Ep. 30: Our 2018 School Choice Yearbook Superlatives

January 26, 2018

We’re back again in the new year with EdChoice’s 2018 yearbook superlatives. We got together to vote on America’s educational choice programs, and here are our winners and honorable mentions for categories, such as Most Empowering, Biggest Setback and Most Likely to Succeed in 2018.

Want a glimpse behind the scenes of our deliberations? Listen to our podcast below. In it, EdChoice’s VP of Communications Jennifer Wagner, VP of Legal Affairs Leslie Hiner, Senior Director of State Relations Michael Chartier and Research Assistant Michael Shaw discuss how we examine nominees from all angles and, ultimately, how we decide our winners.

To see how the EdChoice team voted last year, visit The 2017 EdChoice Yearbook Superlatives.

Jennifer: Hello, and welcome to another edition of Ed Choice Chats. I’m your host, our VP of Communications Jennifer Wagner, and this may be our most robust, well-populated EdChoice Chat to date. I am joined today by three of my colleagues here at EdChoice, our Research Assistant Mike Shaw, our Senior Director of State Relations Michael Chartier and our VP of Legal Affairs Leslie Hiner. And we are talking about superlatives.

So, every year we go through all the data, we go through every program in the United States, and we tally up how many people are able to be part of these programs, how many people are taking part in these programs, and we decide who’s the best, who’s the worst, who’s the prettiest, who’s the ugliest … Just kidding.

And Mike Shaw, I would like to start with you talking about that data-collection process, and how we come up with the numbers that we come up with the superlatives from.

Mike: Sure, so this is our ABCs (of School Choice) Superlative podcast, and we’ll also accompany a blog post about how we chose the superlatives, but ultimately, we make our decisions here at EdChoice about data. The ABCs is a large data-collection process. And to figure out which programs and which states were the best of the best, we had to use data to analyze that. So, as far as some of our categories that use data, we had most popular. That’s percent of participation increase year over year. Most improved is a percent of eligibility change year over year. And then, we also use an empowering category, and we use various data categories to weight things as far as what programs give families the most options for their children.

Jennifer: Well, that’s fantastic. It sounds like a large time commitment too. So, we want to thank you, Mike, for putting a lot of sweat equity into putting those numbers together. I know it’s a big lift, so …

But without further delay, our big winner this year looks like Arizona, which came up a winner in three categories: most empowering, most well-rounded, and most improved. And so, Michael, you obviously oversee our state affairs, state relations. Talk about what happened in Arizona this past year.

Michael: So, Arizona this past year passed the largest increase of any school choice program in the country. I mean, over … About 30,000 additional kids were eligible for the program. As long as you spent time in public school, you were eligible to take part in Arizona’s ESA program. It kind of piggybacked off of Nevada’s program in certain ways, and Nevada is near and dear to my heart, so I want to throw out a little bit of love their way. But Nevada served as the model for Arizona’s expansion, so we had to give the most empowered. It allows the most families to have the most well-rounded and customized educational program of any state in the country.

Jennifer: And also, the most improved because they had a good program to start with and it’s gotten even better, but I would be remiss if I didn’t touch briefly with you, Leslie, on the fact that, like Nevada, the expansion in Arizona is currently on hold. Those families are not able to access that ESA program that they should rightfully be able to access. And can you talk a little bit about first of all, how frustrating that is, and also, why that’s happened.

Leslie: Yes. It’s frustrating in Arizona. It must be very frustrating for families who have been waiting for this, waiting for their eligibility for an Education Savings Account only to have opponents of School Choice step up, and they have managed to score a referendum that puts this expansion to a statewide vote in November of this year. Now, the ESAs are very popular in Arizona, but referendums are 100 percent political. It will be a major political battle in Arizona, and that’s just a sad situation for all those kids in Arizona who are waiting for their chance. And it’s just … Well, it’s just not right, it’s not fair, it doesn’t seem like much justice going on there.

However, for me, I think the big rainbow out in Arizona is that several years ago, when the courts said that Arizona couldn’t do vouchers, that’s when they came up with the idea to do Education Savings Accounts, and the courts in Arizona said, “Yeah, that’s great. Go forth and conquer.” And since that time, families and advocates there have been working overtime to help as many families as possible. So, my view is that even though we have this referendum in Arizona, and that’s hard for families, nonetheless, I’m betting that the families will win.

Jennifer: I hope you’re right. And I hate to stay on the negative for just another minute, but since we’re talking about legal affairs and legal setbacks… Our biggest legal setback this past year was, without a doubt, the recision of the program in Douglas County, Colorado, which was, in many ways, a model for other states and other localities, and was a unique gem in the School Choice world. So, can you talk about what happened in Douglas County?

Leslie: In Douglas County, they had a very proactive school board that reasoned that, if they had these district lines where all the kids within the district lines were supposed to go to their public schools … They reasoned that, “Well, what if that wasn’t the best school for any child? And shouldn’t they be responsible to help that child find the best education?” And they said, “Well, sure. It should be our responsibility.” So, they adopted their own voucher program for the district. It’s about the only state in the country where a school district can do this, and they did.

However, courts stepped in pretty quickly when people mounted litigation and put a hold on that program. Well, that was in 2011, and that litigation is actually still pending. So, during all these years, those who oppose Choice have been working overtime to try to unseat the board members in that school district. And this last year, they were successful. So, at the very first board meeting, when they were first sworn in, those who opposed School Choice voted to rescind the voucher program in Douglas County, Colorado, which is just very depressing for the families there who really need that help.

Michael: And let’s see … I heard that there was about 300 kids in that program that had signed up at one point. Is that number correct?

Leslie: There were. There were about … Oh, I think it was maybe about 220 kids who actually took vouchers, and there were others that were standing in line waiting to take vouchers as well, when then, the courts stepped in and put the program on hold.

Jennifer: Thanks, Michael for that data point. And it actually brings me to our next, and happier topic, and I want to turn to you, Mike, because we do oftentimes have programs that are started, that are small, certainly in comparison to the larger population of K-12 students. And I think this year, the Arkansas program got itself a superlative for popularity. Still a small program, but Mike, can you talk a little bit about the growth in that program.

Mike: Yeah, yeah. No, it sure is, and this is kind of an exercise in small numbers. Our criteria for the most popular category is the largest percentage growth in participation over the past year, and Arkansas’s Succeed Scholarship Program knocked that out of the water with a 557 percent growth, but it only went from 23 to 151 students, which is still great. And a large part of that was the added eligibility for foster care students into the program. It had previously been a special needs only scholarship. But now, more and more Arkansas students are able to utilize School Choice. So, Arkansas is the winner, but I’d be remissed in not mentioning Florida’s Gardiner Program, which is an ESA, and it actually had the largest student growth numbers for any program since last year. It grew by 3,068 students. So, kudos to both Arkansas and to Florida.

Jennifer: Yeah. Florida continues to be a national leader in School Choice, and preview of coming attractions, we’ll have two great surveys coming out this year looking at their ESA program and their tax credit scholarship program, both from the usage standpoint, and also, parent satisfaction. So, something to look forward to.

In other good news, I think North Carolina definitely got the prize for best new program this year, and I’ll throw that to all three of you to talk about North Carolina.

Michael: I mean, North Carolina was the state that really passed … It’s only Education Savings Account Program of this past year … I mean, it’s the only one that did that, so obviously, it got the win and the nod there, but they’ve … North Carolina’s been going at this for a number of years. I mean, they had a voucher program for a number of years. I think 2011, Leslie? Was that when they passed the voucher program?

Leslie: I think that’s about right.

Michael: Alright, yeah. So, I mean, they’ve been at this for a long time, and they’ve sort of moved up to the next level of School Choice, if you will. And so, obviously, we give a lot of credit to the coalition there. I mean, Darrell Allison is doing an amazing job, and I know we’ll continue to support and help the efforts of North Carolina to even grow and get bigger.

Leslie: Yeah. I think North Carolina is a good example of what we see in some states where, when people really understand that, yes, School Choice is good as a policy issue. It’s fiscally good for a state, it’s culturally good. There’s a lot of things that are good about it, but when people really understand the good that it does for kids and for families, and how it can really take a child who’s not doing very well in school and then, suddenly, turn that child into a great scholar who’s thriving, and happy, and can’t wait to go to school in the morning, then it makes people work just a little bit harder to make sure that as many kids as possible can have that great experience. And I really think that that’s what’s going on in North Carolina. It started out as just good public policy, but now it’s more personal, as the parents have been really involved in expanding this program.

Michael: And this personal education is part of the name of this program, which is a special needs ESA, and it’ll be great for special needs families in that it’s one of the only, if not the only, ESAs that can actually be combined with existing voucher programs. They’re still kind of working out the kinks about the pathways for that to happen, but it could give families with special needs students a myriad of options to educate, to provide therapeutic services for their children.

Jennifer: That’s outstanding, and I think we’re going to  keep on the positive note. Leslie, you are our resident town tuitioning expert, and our winner this year in the most inspiring category is the town of Croydon in New Hampshire for their town tuitioning program. So, let’s talk a little bit about that.

Leslie: Well, I love Croydon, New Hampshire and the people who live there. You’re right. I do have a special fondness there because in Croydon, New Hampshire, you had the town and the school there, school board that determined that tuitioning kids to school … That that should really be a program that allows kids to go to whatever school is best for them. To give you some background, New Hampshire has a lot of small towns, and towns will pay the tuition to send their kids to other schools especially, like in the case of Croydon, they had a school that went to grade two, but they didn’t have schools past that grade, and that’s fairly common for small towns in New England and in New Hampshire. And so, the towns tuition the kids to go to the next public school or another public school.

But in this case, there was a little Montessori school there that was just right for about five kids. And so, they tuitioned these kids to that little school, and kids started to thrive, and blossom. And so, of course, the prior governor stepped in and decided to shut that down. It was just ridiculous. Part of the Croydon story is that this is a lesson in the government acting in a really ridiculous way to hurt children. Nothing about this made any sense.

What’s inspiring about this is that … In this day and age, where we’re talking all the time … Every single day, we hear on the news about how politicians are fighting each other all the time. This last year in New Hampshire, that didn’t happen. Instead, legislators came together, and they met with the families from Croydon, and they met these kids who were going to the Montessori school, and they were just determined to do the right thing by these kids, and they did. So, they took statutes that were on the books that Croydon had been using to justify what they were doing, and they solidified those statutes so that it is absolutely clear, 100 percent there is, in fact, town tuitioning in the state of New Hampshire. And those sweet little kids from Croydon, New Hampshire, a little town of 700 people … They can go to that Montessori school and do very well.

Jennifer: And that is obviously why that is the most School Choice victory this year.

Well, we have reached our last topic of conversation, the most fun topic of conversation, the one that we get to look forward. The most likely to succeed in 2018, I’m staying with the theme of New Hampshire, that was our top pick this year. But talk about that, but also talk about the other states, especially you, Michael, that are on the watch list of places that we might see new programs, expanded programs, more educational opportunity for K-12 students.

Michael: Sure. So, New Hampshire, obviously as you’ve mentioned, won our most likely to succeed in 2018 category. It is looking to pass … The state of New Hampshire’s looking to pass an Education Savings Account Program. It moved out of the Senate last year, and it’s had a couple of big votes earlier on this year. It moved out of the House of Education Committee, passed a big floor vote, and is currently sitting in the House Finance Committee, where it received a hearing yesterday, and there will be a vote on that as well. So, there’s a couple more small hurdles for that bill to overcome. I would say that … And I think, obviously, the team agrees that New Hampshire’s going to  be the state that’s going to  most likely pass that big, expansive, Educational Choice Program this next year.

Other states that sort of won an honorable mention for us: Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and West Virginia are also looking to pass some large programs as well, and I’m happy to talk about a few of those if you’d like, or I can kick it over to the rest of the gallery and get their thoughts on little things that are going to  happen.

Leslie: Oh, I’d like to weigh in on Mississippi. One of the hardest things that a legislature can do is to look at their school funding formula, and keep it up-to-date. This is probably one of the hardest things that a state legislature can do, which is why they don’t do it very often. This gets done maybe once in a blue moon. But in Mississippi, they, just this past week, filed a bill to update and vastly improve their school funding formula, and they are also on track to move a universal Education Savings Account bill. So, both of those things are really pretty monumental, but Mississippi is … They’re stepping up, and they’re moving, and they’re determined. So, I think Mississippi has as good a chance as anyone to really succeed more than any other state.

Michael: And Mississippi has one of the strongest coalitions I definitely have ever seen –

Leslie: They do.

Michael: In this country, and the governor’s behind this 110 percent.

Leslie: Yes.

Michael: And he’s out there talking about why this is important to the kids of Mississippi, and hopefully this could be something that he leaves as a legacy for him, I think.

Leslie: I totally agree with that. He really … I remember a few years ago when he said that he really came to understand the power of this, not just as good public policy, but how this can improve the lives of kids, and families … You know? And frankly, I remember him saying that for him, it was all about looking to the future and like you said, looking at a legacy, but even more than that. What do you want to see for the future of your state, the state that you love? What do you want for that state? And what are you willing to do today to make things better, to set the course in the proper direction so the kids today and in the future will get a really strong, great education. That’s all to the good for any state, and certainly, for the country.

Mike: And just from a data perspective, I know our research helps some folks in Mississippi with a voter poll to kind of inform the legislature and the public about what voters think of education in that state. Our research team is also looking at conducting and releasing polls and surveys in South Carolina related to private schools. West Virginia will have at least one as well in the coming year. So, be sure to be on the lookout for those, as well as our ABC’s publication.

Jennifer: Which … You just preempted my shout-out. First of all, I want to say thank you to Michael, Mike, Leslie for joining us. This is, again, our largest EdChoice Chat to date, and thank you for your time. I’d also like to say that this is obviously being disseminated during National School Choice Week. We always post our superlatives and try to coincide with that. So, that is an amazing nationwide celebration of educational choice at the state level and at the school level. So, thanks to all who are participating in that week of events.

And as Mike said, our ABC’s of School Choice, the 2018 version, recently launched. You can go on our website at www.edchoice.org, and you can order your copy or copies for your organization or for your own personal review. Go on our website. Those will be shipped out in the next month or two. And as always, I want to thank everyone for joining us today for this latest edition of EdChoice Chats, and thanks for listening.