Ep. 167: The Monthly Debrief – February Looking to March 2020

March 17, 2020

In this Monthly Debrief podcast, EdChoice’s President and CEO Robert Enlow, Director of Policy Jason Bedrick and Director of State Relations Lauren Hodge discuss the latest school choice happenings in the states. They discuss school choice firsts in South Carolina and legislation passed in Utah.

Robert Enlow: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Robert Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice. And this is another edition of our Monthly Debrief series about what’s going on in states with school choice. I’m excited to be joined by our state director, Lauren Hodge, and our director of policy, Jason Bedrick. We’re going to give you a full-on roundup of what’s been going on around the country with school choice. And surprisingly, overall, it’s better news than we might’ve thought at the beginning of the year. So, let’s start with Lauren to talk about South Carolina.

Lauren Hodge: Thanks so much, Robert. I really appreciate it and I’m glad to be with you all today. So, let’s head on south to kick off this podcast. And we’ll go to South Carolina first. And I guess the big news there is, for the very first time that I’m aware of in the state’s history, an education savings account program has gotten out of sub-committee to a committee. Now, far away from being done, but it is movement that we haven’t seen before in the state.

That education savings account would allow parents flexibility to send their child to the school that works best for them. And now, the program as is currently drafted would be limited to low-income families and children with disabilities. There’d be a set amount, that’s the education savings account dollars, that would be allowed to go to these families so that children can use that money in the best way possible and really attain a different type of education, personalized educational model. We’ll see what happens there. It’s an interesting move and there’s been lots of conversation.

I’ve been in South Carolina listening to what those legislators have been talking about, and there’s been a lot of good conversation around how the transportation dollars work. Conversation around how many students in the program and how do you enroll these students. And so, we’ve been there, we’ve been listening, and we’ve been providing educational support when requested. So, it’s been an exciting time to be in South Carolina.

Robert Enlow: Well, that’s fantastic news and I really appreciate hearing about all the work that you’ve been doing, all the research we’re providing down there, the data, all the coalition building, and really just providing support to the local groups and local efforts so that they can get their job done better and better and faster. So thanks.

What other states have you been working on, Lauren, that we should hear about?

Lauren Hodge: Well, I think, another state that we want to look to is my soon-to-be new home state of Mississippi. And we are watching Senate Bill 2594 there. So, for those that have listened to this podcast before, you’re aware that the education savings account program in Mississippi had an automatic sunset clause. And for those of you that aren’t familiar, an automatic sunset clause is when a program is new and it automatically will extinguish at a certain time, unless it is revived, unless there is what’s called a repealer that’s put into place and that repealer is extended.

So, Mississippi is a state that’s been dealing with this issue. And so, their education savings account is set to expire in June of 2020. So, 2594 is the bill that is looking through and dealing with this repealer. And so, the program, if the bill passes as currently drafted, the program would be extended for another four years.

It’s not a perfect bill. There’s some changes to the program that could, ultimately, impact the supply side and students, but it is to extend the program another four years. That bill has crossed from the Senate, it made crossover date. We will be watching to see what happens with Mississippi.

Robert Enlow: Well, that’s good news to hear that at least it’s progressing a little bit. The bill isn’t perfect. We know that. Surprising that Mississippi is having such a challenge helping its special needs families. And I know our local partners there are working with us and we just need to keep them on the right track to help those policymakers understand how important it is for special needs families to have more options.

Lauren, any other states that you’re thinking about?

Lauren Hodge: I think, for me, that’s about it for right now. I think Jason has a lot of states to delve into though.

Robert Enlow: Well, that’s great. So, let’s move on then to some of the other parts of the country. And Jason, as an interlude, I will talk a little bit about Indiana. So, for those of you who don’t know, Indiana finished its session on Wednesday because, at that time, the Big 10 Tournament was starting and legislators wanted to get out of town, because that’s what they want to do because their hotel rooms are taken up.

So, we left on Wednesday. And educationally, the session was fairly disappointing. There was no movement on increasing the eligibility and the voucher program. We were working on getting an increase to include siblings and members of the military and foster care kids. That was not included in the final resolution, the final bills, and so we were very disappointed about that.

Moreover, there was one thing that passed on charter schools. It was a provision that would have allowed, or that will allow school districts, to allow some of their local property tax dollars to be given to charter schools if they choose. That caused a lot of kerfuffle here because the language is the district may choose to do that. It was not a forced provision. So, there may be some school districts that share their property tax. We’ll see. The likelihood of that is probably not great.

So all in all, in Indiana, while we played a lot of defense and kept a lot of bad things off the book, we also really didn’t go forward as much as we thought we would have gone forward. That’s your interlude of the Midwest. Jason, why don’t you take us out West?

Jason Bedrick: Well, before I take you out West, I just wanted to highlight some states and we’ll talk, believe me, plenty about Arizona. But I wanted to highlight some states around the country that have been passing legislation.

So, I wanted to start in the Southeast where both the Florida House and Senate have passed versions of a bill that would expand several of their school choice programs. I think, most notably, their new voucher, called the Family Empowerment Scholarships, will increase form about 7,000 students to about 28,000 students. So, this is a really large increase. Also, they’re raising the eligibility. So right now, you can be eligible if you’re up to 185 percent of the federal poverty line. They’re going to raise that up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line.

And they’re doing something interesting that I haven’t seen in any other state. We’ve talked in this podcast before about escalators, where a bill will, the funding for a program will automatically increase over time. They have an eligibility escalator, where if not all of the available vouchers are given out, then in the following year, it increases the eligibility for those vouchers. So, by 50 percent. In other words, if this year they didn’t give out all the vouchers and currently it’s at 300 percent of the federal poverty line, then next year, it would be at 350 percent of the federal poverty line. And so on, and so forth. So, they’re going to continue giving all of these scholarships out. That’s an interesting innovation that we should be talking about in other states as well.

In Utah, the House and Senate both passed a new tax-credit scholarship for students with special needs. It’s a relatively small program. They already have a voucher for students with special needs. This one is in some ways a little bit more expansive. It can be used for tuition, but can also be used for textbooks and for online learning, and for educational therapy and testing, a few other things. It’s not quite an ESA, but it is a multi-use tax credit scholarship and it’s the same version that passed both chambers. So, that is headed to the governor’s desk.

And then in Georgia, the Senate has passed a bill that makes a number of different improvements to their special needs voucher, including expanding the students who are eligible for it. So that is a lot of progress. And then, in a number of other states, we’ve got bills that are moving through committee chambers.

In particular, I wanted to highlight Kansas, where they are going to be … Right now, they have a tax credit scholarship that is a failing schools model, meaning that it’s the students who are assigned to these 100 lowest performing schools in the state are eligible, so long as their family income is up to 100 percent of the federal poverty line. They’re going to be getting rid of the failing schools aspect and raising the income eligibility to 185 percent of the federal poverty line. So, that’s clearly an important improvement. That bill has passed the House Education Budget Committee.

In Maryland, where they have a low-income voucher, last year, they had an appropriation of about $6.6 million. This year, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee passed a bill that would increase that appropriation to $10 million so more students can be eligible for that.

Also, in Missouri, there’s a tax credit funded education savings account that has passed two different committees. And then, there is another bill that would create a tax-credit program for contributions to 529 plans. That has also passed the committee. That’s an interesting new model, especially given that with the federal changes to the 529 plans that now allow you to spend those funds not just on higher ed, but also on K-12. And so, it’s a hybrid model that would allow families to make contributions to their 529 plans and use them for elementary and secondary education.

Lastly, we’ve got Arizona, where there has been a lot of action just this week. And right now, it’s recording this, we’re at the second week of March. The Arizona House has taken up and passed a bill that previously passed the state Senate that would make a number of important changes to the education savings account program. It is not an expansion, despite what you heard in the media and despite what we may want.

But what it does is a number of things. First, it addresses the Navajo border situation that arose last year. Regular listeners to the podcast may be familiar with this. There were a number of Navajo families who were attending a school that, although it was within the Navajo Nation borders, was actually over the Arizona border into New Mexico by under a mile. And so, when the Department of Education administration took over and they noticed this, even though the previous administration allowed it, the new administration said, well, if you read the statute, it doesn’t allow this, so you’re not allowed to do this anymore.

Last year, the legislature gave them a reprieve of one year. This bill makes that permanent. It says that anybody who is on any of the Native American reservations, and there are a number of them in the state, may attend a school that is over the border, so long as it is within the reservation borders and within two miles of the Arizona border. Even though this is a bill that affects about eight families, there was an incredible amount of opposition, opponents saying, “We don’t want any Arizona tax dollars going to out-of-state private schools.”

I think it’s totally a disingenuous argument, because Arizona tax dollars already go out of state to educate Arizona students. Arizona kids that are going to public schools will be using textbooks that are state-purchased or school districts purchased from other states. They’ll be using laptops that were created in other states. They’ll be using blackboard programs, they’ll be using all sorts of software that were created outside of the state. They may even be doing online learning from a provider that’s outside of the state.

So, the key, really, is not the location of the provider, it’s the location of the students. And Arizona students are eligible. Where they get their education from is not the important question. This is not a jobs program, this is an education system. And the important thing is that Arizona is providing lots of high quality options to Arizona students.

Robert Enlow: Now, I’m going to just add to that if you don’t mind. So one of the things that is important for our listeners to know, I mean, EdChoice is about families, right? And students. And so, the idea that Arizona is empowering its resident students to get the best option regardless of where that is, that’s just a no brainer to us, right? And the logic of the opposition, if you really follow it to its conclusion on a number of things, ends up being, basically, throwing us back into the 1700s, which is, you could only eat where you live. You can only go somewhere where you live. You can only talk to someone where you live. The money has to stay where you live. By their own logic, no one should be able to go to any public school district, or frankly even move to another public school district.

The reality is, is we have to be at EdChoice, which is what we are, about students and student-centric. We’re not about systems, we’re not about schools, we’re about students and families. And so, this change in Arizona, while small, is actually a really important change, right? It’s really important to be having EdChoice a part of that to make sure that we say, “We stand for families.”

Jason Bedrick: Right, and make some other changes as well, I should point out. And all really family-centric changes. So there’s a clarification in regard to how the ESA funds can be spent. It allows the funds to be spent on goods as well as services. This was an important change, because previously the law was somewhat murky and it excluded electronics. And the idea was that you don’t want families going out and buying TVs or even laptops, things like that. But at the same time, it allowed the purchase of certain items for educational therapy. But the question is, well, what about the electronic devices that are used for educational therapy?

There was a parent who had then, using certain devices that help with students who have deafness, and that was allowed by the previous administration. But the new administration came in and really brought the hammer down on this family and said, “No, not only can you not do this, not only do you have to pay back all the funds that you spent on these devices, but we’re going to charge you with fraud.” They took them to the attorney general. Eventually, the case was dropped. The Goldwater Institute intervened. This was clearly an overreach, and so, now the state legislature is saying, well, wait a second, we got to clarify this law. These sorts of assistive devices clearly should be allowed.

It also appropriates more money for the Arizona Department of Education to hire some staffers that are going to be running a call center. There’ve been all sorts of problems with the department not answering the phone when these families are trying to call and resolve certain issues. And it’s also going to make sure that Class Wallet, which is the online platform through which these families are able to make purchases with their ESAs, is going to be up and running.

And they’re switching over to a case worker model, because sometimes families would call with questions, they would speak to one person, if they were lucky enough to get through. They would get one answer, and then later, if they would speak to somebody else, they would get a different answer. Now, the ESA families will be speaking to the same person each time. And it does also shift some of the oversight of the program from the Department of Ed to the State Board of Education.

So, a number of important changes. And that bill has now passed both chambers and is headed to the governor. And we also have a big ballot initiative, Robert, as you know. This group called Save Our Schools Arizona, known as SOS, has filed a ballot initiative. They are going to try to raise enough signatures that, on the ballot this year in November, there will be a question put to the voters whether or not they want to severely curb school choice in the state. It would prevent the creation of any new school choice programs, it would put a cap on eligibility for the ESA program at 1 percent of the public school students statewide.

Right now, that would mean about 11,000 students will qualify and there’s more than 7,000 students currently in the program. At the current rate of growth, that cap would be hit in just two to three years. At that point, there is a priority system that gives priority first to current ESA students with special needs, then to new applicants with special needs, then to existing ESA students that don’t have special needs.

So, what does that mean? Students who are in foster care or are adopted through the foster care system, students who are dependents of active duty military, orphans, students who are assigned to D- or F-rated schools, or who are on Native American reservations, or siblings of those otherwise qualified students, including siblings of students with special needs that qualify for that reason. All those kids, even if they currently have an ESA, would eventually be pushed out of the program. They would lose the ESA.

Robert Enlow: This is a terrible initiative. We know it’s a terrible initiative. And some of the thinking behind it, if you watch the Twitter conversations with these families who have special needs kids talking to the people who are collecting signatures, the kind of language that’s coming out from the people who oppose school choice is just literally offensive and disgusting. And so, we hope that they don’t actually get enough signatures for the initiative and that it doesn’t even get on the ballot, because the families are pushing back really hard.

So, when you look across the country, we haven’t even mentioned New Hampshire where we’ve actually seen a bill die that was trying to hurt school choice. And so, from New Hampshire to Florida, from Arizona to Maryland, all throughout the Midwest, you’re seeing lots and lots of movement still on the issue of school choice. Lots of discussion on the issue of school choice, which frankly, I think surprised all of us at EdChoice a little bit, that we thought it was going to be a little bit slower of a year. So, we’re really excited to see these changes.

I know we’re going to get back to you guys on one of our next chats with a fuller explanation of the Arizona initiative, but I just want to say thank you to our team and say that this has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. Please be sure to subscribe to our podcast on platforms such as SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher. Stay up to date with what’s happening in school choice across the country. Follow us @edchoice on Twitter and Facebook and our website, obviously, edchoice.org.

We really appreciate all your support. Thank you very much, and we’ll catch you next time.