Ep. 202: The Monthly Debrief – July Looking to August 2020

August 25, 2020

Join our state team as they discuss the latest school choice happenings in the states.

Robert Enlow: Hello, and welcome back to our EdChoice Monthly State Debrief. You would think that in the middle of a pandemic and school’s barely opening and schools sort of not sure what they’re going to do, that maybe there’s not a lot of movement on school choice, but you would be wrong. There’s been a lot of movement in different ways on school choice this month. And we’re excited to be joined by the EdChoice state team, which is Jordan Zackery, Lauren Hodge and Jason Bedrick.

So the things we want to talk about today on our podcast is gear funding, because one of the things that the federal government has done is try to make it easier for private schools to survive during COVID to be able to get access to funds because they don’t have access often to public funds. And so we’re going to explain what gear funding is in general. And then we’re going to move on to three states that have tried some new ideas. And then we’re going to get into the boom that is called micro schooling and pod learning, which is all over the place now. And people are starting to talk about it. And EdChoice has been out in front of that for the last year with Love Your School in Arizona. We’ll talk about that. So gear funding. Lauren, what is gear funding?

Lauren Hodge: So, gear funding is an iteration that came out of the CARES Act that was passed in order to respond to the global pandemic that is coronavirus. And there’s a lot of different funding streams that came out of the CARES Act. But there’s two that are pretty important to this conversation that we’re going to have today. And one of those is the gear funding, that is a governors-directed set of monies to be used to help offset the cost to parents, schools, public, private, and anything and everything in between for those that were impacted by coronavirus. And so the gear funding that we’re talking about right now is the governor share of that money for the governors to use as they see fit in their state. It’s a highly flexible account and it is meant to be used at the governor’s discretion.

Robert Enlow: So, what the federal government has done in a nutshell has given governors the ability to help private schools that are struggling through COVID, who are serving high needs children in many ways, but also all children. So that’s exciting. And we have some examples of some state governors who have taken the lead on that. And so Jordan, talk about Oklahoma and New Hampshire and how they put together programs for gear funding.

Jordan Zackery: Yeah, Robert. Like you said, Oklahoma and New Hampshire, they have both stood out in their efforts in trying to support students and families. During these times, and especially supporting private school choice. I’m going to start with New Hampshire. And in New Hampshire, Governor Sununu had announced that he has allocated $1.5 million of his gear funds to help fund private school scholarships. This will be administered through two nonprofits: the Children’s Scholarship Fund of New Hampshire and the Giving Going Alliance. One thing that the governor noted in wanting to give this $1.5 million to these organizations to help fund students and fund families is that these two organizations tend to serve a really high amount of minorities. And it was a big, important task for the governor to try to help not just minority families, but also all families with his actions and with allocating these gear funds.

Secondly, the next state that stands out and really stands out is Oklahoma. Governor Stitt has allocated 30 million of his gear funds to develop three programs that will benefit students and families. The three programs that they’ve put in place are at the Learn Anywhere program, the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet program, and the Stay in School Funds program. The Learn Anywhere program will provide districts and families with digital access across the K through 12 grades. The Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet Program will give $1,500 grants to more than 5,000 low-income families to help purchase curriculum, content, tutoring services, and technology. And the final program, which is a great program or private school choice is the Stay in School Funds Program.

The Stay in School Funds program will provide temporary funds to students currently attending private schools whose continued attendance has been threatened due to the financial issues that have arisen during the pandemic. So the priorities with these funds will be first to distribute to low income families who have suffered from job loss or financial difficulty. And more than 1500 families in Oklahoma will be able to access these funds, as soon as August 1, which was a couple of weeks ago, you could start applying for this grant. So Oklahoma and New Hampshire are doing really great things and hats off to their governors for deciding to use the gear funds in the ways they have.

Robert Enlow: So that is super to hear. We’re happy to hear Oklahoma and New Hampshire doing that. The Oklahoma program is pretty limited. New Hampshire’s is not small dollar, but they’re trying something. But we finally have, out of the great state of South Carolina, the Palmetto State, some real positive news about using gear funds, not just for smaller program, which is great. We love what Oklahoma and New Hampshire’s done, but for a much larger idea. So, Lauren, why don’t you talk about what South Carolina’s done?

Lauren Hodge: Sure. So for some real progress in the Palmetto state, we have leadership by Governor Henry McMaster, who’s coming out the gate with, I think one of the strongest plans that I have seen nationally on the use of gear funds. So going back to the initial kind of start of this conversation today, using only those funds that were directed to the governor in South Carolina, Henry McMaster has contributed, kind of earmarked out, $32 million for what he’s calling the Safe Grants Program.

That program is going to be eligible students from families that are low to middle income. So, anyone who qualifies would be a family that has a income at 300 percent of the federal poverty line in South Carolina. And it would give those families access to a school of their choice, including private schools and including independent and Christian schools. So this is a really big move by a state that we’ve been working very heavily and closely with for a number of years. You know all too well, Robert. And so, this is a big move by the Palmetto State. At $32 million, the maximum scholarship amount, $6,500 per child, there are many schools in South Carolina, private schools that have tuitions that are less than that. So, the way that they are planning to move forward is to have a first-come first-serve for a portion of those initial scholarships. And then they’ll determine how much funding is left for the remaining scholarships.

So it’s a really, really interesting program. It’s very innovative and the first thing that we’ve seen out of South Carolina along these lines. Unfortunately, it was announced on July 21, and on July 22, it was sued. A temporary restraining order, or TRO, was entered into the program. And it’s now being duped out by the legal warriors on all sides to talk through that program. And it’s being challenged over what appears to be a Blaine Amendment argument. And for anyone who follows anything with EdChoice, we know that the Blaine Amendment argument has recently had some victories of its own in the case of Espinoza. So we’ll be staying tuned and closely tied into the outcome of that case. And hopefully seeing what happens in the Palmetto State moving forward.

Robert Enlow: South Carolina, it’s a great step forward and always a little bit of a waiting game because they take things slower down there, but they’ve got some great leaders in the state that we’re happy to work with. But in the long, run we’re going to win. And the local folks who have been leading that effort and we’ve been happy to support them, they’re going to get out in front of all this. So that’s really exciting. Today, in the Education Next, Juliet Squire wrote about the perils of private schools in the futures are private schools. And the fact that they’re going to have a hard time surviving in this world of COVID and this world ahead. When it’s not just low income families, it’s a lot of families. If you have 40 million people unemployed now in America, that’s not including all the people who were actually out of employment and off the rolls. These are some significant issues that we face in this country and people can’t afford to pay for private schools.

Now, that’s going to be a question. The great thing about that is, every now and then, as Milton Friedman used to say, a crisis could produce real change. And so even the situation now with private schools is leading to a different delivery service. And it’s leading to a different set of innovations. And this is some of the most exciting stuff going on here right now, when in fact it’s not just about private public and charter schools anymore, it’s about what parents want and apparent options, and the new movement or the new part of this is a new delivery mechanism. And heck, it’s not even a new delivery mechanism.

It’s sort a new framework, it’s called a micro-schooling or learning pods. These have gotten a lot of news in the last month, in the last two months. We’re happy at EdChoice that we’ve been talking with micro-schools and about micro-schools for a long time. And our resident expert on micro-schooling is our Director of Policy Jason Bedrick, who’s going to tell us all about micro-schools, learning pods, and what we have done in Arizona. And then we’re going to talk about this really interesting thing that’s going on in Nevada. So, Jason, take it away.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you’re right. There’s been some major shifts. Private schools are struggling, especially because the families they serve are lower income and they’ve lost their jobs. We’ve seen more than 100 schools, I think closer to 150 schools nationwide, mostly Catholic schools that have already closed down due to COVID-19. On the other hand, I mean, anecdotally, I’m also hearing, especially through scholarship organizations that I’m in touch with across the country, that applications for scholarships are going up, that enrollment in a lot of private schools are going up, especially where public school re-openings have been delayed, or they’re only going to be doing half days, or a few days a week, or just distance learning. A lot of parents are really fed up with distance learning. And we’ve seen also homeschooling numbers just going through the roof. We don’t have numbers in every state yet, but the AP reported earlier this week that in Nebraska, they’re up 21 percent. In Vermont, they’re up 75 percent.

The National Homeschool Association said that last month, they had one day where they had more than 3,400 inquiries for information about homeschooling. Whereas before the COVID-19 pandemic, they average about five to 20 a day. And then especially in states that have a lot of educational choice options, we’re seeing some massive increases. So in Arizona in particular, new homeschoolers have tripled. Last year, they had about 320 new families homeschooling. This year, they had more than 1,000 new homeschooling families. And very similar numbers for ESAs. ESA is the Education Savings Account where our listeners probably know that whereas vouchers, you can just use for private school, the ESA you can use for a wide variety of things, tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online learning. Even if they are homeschooling, they are under a separate statute. So the homeschooling families and the ESA families are counted separately.

They also tripled, last year having about 300 and this year having more than 1,000. Likewise, there is massive increase in micro schooling, which Robert Enlow, as you noted, this is something that has been going on for years. There are a variety of definitions and debates over what does or doesn’t count as a micro school. But generally speaking, you have a small number of families that are coming together and pooling their resources in order to educate their children. I’ve heard of some micro schools that are as large as 150 students, but many of them are only about five to 15 students. There’s a chain in Arizona called Prenda. They have been growing leaps and bounds. Two years ago, they had seven students in one micro school. This past year, before the shutdown, they had more than 100 schools serving about 1,000 students. They have grown tremendously in just the last month. And actually, just the last 18 days, they had more than 1,000 students apply. They now have more than 3,000 students. So I mean just tremendous growth there.

With micro-schools, they pool their resources usually to hire an instructor. And in some cases, with the learning pods, the parents are actually teaching themselves. So either one parent is doing all the teaching or they’re taking turns team teaching the children. And they’re opening up in all different places. In many cases, the micro schools or pandemic pods or learning pods are opening up in living rooms or backyards. In some cases, at public libraries or public parks, restaurants that have been shuttered, American Legion halls, all sorts of places. There’s actually a group online on Facebook you can find called Pandemic Pods. And they just started a little more than a month ago. Last I checked, they had about 40,000 families that had signed up and they’ve spawned dozens of local chapters. So I mean, there really is tremendous interest in these new learning options.

Robert Enlow: That’s what’s super interesting about parents and families and want the best for their kids. They’re going to try and figure out how to do it. And in fact, there are a lot of low-income families who are now starting to homeschool. And in fact, they’re the fastest growing. And our poll that’s coming out on our morning consult poll found out that the demographic with the highest support for homeschooling since COVID has been African-American. They have a more favorable view than they’ve ever had before and it’s the highest of the favorability of the different demographics. And so there’s a lot going on and homeschooling and in micro schooling. This idea that basically, all the old ideas are good ideas in some ways.

These remind me of the Rosenwald schools that African-Americans led in the south for years. They remind me of the schools that were the one-room schoolhouses or the sort of itinerant teachers back in the day. Of course, nothing is perfect and we’ve got to always improve things, but this is a real sort of parent revolution where families are taking charge. And in one place where they really took charge was the city of North Las Vegas. I guess Las Vegas is known for taking risks and trying new things. And I guess the city of North Las Vegas decided it was time to weigh in, and they have decided to take micro schooling to the next level. Lauren, what are they doing?

Lauren Hodge: At least the first time I’ve heard, you’ve got the city of North Las Vegas who is actually allowing as a district micro schooling. And so what we really have here is innovation that meets parents where they’re at, meets the child where they’re at, pairing up with the district school, which is really exciting, allowing micro schooling options for as little as I believe, $2 a day, which makes it very affordable and something that can definitely translate to a vast majority of families in North Las Vegas. It’s offering spaces for kids to go and work on their district school assignments under supervision for under $20 a day. And I mean, when we looked at the cost of that, it costs more to get daycare for the public option than what North Las Vegas is doing. So we have a district who’s listening to parents, working with parents, putting their kids in the best situation they can be in as we all navigate a global pandemic.

Jason Bedrick: And actually, I should point out that there are some other districts around the country that are doing this sort of thing. I know that for example, the Commissioner of Education, Frank Edelblut, in New Hampshire, has called for districts to try to help organize micro schooling efforts. And I know also that the Boston Globe just reported that in Dorchester, Massachusetts, which is a very low-income community, a high minority, they had a grant of about $235,000 from the Shlomo Fund that has allowed them to help organize micro schools and learning pods that are completely free for residents of the district.

Robert Enlow: Yeah, it’s really interesting. The North Las Vegas effort is called the Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy. And its goal is it is an innovative approach to reverse the harmful learning loss of communities experience during COVID by offering children a micro-schooling experience tailored to their specific educational needs. My God, that sounds like Milton Friedman.

Jason Bedrick: This goes to show this doesn’t have to be a fight between public and private when it comes to innovation and when it comes to meeting the needs of families. If the district schools are not going to do it, then parents are going to go to the private sector and they’re going to build it on their own. I mean, we’re in this incredible moment where parents are taking their children’s education into their own hands. But that doesn’t have to be at the expense of districts. If districts decide that they want to get into this game as well, they can. And again, we’ve got these examples that provide a precedent for it. That the districts, if they’re listening to parents… And I mean, why is it that parents right now want it so bad? Our polling has showed we’ve got some great monthly tracking polls and also our Schooling in America Survey. More than half of families are very reluctant to send their children back to school because they’re afraid they could contract COVID.

And even among the minority that are more comfortable sending their children back, many of them are concerned about the way that the schools are handling COVID. So for example, they don’t necessarily want to send their kids to a school where they have to sit in a desk that’s surrounded by plexiglass, eat at their desk, not in the cafeteria, not have recess, be physically distanced from their classmates. They want their kids to be able to interact. But at the same time, they’re concerned about bringing them back home because most families report that they didn’t have a particularly good experience with distance learning. Or we should say, this is pandemic distance learning. I mean, this isn’t well thought out online learning. This was there was a crisis and people had to act fast, but there’s been a lot of research.

Kinsey showed that there are massive learning gains that students have had especially among lower-income and minority families. So they’re not particularly looking forward to having the kids at home and they also have to go back to work. And so they need childcare for their kids. And a lot of them, even the ones that are working from home, trying to work from all while managing all your kids, Zoom classes, is very difficult. So they’re looking for something. Micro-schools actually seem to provide a solution that meets all of these family’s needs. So first and foremost, it provides childcare, so for the families who have to go back to work, but also it can provide a high quality learning experience in an environment where kids can socialize and have in-person instruction, but it’s in a small environment so that the risk of exposure is very limited.

So this is something that parents obviously want during COVID-19. But I think that there’s good reason to believe that a lot of families are going to say, “Hey, we were only thinking about doing this temporarily, but this is something that’s really working for my child. My child is less stressed. My child’s happier. He or she is learning at his or her own pace. They’re learning things that they are excited to learn. They’re excited to go to school.” That’s what we found with a lot of families that had embraced micro schooling before the pandemic. So this actually could lead to a sea change in education. This means that the districts, when the pandemic is finally over, can either say, “We’re going to go back to doing things the way we did it before,” or they can meet parents where they are and continue to innovate and meet children’s needs.

Robert Enlow: Yeah. I mean, look. There’s exciting times going on right here. And back when I started a long time ago in 1996, I was excited by the idea of private school choice. And then I got on this idea that it doesn’t have to be about private schools. It has to be about families. And seeing this come to fruition, both in the way some of the governors are taking the lead in gear funding, and some of the way that micro schooling is popping up. We always said that the best way we would know we were successful in our organization was if this stuff starts to happen around us and we’re not driving it all. And I think that’s almost, we’re getting to a point here where you don’t always have to be out there fighting and fighting and fighting, because this is where innovation really takes off is when people start doing it for themselves.

And I think that’s one of EdChoice’s mottos, is making sure that we empower and enable families and organizations to do it for themselves so that it becomes something that gets stuck into not only their state, but their communities, so that it’s around long after EdChoice may be gone. So lastly, I will say that we have some legal issues out there right now in the states. And there are three lawsuits that we should talk about, like South Carolina, North Carolina, and sort of CARES Act. So, Lauren, as our resident state legal person, why don’t you take it away and tell us what’s going on?

Lauren Hodge: So, truth in advertising, as lovely Mike McShane always reminds us, definitely the go-to authority on this is Leslie Hiner from our office. So stay tuned for her legal updates podcast. Those will be far more in-depth, and those will be a deeper dive into these issues, but it is important as we look at what’s going around in the states to kind of also understand contextually where the lawsuits are and how they’re impacting the opportunities that parents and students have across the nation. So there’s three of them that we’ll briefly highlight. The first two are state-based lawsuits that deal with choice programs. So the first one I’ll turn to is North Carolina.

North Carolina survived a challenge to its Opportunity Scholarship Program. And it is now coming back for a second bite at the apple, and they’re doing an as-applied challenge to the Opportunity Scholarship Program. So for those of you not familiar with North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship, it is a low income voucher. And so North Carolina has had this for a number of years, it’s forward funded appropriation in their budget. And the challenge to the program is that as applied, it is lacking in terms of accountability and as applied, it discriminates against LGBTQ persons. So we’ll be following that litigation closely. The Opportunity Scholarship serves many families in North Carolina that are low income to empower them to have the opportunity to go to the school that works best for them. I believe there’s now over 500 schools in the state of North Carolina that are eligible to receive opportunity scholarship students. And so that program has been around for a number of years. So we’ll be watching that closely.

The second lawsuit that’s happening is if we go just one state south to South Carolina. And we mentioned this earlier in the podcast, but the gear funding program, Safe Grants, that was announced by Henry McMaster on July 21, has been sued. A temporary restraining order has been issued. So we will wait to see the outcome of that lawsuit to see if that program can get off the ground and actually be used for the school years which are rapidly approaching, if not already started in states across the nation.

The third lawsuit is a little bit more nuanced, and I’ll say federal, and its impact. And so when we started this podcast, I talked a little bit about the way that the cares act funding worked for K-12 education. And so one of those funding streams that talked about it was the gear act dollars. That was dollars to the governors to be used in ways that were highly flexible. As the governor saw fit to meet the needs of their students, their families, and their states. The second kind of funding stream out of that CARES Act is ESSR Funds.

And so ultimately the cares act appropriated about $16 billion in dollars for that. The United States Department of Education, so federal department of dducation, issued that these dollars were to be shared equitably amongst all students in public and private. EdChoice joined an amicus brief with a host of other organizations where that rule has been challenged. And so that’s out of the state of Washington. So stay tuned for updates from Leslie Hiner in our office about how that lawsuit proceeds. But ultimately, the question is when the U.S. Department of Education says that these dollars are to be shared equitably, how does that apply to the states and how are they distributed to make sure that all students, regardless of what sector of education they are in, are afforded the relief that the federal government intended when it passed the CARES Act?

Robert Enlow: Like always, progress gets started, and then we have to go to the court. So that is the way our unique governmental system works. Congress and legislators passed the law and the judicial systems determine whether they’re legal and inappropriate. So with most of the situations, we’ve always been victorious in the courts. We have great people out there leading the legal fight, Leslie Hiner in our office being one of them with our Legal Defense and Education Center. So look, I hope you guys in this podcast to realize that there’s just still a lot going on in states.

The federal government has empowered governors through gear funding to help out private schools and families as they’ve done in North Carolina, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. We know that those programs have had some challenges in the courts in North Carolina and South Carolina. And now we’re looking at a federal lawsuit that we’re trying to make sure that the states utilize the gear funding and the CARES funding correctly, and the ESSR funding correctly. But then the great news about the growth of micro schooling. The growth of this new idea, this growth of this parent driven, parent revolution schooling. And it made me think of something that I said to Derrell Bradford, our dear friend, Derrell Bradford today, as we should maybe end and wrap up this podcast is instead of thinking about schools, we should think about families.

And so really, a school is where the mind is. Wherever the child’s mind is, that’s where the school is. And so this idea that we’re following up on giving families that a child can learn anywhere. The child can learn everywhere. And that the setting doesn’t always actually make the learning. I think of Milton Friedman even said something to the effect of, “Not all schooling is learning and not all learning schooling.” And so this concept that we need to decouple the idea of place and learning is a super important one I think families are doing. So again, thank you all for joining us on our monthly state-based podcast. You can always download us at all of the regular podcast outlets. Go to edchoice.org and go to our ENGAGE to get us as well. So we really appreciate everyone and keep up the good fight out there in the choice world. Thank you.