Ep. 196: The Monthly Debrief – June Looking to July 2020

July 28, 2020

In this Monthly Debrief podcast, EdChoice’s President and CEO Robert Enlow, Director of Policy Jason Bedrick, and our two state directors, Lauren Hodge and Jordan Zackery, discuss the latest school choice happenings in the states.

Robert Enlow: Well, ladies and gentlemen, welcome again to EdChoice’s Monthly Debrief of the States. It’s our podcast where we go over everything that’s been happening in the states related to school choice. We’re excited to see some big movement this week and this month on a number of fronts. So we’ll be talking about that with our Director of Policy Jason Bedrick, and our two state directors, Lauren Hodge and Jordan Zackery. So we’re excited to talk first about… Anyone, anyone? Espinoza. Espinoza did what? Anyone, anyone? It created the most expansive opportunity for school choice in the past decade by doing what? Anyone?

Lauren Hodge: Death to Blaine.

Robert Enlow: Putting down Blaine. That’s well done. Now, you’re supposed to all be hanging out with drool coming out of your teeth if you get the reference to the movie we’re going to, but let’s be more serious. Espinoza v. The Montana Department of Revenue was a huge victory for school choice. Why don’t we start with Jason? Jason, what do you think that means? And what is it?

Jason Bedrick: Well, as I said, actually in one of our other podcasts in which I interviewed David Hodges from the Institute for Justice, IJ as we call them, it’s the group that won the case. They actually brought our good friend, Dick Comber out of retirement to argue the case before the us Supreme Court. I mentioned to David that for a long time, I had a hand drawn map that sat next to my desk, which showed me which states had school choice challenges, which states school choice was constitutional in, which states state Supreme Court’s ruled that it wasn’t. That map, I was able to tear down because Espinoza has completely redrawn the legal landscape. Essentially, Blaine is no longer an obstacle to school choice in pretty much every single state in the nation.
There are now only two states where constitutionally, you cannot have a publicly funded school choice program or even a tax-credit funded program. Those two states unfortunately are Michigan and Massachusetts, but everywhere else you can have at least something. There are a few states, four in fact—Hawaii, Alaska, Arizona and Kentucky—where a traditional voucher program would not be allowed, but either a tax-credit scholarship and/or an education savings account would be constitutionally permissible. So at least 48 out of 50 States can constitutionally have a publicly funded school choice program, which is a great thing.

Robert Enlow: It was a big deal. So let’s make sure we go over the basic facts for everyone and then we’ll get to the other states. So the reason that’s Espinoza is important, it started in 2015 when the Montana legislature passed a program that provided tax breaks to Montanans if they contributed a terrible organization that provides scholarships for children. EdChoice was probably one of the only national groups they’re trying to help them with that and lead the way with them, we’ve been there for over a decade, that allowed those families to use the scholarships at any private school in Montana, religious or non-religious.

But the Department of Revenue, in its incredible wisdom decided, to interpret the state Constitution and forbid the participation of religious schools. IJ followed the suit. We did a bunch of amicus brief help and filed our own amicus brief. Wham, bam, thank you, it’s all over thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court. So basically, Montana’s Supreme Court has been overruled. We’ve seen a lot of movement. Lauren, in your states and Jordan, your states, what is the feeling going on with your partners that you’re hearing? Are they feeling excited? They looking forward to it? What’s going on?

Lauren Hodge: So I do think in the Southeast as I predominantly work, we have a lot of increased enthusiasm and it’s really a shot in the arm of positivity for a very difficult time. The states that have been constantly trying to work towards educational opportunity for all students really are empowered at this point to do so. Now, it wouldn’t be me, and if anyone knows me, they know that I will be the first one to say your design must be correct. So Espinoza does not just say you can have any free-flowing program. It still needs to be abide by the constitutional realms of the state and the federal Constitution, and that’s where EdChoice, that’s where Institute for Justice really work closely with our local partners to make sure that our bill design is in fact constitutional.

But for those states that perhaps were reticent to pursue something because the threat of litigation was too costly or too big of a burden to bear, we really have an opportunity now to make strides moving forward. I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm and hope on the ground, especially during the COVID pandemic, that we are entitled at enabled to pursue this as an avenue if this is indeed what the people want.

Robert Enlow: Jordan, talk to us about how a place like Missouri has been excited about it and where you’re working.

Jordan Zackery: Yeah, exactly. So Robert, you hit on it right there. Missouri, people are very optimistic in Missouri. Missouri was one of the states with one of the strongest Blaine Amendments. So going forward, this gives an opportunity in Missouri that people haven’t seen or truly believed in a long time when it comes to full unencumbered school choice. So there’s that optimism, but I think Lauren mentioned perfectly that everyone wants to make sure that a bill design going forward will meet all the constitutional musters of not just the federal Constitution, but also the state Constitution. But with that said, people are very excited to start planning toward the next steps. Just like in any state, people also are realizing that Espinoza’s the opening for opportunity, but we still now have to hit harder than ever when it comes to advocacy and when it comes to making sure that politicians know that their constituents want these types of programs. So there’s optimism, but a sense of work to do as well.

Robert Enlow: So, that’s really cool. It sounds to me like what we’re getting from Espinoza is it blows door off of another argument against school choice, but we still have to deal with the politics of every single state legislature. That always has worked to be good advocates and people who educate and inform the policy makers. I was thinking when Espinoza was handed down, that old Queen song, “Another One Bites the Dust,” it’s another argument that has bitten the dust. Just think about all the arguments over the years that we’ve helped kick down the path, right? School choice hurts public schools. Well, we know that’s not the case. And school choice takes money. Well, that’s clearly a myth. These myths persist, but we know despite based on facts, they’re not true.
So super exciting that Espinoza came about. Tell us now, it wasn’t just Espinoza, there was state work still going on and the great state of Florida, the Sunshine State, casted some more light on school choice. So, what did they do, Jason?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. So this is the biggest school choice expansion that we’ve seen not only this year, but really in the history of school choice was in Florida. Earlier this year, the Florida legislature passed the bill, HB 7067, which expanded the family empowerment scholarship program and also their tax credit scholarship program. It increased the income eligibility cap from 185 percent of the poverty line to 300 percent just allowing more of those middle-income families who are really struggling to have access to educational choice. It quadrupled the rate at which the scholarship program grows.

So it was growing at 7,000 scholarships per year. It now grows at 1 percent of public-school enrollment, which is about 28,000 scholarships per year. So basically, it quadrupled the rate of growth for this program. Note that the family empowerment scholarship was actually enacted because they were hitting the cap on the main tax credit scholarship program, which serves over a hundred thousand students. So now between these two program, very soon, we’re going to be talking about more than 150,000 students and it’s just going to take off from there.

Robert Enlow: It’s coming at a time that’s going to be very interesting in Florida, Jason. So private schools around the country are struggling, 130 closures or minimum that we know right now just in the Catholic sector. So this is going to provide a much needed lifeline to nonpublic schools who are serving, in Florida’s case, in vastly low income and middle income families to make sure that their kids are getting a quality education. So it’s a really good opportunity to make sure the program at least sustains itself and has potential to grow down the road. That’s exciting, but it wasn’t just the only state. Mississippi had some action. I’m not saying it’s so good, but it had some action. Lauren, what happened in Mississippi?

Lauren Hodge: So for those of you who have tuned in before or followed the blog related to this series, you knew that the Mississippi education savings account, which is geared to help those children with special needs and Mississippi was in trouble. It had an automatic sunset clause, which is standard Mississippi, meaning every new program that’s put into place has a sunset of a certain term of years by which the program is re-evaluated and it’s determined whether or not it should continue. So the sunset clause was set to run in June of this year. So the program needed to have an extension of that in order to survive and continue to help children in Mississippi. Unfortunately, in the middle of the session this year, you also had COVID which temporarily shut down the legislature, which came back into session and ultimately passed the program to remain in effect for three years. However, it did have some very detrimental effects.

Most notably, the program can no longer be used for virtual options, which is increasingly maddening during a time of global pandemic, and it cannot be used across state lines, which we knew several students, especially in the Northern part of the state had crossed over into another state to really pursue a better education option there. So the program exists not without some meaningful cuts to it. Unfortunately, in this time that’s very difficult and chaotic, some families and some children are facing additional chaos today because they have to change schools because their program’s no longer allowed in that school. So for a lot of Mississippian families, they’re working through it and we hope to see full unencumbered choice in Mississippi someday soon.

Robert Enlow: This is where the longterm work of EdChoice and frankly, Step Up for Students in Florida and their work to build constituents really matters over time. They’ve been able to do it in Mississippi. It’s been much harder, it seems, to build support and build constituents. So I think hopefully, they’ll look at this as a time to take a step back and say, “What are we doing right. What do we need to fix?” I think that’s interesting that we got an extension, but it’s clearly going to hurt some families. So that’s that. If Jason’s in Florida is the good and Mississippi is the ugly, sort of what’s the semi-good, Jordan, in a place like Iowa?

Jordan Zackery: Yeah, Robert Enlow. So in Iowa, there was a little bit of good news that came out of the recent legislative session. So a little background is Iowa has the school tuition organization tax credit. A couple of the areas that this program needed to improve on was its cap and some of the donation limitations that has. So after a brief break during session because of COVID when the general assembly reconvened, there was an omnibus bill from the Iowa Department of Revenue and HF 2641 included language to increase the cap of the program from $15 million to $20 million by 10 percent a year in increments over time.
So as long as the cap’s being met, it will get to increase. The other benefit that came out of this piece of legislation was that there was previously a 25 percent cap on amount of the total STO. So, the total donations to this program, only 25 percent could come from C-corps and that 25 percent requirement has been removed. So that’s just going to go ahead and be another way that this program can be fully funded and go ahead and continue to increase and grow over time. It was a good victory in Iowa during this session.

Robert Enlow: So that’s good to hear from Iowa. So let’s go this way. We’ve had these victories of Florida victories and Iowa and set back victory, a little bit like the one step forward, two steps back in Mississippi, this huge victory in Espinoza. Let’s think out to the next legislative session. What do you guys think is going to happen? And how do you think private schooling is going to change? So two large questions. One, what do you think is going to happen with school choice in some of the next sessions? And then two, what do you think the changes are going to look like in private schooling?

Jason Bedrick: Well, I’ll jump in even though predictions these days seem to have a very short shelf life. I have no idea what next year holds in store for us. Nobody predicted 2020. What I can say is that education, when school doors open or at least open virtually coming this fall is going to look very differently than it did when it opened last fall. What we’re seeing from our polling and other groups that are doing polling on this is that there are more families now exploring education options that they never would have considered exploring before. Families that previously had been very happy with whatever educational option they were using for their children, now they might not be so happy because of the coronavirus either because they’re on the one hand concerned that their school is not doing enough to protect their children from coronavirus or on the other hand, there are some families who think that the schools are going too far.

They don’t want their kids going to a school where they’re basically stuck in one place all day where there’s no cafeteria, where there’s no recess or they have to be six feet away from all of their fellow classmates. So you’ve got large groups of families that are going to be unhappy no matter which direction the schools go, which means that you’re going to have families that are going to be exploring other options. I think this in particular, poses a real opportunity for micro schools. We’ve already seen the rise of micro schools in recent years, but there are still relatively small numbers, but they’ve been growing rapidly. But for families who say, “You know what? I want my kid in an environment where they’re interacting with other children, but also a small number of other children,” a micro school might be a great option for them.

For example, there’s Prenda in Arizona where all of the classrooms have between five and 10 children. The ages can vary. It’s a very self-directed program, but they’ve been growing rapidly. They had only about a handful of students a couple of years ago. Next year, they’re on target to have more than 2000 students, so it’s phenomenal growth and I think that more and more families are going to availing themselves of these options.

Robert Enlow: That’s great. Lauren, what do you think?

Lauren Hodge: Well, I agree with Jason. The crystal ball at this point is very hard to read, not that I’ve ever been particularly good at it. But I do think one thing that will be true for 2020 is that parents are going to understand and potentially demand options for their kids’ education. They going to want to have that control. At a time when there is exceptional uncertainty, parents are going to want to be able to do what they believe is the best for their child. I think that that will be true in 2020 and hopefully, true as we move forward because when parents are empowered, when children are empowered, the child gets to be put back at the center of the education system. I think that’s really what this time is calling us to do is, is do what’s in the best interest of our child, our family, our kids, our communities. So I think that you’re going to see that demand really be sought, maybe not match, but definitely be sought by families across the country.

Robert Enlow: That’s really interesting, and I agree with that totally. In fact, I just was on the phone with a guy named Scott Baron who runs schoolgrowth.com. This is a really unique new service they’re providing. They’re basically providing a service where families can go in and create their own school growth plan for their kids, their own process to get them through what they want them to go through. So they can customize the type of education they want and then put it together in a plan online and then sort of try and find the right school to fit that model. So it’s schoolgrowth.com. It’s really cool. I’ve checked it out and it’s now live. There’s a lot of that going on. Look, as we start to think about wrapping up here, I think we’ve had some really good movement this year, but obviously we don’t know what the future holds.

I think it’s really important as we think about the states, and I’d be interested to hear your guys’ thinking on this, thinking about the messaging of the idea of school choice and really shouldn’t be called school choice anymore, even though that’s what we say. It really is about parental empowerment or as our friends and in Arizona say “empowered AF,” right? I think that’s really important for our families to be empowered. We should think about how do we message this and how do we get this message of, “Hey, I’m here to make sure all families get what’s best for them. It doesn’t matter where they go,” and Milton Friedman said that all the time. It really didn’t matter where they went so long as the dollars follow them. Ultimately, this is a game about giving parents freedom and giving them money. What do you guys think about that?

Lauren Hodge: I think, Robert, you’ve hit the nail on the head and it’s the central message that I think we’ve been saying for at least the two years I’ve been with EdChoice and kind of came into the fold into this movement. It is time to put the kid back in at the center. It is time to put the family back in power. It is time for those individuals to be able to say, “This is what’s in my best interest and this is what I value, and this is what I need to do for my family at this point in time.” I think that that is really what this whole movement’s about. It’s empowering families, it’s empowering children and it’s that as a child enters school at kindergarten, their needs might change somewhere along the line between then in 12th grade, right? It’s being able to create a system that grows with that child, that enables that child because at the end of the day, we have the best educated children. When we empower children and families to reach their fullest potential, our community wins.

Robert Enlow: Man, I couldn’t say it any better than that. One of the good things about COVID is you get to work from different places. As I’m sitting here listening to you make that great comment and as we’re wrapping up, I’m hearing Journey in the background saying, “Don’t stop believing,” and that’s exactly what we’ve been like at EdChoice and what we are as a team. I want to say thank you all for joining us on another EdChoice podcast where we monthly debrief for the states. You can always download us on all the usual platforms, look at us at our EdChoice Twitter account, @edchoice, or our Facebook account, or our Medium account. We are on every platform. So thanks again for joining us on EdChoice, a monthly debrief podcast for what’s happening in the states and we’ll see you next month.