state government where and when we can be useful. Leadership is a huge part of what we do. We have a new school fellowship where we have really good people that we bring in either to this state, or we’ve got good people in this state who maybe have been in another sector and want to get into education.

Terry Ryan:

So very fortunate to have the philanthropic supporting of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson’s Family Foundation. They cared deeply about Idaho, have been here for a very long time. They’ve treated me great. And the work that we do, and we’ve been fortunate to have other sort of philanthropic sources and we’ve even garnered federal grants to support the work that we’re doing here. It’s a really fast-growing state, increasingly dynamic state. It’s a big rural state. I think 65% of the state is national forest, but in and around our more urban areas, Boise, Idaho Falls, we’re growing, one of the fastest growing areas in the country right now.

Terry Ryan:

So schools matter here a lot. Education matters here a lot. Issues of funding, issues of school choice, issues of accountability, all the things that have been issues in other states are issues here. How’s that?

Kevin Kosar:

That’s pretty good. You’re the CEO, the top dog at BLUUM. What are your responsibilities, and what does your average day look like?

Terry Ryan:

The average day … There is no such thing. It changes day to day, which is why I guess I love this. I can say a little bit more about that in a minute. My responsibilities are strategy, direction of the organization, working with my board to make sure that they understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and they actually approve it and give support for it because that support does matter greatly. I work closely, as I mentioned, with the J.A. & Kathryn Albertson’s Family Foundation team to share ideas, to share opportunities, to make decisions with them as well. And I have a staff of, gosh, I don’t know, seven or eight now, and light management of the staff. I try to hire really good people so I don’t really have to manage them because that’s not something I’m real good at. I try to get really good people and empower them and try to stay out of their way.

Terry Ryan:

We have consultants that we work with. We have projects, research projects that we engage in. We’ve got a current project where we’re doing a series of videos on effective charter school governance. And we have done research with like CREDO and just developing those relationships and maintaining those relationships and building on relationships I had in my previous lives and just bringing some of those partners here. I take great pride in the fact that I’ve got really good relationships with, for example, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Foundation and have Mike Petrilli involved in things here. We invite him around issues and standards, for example, or civic education. He and Checker both have been here, and others that I’ve met along the way that I think highly of.

Terry Ryan:

As the CEO, I have to manage the governance, or not managing isn’t the right term, but work with my board members to make sure that we’re going in a direction they can believe in and feel good about and support, as well as doing the same with our funder and funders. And then working just, there’s a lot of politics in public education, and we get drawn into conversations around different issues right now with COVID-19. There are many issues around the best use of dollars, where might we want to direct those? So I’ve been fortunate to be part of conversations here. The governor had an education task force. Our new governor, well, he’s not so new now, but Governor Little, when he came on as governor, convened a task force, and I was fortunate to be a part of that and to work at sort of what’s our strategy for the state moving forward. I’m lucky to be invited to be in conversations like the one I’m with you right now, Kevin.

Terry Ryan:

In terms of the average day, boy, with COVID-19, it is so crazy and so ad hoc, and we’re having to adapt and adjust to so many things. We have about 25 school partners that we have funded in one form, shape, or another over the last seven years, and you become close to those folks, the school leaders and some of their team members. We stay connected and try to have regular conversations as to what are their issues, where are areas we can work together to maybe make improvements in the landscape for them.

Terry Ryan:

So just a whole lot of different directions things go. I have staff, as I mentioned. We have staff. We try to meet once a week as a staff. It’s now all pretty much virtual. Just the things that you have to do to keep an organization going. A lot of contracts and documents and things like that. It’s amazing how many you have to write and negotiate, be it with schools that receive funding from us, consultants that we work with or vendors or, an amazing amount of time on that sort of thing, because you’re responsible for other people’s money and you want to make absolutely certain you’re spending it in the ways that they expect you to spend it.

Terry Ryan:

I have an outstanding chief financial officer. I could not do the work I do without him. He’s absolutely a rockstar, and I have others on my team that are great. I have a wonderful communications person. She’s outstanding. And I try to surround myself with people who know what they’re doing really well, and quite frankly, are smarter than me.

Kevin Kosar:

Well, that sounds like a good strategy. You’ve worked in the international context. You spent a lot of time in Ohio. You’ve also got a lot of years in Idaho. What lessons have you learned about governance generally?

Kevin Kosar:

One very clearly is that elections matter. You mentioned that in the Ohio context. But what other big takeaways have you gotten from this effort to try to improve education?

Terry Ryan:

Yeah, absolutely. Elections matter. I encourage everybody listening to this, get out and vote. So important, and it’s a huge responsibility and obligation to good citizenship, and I met people in Poland who fought and were willing to die for the vote.

Terry Ryan:

Relationships matter. I have to say, personal relationships, even today, even in this world with social media and all the rest, personal relationships matter greatly. It’s important to find time to talk to people and to meet with people, and I take pride in the fact, and this was something that was encouraged by my colleagues at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Foundation … I would talk to not only our friends and our supporters, but to the people who weren’t necessarily friends and supporters of the work that we were doing, be it around charter schools, be it around the Common Core, whatever the issue may have been. Charter schools, very contentious in Ohio, but I would try to meet with the superintendent of the Dayton Public Schools periodically just to catch up and to share notes and see if there might be opportunities for us to work together. Did the same with the superintendent in Cleveland and Columbus. I spoke to members of the teacher’s union and got to know them and even became friends with some of them, even when we took very different positions, but came to appreciate the importance of personal relationships.

Terry Ryan:

Education is a people business. It’s totally about interactions with other people. I think that’s why this COVID-19 and trying to do things virtually is so hard on educators and so hard on students, is it’s just not how we really learn or how we get things done, or most of us, I should say. So personal relationships, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to make great friends all along the way, and I’ve tried to maintain those friendships, are really important and how you’re perceived.

Terry Ryan:

Are you perceived as somebody who says something and it means something and there’s a likelihood that what you say actually will happen? Are you a person of integrity? Do you follow up with people? Do you show people that you genuinely care about them and their ideas and where they are? I think that has gone a long way. Well, it’s gone a long way for me, so I think the interpersonal part of this, I can’t express … I think that being able to communicate in this field, being able to write, now with social media and these things that you’re so good at Kevin, and others, has also become incredibly important, and how you communicate is really important here.

Terry Ryan:

What else? I mean, it’s interesting because I’ve met a number of politicians and like you would perceive them as one way, based on what you see in their media or what you read or hear or what not, and then you meet him and you sit down and you speak with them and you get to know them, and they’re very different in person than they are in the public domain. And I don’t know if they know that and they do it on purpose or it’s different individuals. Most of the people that I’ve met along the way working in public policy, do it because they truly love their state. They love their country. They want to try to make a difference. They believe this is a way to do it and a way to get it done. I hope that answers the question.

Kevin Kosar:

It does. It actually leads very nicely to my next question, which is, what’s the toughest part of your current job?

Terry Ryan:

Yeah, the politics. So you have, even in Idaho, a remoter state, national political forces here that influence the conversation around things like charter schools, of which I spend funding on, things like standards and accountability, which are really important to sort of the structures that kind of support charter schools. So the political pressures that you feel, not only from sort of national conversations that are going on and things that are happening nationally, but also then the debates, the real debates in Idaho. You’ve had groups here who’ve wanted to, for example, put caps on charter schools so that they can’t open any more, or they want to require all charter schools to follow the exact same rules when it comes to hiring and firing of teachers and administrators, which is really one of the main flexibilities that allow charter schools to be different, are who are the people that run them and teach in them. So the politics here can make things, barriers that pop up.

Terry Ryan:

I’ll give you an example. We had a charter school, a couple charter schools, that intentionally are trying to serve some of the neediest student populations in the state. Well, they’ve been so successful that you’ve got a bunch of middle class families that have applied to send their children to those schools, and they have wait lists of five, 600 students, and they want to serve needier students and they want to serve a more diverse demographic of students. And so they said, couldn’t we have something like a weighted student lottery? Let’s say an English language learner could get three balls for the lottery where everyone else gets one, because we would like to have more diversity in our school. We think it’s good for the students, and we think it’s good for our community to reflect our community.

Terry Ryan:

And so we worked with a number of different groups, including the Idaho Charter School Network to put together a weighted student lottery, and it seemed like that would be a no-brainer to school choice, creating opportunities for more families to get into these schools who really need it most. But there was a lot of resistance to that bill, and it surprised me, and it was touch-and-go as to whether or not it would pass into law.

Terry Ryan:

The Idaho Charter School Network did a great job of getting it done, but those sorts of things, you go into it thinking it’s a no-brainer, that no one’s going to resist you. It seems like just common sense. And then all of a sudden you see a big struggle and a scrum going on around it. So those sorts of things have always sort of happened in my career, so the politics around education … And there should be. It’s important. We’re talking about children. We’re talking about the future of our country. We’re talking about a tenth of our state budget goes to education. So I get it.

Terry Ryan:

But the politics around it is intense. It’s oftentimes, there’s an unexpected direction and it becomes weird. And the best of sort of [inaudible] and things go off course almost inevitably. And you have to have a lot of allies and friends to navigate these things well.

Kevin Kosar:

This brings me to the closing question that I give to each guest. As you’ve explained, your job is no easy job, whether it’s been in Idaho or in Ohio or in the international context. You could have chosen another career path, but you didn’t, so why did you choose public service?

Terry Ryan:

I think I said it earlier. I’ve had great mentors going back to my history teacher in high school, Tom Lavin, who’s a great man, who were like, this is what you do. For whom much is given, much is expected. I remember him telling us that. I’ve been fortunate and had family that loved me and raised me and had resources to help me go through college. And I met great mentors all along the way. Again, very fortunate. All the mentors I met, be they in Poland or in the United Kingdom or here in the US, were about serving and service and commitment to your community, to your state and your country. That at the end of the day, I don’t want to sound corny, but it really is family, country, making sure that you fight for the opportunity for freedom, opportunity to become whomever you’re supposed to become.

Terry Ryan:

I think education is sort of the best thing we have for trying to create a more equal society. Certainly we have a ton of work to do in the United States and in Idaho, but it’s through public service and it’s through interaction and it’s through political struggle that you make change and you hopefully help your country, state, and your community get better and create more opportunities for families and kids than the generation that came before.

Terry Ryan:

That’s the idea. That’s what got me into this. That’s what’s motivated me. I will admit there are times that I despair that we’re actually going in the opposite direction and that we’re not going to live up to the ideals and promise that we should for the future and for future generations. I have two children of my own. But I think it’s a noble thing to try to work with people, to try to make your community or your place or even your country a little bit better than when you found it.

Kevin Kosar:

Making our nation a greater place and expanding access to high quality education. There’s nothing corny about that. Terry, thank you so much for your efforts over the many years, and thank you for being on the Why Public Service? podcast.

Terry Ryan:

Thank you, Kevin. I truly appreciate it. Thank you, sir.

Kevin Kosar:

Thank you for listening to Why Public Service?, a podcast of the R Street Institute. Please subscribe to the podcast and share it with your friends. Even better, rate and review us on iTunes so we can reach more listeners. Tell us what you thought about it and who we should interview next by finding us on Twitter at @RSI. If you want to know more about R Street, sign up for our newsletters at www.RStreet.org. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar. Thank you to producer William Gray and editor Parker Tant from ParkerPodcasting.com.