Ep. 218: The Monthly Debrief – September Looking to October 2020

October 29, 2020

In this episode of our Monthly Debrief series, we discuss school choice happenings across America—from an uptick in micro-schools to a court ruling in South Carolina.

Robert Enlow: Hello, and welcome to another episode of our monthly state debrief podcast, where we go over all the issues in states related to educational choice and parent freedom. My name is Robert Enlow, and I’m the president and CEO of EdChoice. I’m joined by our illustrious state team members, Jordan Zakery, Lauren Hodge and Jason Bedrick. We’re going to be discussing what happened in the last month, related to parental freedom and educational choice. So I’m going to use my Dickens quote, because I’m going to show my age, because we were trying to go through the Urban Dictionary and there’s nothing that equals this that we could find. So maybe any listeners out there that can make us more hip, that would be great. Send us your ideas on how we could say things in a more hip and more modern way, that’d be awesome.

But school choice this month was a little bit like Dickens’ quote at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.” And so let’s go ahead and start with the worst of times, because I’m a guy who likes to hear the bad news first, and then I like to hear the good news. And hopefully, you listeners out there are the same way, you want to be done with the bad news and get to the good news as a way to end. So look, here is where the worst times came in. As everyone knows, the federal government has passed the CARES Act. And the CARES Act was intended to help schools and educational institutions handle the ongoing and persistent threats of the pandemic.

The CARES Act included a significant amount of funding for K-12 education that was broken out in two ways. One was called ESSER Fund, and sorry I don’t remember my acronyms, but it’s an emergency relief funds for schools. And the other was called the GEER Funds, which are basically Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Funds. Governors could use these funds for three purposes, to help the LEAs in their school districts to be able to handle the pandemic, to help higher ed institutions, and they could give them to educational entities. What some governors did, was to use those funds to create parental school choice programs through education savings accounts ideas. So states that have been doing that, I would include New Hampshire and Oklahoma and Florida and South Carolina and Idaho, and Texas is also considering one.

So these programs are out there. South Carolina created what they call the SAFE CARES Act or the SAFE Grants Act, and Lauren will be talking about that. And it was done by Governor McMaster. And typically, opponents sued. And so we have some updates about that and the news is not great coming out of South Carolina related to the SAFE CARES Act. Now let’s remember, folks, this is not state programs. This lawsuit was related to the use of federal funds to create state programs. And so while there’ll be impacts on states, this is about federal programs. So Lauren, why don’t you talk us through what happened in South Carolina. What the SAFE Grants Act is and was, and what the courts determined.

Lauren Hodge: Thank you so much. We have a little bit of disappointing news out of the Palmetto State. But in line with what the intent was with GEER Funds, that third category that Robert was talking about, providing grants to educational entities to be used to help offset the tremendous impact that COVID-19 has had on all things in every way, but that certainly includes the impact it has on children, education and the parents that are walking through this very uncertain time right now. And so in order to respond to that uncertainty and understanding the important role that all schooling types, private schools, micro-schools, home-schools play into the ecosystem that we have around education, Governor McMaster passed something called the SAFE Grant program, that would allow families to be eligible to get a grant for up to $6,500 per student to attend a school of your choice.

So those that perhaps maybe were impacted and lost their job during the global pandemic, could continue their child’s education where they were sending their child perhaps. Or perhaps that parent has to go back to work and the school isn’t open. Making sure that there was a school that could take those children and educate those children so that mom and dad could get to work. To be eligible for the program, it wasn’t open to everybody, it was open to those who were at 300 percent of the federal poverty line. And so really, it was a program that was geared to help the low-income, middle-income families that were disproportionately impacted through job loss and other things around this global pandemic. The program could have helped thousands of students potentially in the Palmetto State. And in typical fashion, it was announced and quickly sued.

So in its own history and in its own way, I’ll give a brief synopsis of what that looks like. The court case was filed in Orangeburg County and upon agreement of all parties, it went to the state Supreme Court. Unfortunately, as we have foreshadowed, it was a disappointing decision where the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the SAFE Grant program violated the South Carolina state constitution. Now, I think that there’s a couple of important findings we have out of that. One is what Robert foreshadowed, these are federal dollars that we’re talking about. So this is not the same type of program as an education savings accounts are in, let’s say, North Carolina or in Arizona. This is a federal funding line.

The second piece to be cognizant of, is that the holding was limited to these federal dollars and this specific program. So I think that there’s some pathways forward. It was a disappointing loss, and certainly disappointing that in a time of a global pandemic with tremendous economic impact, low and middle income families are not given the opportunity to educate their children in the environment that works best for that child. And that’s a disheartening time, but we don’t stay down for long, do we Robert?

Robert Enlow: Not at all. No, we don’t. And look, the other thing I think, it doesn’t close the door where we feel two programs in South Carolina that are funded through South Carolina and state dollars. But it does bring up a question. One of them is this, for those of us who’ve been involved in the education choice movement for so long and the parental freedom movement, the movement legally for the last 25 years has been about trying to secure a very simple understanding. Which we believe is constitutional, which we now know through Zelman and through Espinoza and through many other decisions that the United States Supreme Court has ruled on, is that when you give aid to families and truly private choice, it is aid to families and individuals, it is not aid to institutions. And so it’s an important distinction to make. And in South Carolina, the way that program was connected, it was seen it was aid to institutions, as opposed to aid to individuals.

The federal courts have always ruled in our favor recently in this way, not in the past, but in recent history of the United States Supreme Court, has basically said if it’s aid individuals, then no dollar crosses a private school barrier without the truly private choice of a parent. So, that’s something we know on the federal level we can certainly rely on. And at the state level, we believe that it could be constitutional. We’re obviously as an organization undertaking a legal review of that. But the news coming out from the SafeCare program in South Carolina is it’s not going to happen in the same way, they’re looking for ways to do it. Other States have done it through micro grants and micro schooling, giving parents more access. Remember the CARE Act says, you cannot give it to individuals, which is putting states in a catch 22, to entities but not individuals. And so it’s a problem.

When you think about federal again, be careful with the people you dance with, because sometimes it causes you to get your toes stepped on. And I guess in this case, this is where federal government may have gotten in the way. This is the bad news, right? That’s the worst of times, but it’s not the end of times. To quote one of my favorite songs of all times, “It’s not the end of the world as we know it. We still feel fine.” And so one of the things that’s happening, one of the exciting things that’s happening is, parents are taking charge of education. Parents, we’re hearing from new polling data, don’t want a return to normal. They don’t want a simple, “Let’s go back to school in the same way.” Particularly in the next year. They understand. They’re afraid of COVID. They’re afraid of schools and how they’re impacting certainly in certain communities. They’re certainly worried about it.

And so there’s this real bottom-up movement to try something different, to take charge and control. And so this rethinking education, this re-imagining the idea of how do we deliver education in a new environment where parents are frustrated, but also hopeful. Where they want their kids to have learning going on in a multiple and variety of settings. So, the good news is that we’re seeing a lot of movement related to micro-schooling on this. And even the New York Times who was not generally been a fan of parent freedom, is starting to come out for parent freedom, and we’re seeing some movement in states like Arizona. So Jason, why don’t you talk to us about Arizona, the New York Times and what we’re learning. And what our opposition at the NEA is saying about micro-schools.

Jason Bedrick: Sure. Well, we’re recording this on Wednesday morning, at least Arizona time, early afternoon, I guess, for the rest of you. And the New York Times actually came out with a piece this morning titled, “In Pandemic’s Wake, Learning Pods and Microschools Take Root.” Which was actually a very positive piece surprisingly, since the New York Times has had a number of pieces that were spreading and saying it was going to lead to inequalities. Spreading this myth that micro-schools cost more than $25,000 per year, which I’m sure some do. But if people at the New York Times are only talking to their friends living in Manhattan, that might be the case. But out in the real world and the rest of the country, that is certainly not the case.

And so I was gratified to see them blow this myth up. For example, the first person they cite is a woman named Juliet Travis in Portland, Oregon. And she said that her pod costs $40 per week, per child. So, that’s eminently affordable. And she also uses Outschool. Outschool classes costs $10 per class on average, and they even have a nonprofit arm that provides financial aid. It’s called outschool.org that provides financial aid to families that can’t afford that. They cited another micro-school a little later down in New Orleans, the NOLA Micro Schools founded in 2015, and their tuition is about $9,000 annually. They also offer a sliding scale of tuition for those in need. By contrast, on average, district schools in the United States spend about $15,000 per pupil. So these micro-schools and learning pods are, generally speaking, much less expensive than the district schools, or even than what you would find as a private school education in many cases.

So lots of innovative options out there. The secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is scheduled to make an appearance in Arizona tomorrow in our time. By the time our listeners are hearing this, this will have already happened. But she is going to be visiting an innovative charter school in Arizona, and there will be some micro-school families that are going to come give presentations to her about their experiences with micro-schools. Of course, all of this positive attention and the rise of micro-schools is creating a backlash among those who desperately want to maintain the status quo. The National Education Association has written up some opposition reports on micro-schools and on Prenda micro-schools in Arizona in particular. Prenda, listeners to the podcast may recall, is the micro-school chain in Arizona that went in just two years from seven students to almost 4,000 students, and from one micro school to nearly 400 micro-schools around the state.

And so of course, the NEA is looking at that and saying, “Well, wait a second. If parents realize that they can send their child to an environment where it’s low cost, or in some cases they can sign up through a charter school so that they can get access to a micro school at no additional cost, they can be in a small classroom environment and have a real tailored curriculum that they really enjoy and love, this might cause a major shift.” Parents might start flocking to this. And so the Wall Street Journal has picked up on this. You can see an article by Elliot Kaufman in the Wall Street Journal that was published in the print edition on Thursday and online on Wednesday that discusses how the NEA is seeking to block parents from getting access to these options. So parents just need to be aware that there are very powerful interests out there trying to come between you and the form of education that you want for your child.

Robert Enlow: So it’s interesting that we’re seeing people opposing the idea of what parents want. And I think we’re also at a unique time where we’re saying parents are taking it on themselves, and they’re finding low-cost ways to do so. And this is regardless… Low-income, high-income, parents are willing to spend money to do something more for their kids and are being taken seriously for the first time in many, many years, in my opinion. So, it’s great news coming out of the micro-school movements. Certainly Idaho’s program is going to be very interesting. Certainly the work we’re doing around the country, Jason, I know that you’ve got a paper out on micro-schooling, and I know our very own Mike McShane has got a book coming out on hybrid homeschooling here shortly. EdChoice has been out in front of this issue of giving parents more power through the idea of letting them go wherever they want. Our goal for a parent is to let them have the resources to go wherever they want.

Jason Bedrick: The paper is called Let’s Get Small. It was published last week with the Heritage Foundation, you can check that out. I co-author with Matt Ladner. I see Robert smiling, he might be the only one in this podcast who gets the reference. You get, “Let’s Get Small,” Robert?

Robert Enlow: What? Are we talking about Olivia Newton-John, are we?

Jason Bedrick: No, this is the Steve Martin comedy routine from the 70s. But one of the interesting things that we found, not only do parents love micro-schooling, but teachers really love micro-schooling. And we highlight the data from the national center for education statistics. They did a survey, not too long ago of teachers. And they found that only about 15 percent of teachers believe they have a high degree of autonomy in the classroom, and that the majority believe they have a low degree of autonomy. Among those that said they have a low degree of autonomy, almost two thirds said that they were dissatisfied with their job. And a micro school environment allows teachers to have a very high degree of autonomy.

So it’s not only good for families and for students, this is a real opportunity for teachers. They get into this profession not to make money; they get into this profession because they know that they love students, and they want to be able to teach students the way they want to teach them. micro-schools are an option that will allow them to do that. Before we close, I don’t know how many other items you have Robert, but I just wanted to note that in other good news, step up for students in Florida—

Robert Enlow: You stole my thunder, Jason.

Jason Bedrick: Go ahead then. You go ahead instead.

Robert Enlow: Jason, you stole my thunder. I was going to not only end on the positive, but a huge shout out goes to our friends in Florida who had Step Up, and all the schools there that are serving have now passed their millionth scholarship mark. So they have given a million scholarships to low-income and middle-income families to go to the school of their choice, that is a huge milestone. Jason, I appreciate… I wanted to make sure that we got that out. So you’re absolutely right, to end on this note would be great. And as we look at this at EdChoice is not just about private school scholarships, so we’re super happy that they pass the millionth mark. But now in America, because of micro-schooling, because of the opportunities in public schools, because of choice programs and because of charter schools, more families than ever are choosing the school and setting that works best for them. So, that’s a great step in the right direction. Jason, go ahead and talk about your friends in Florida.

Jason Bedrick: No, they’re great. And I just want to point out that just this year alone, they’re serving more than 140,000 students, so it’s really incredible. Every single year they are breaking records and they are by far the largest scholarship program in the country. And other states should take note because the research from Florida shows that all the doom-saying and predictions that you heard a decade, two decades ago, that this was going to destroy Florida school system, the exact opposite has happened. Not only are there more students going to private schools now, and these are very often very low income families. Last I checked, among the scholarship students the average family income was about $25,000 per family. So this is a very disadvantaged population, but the public school system has actually been improving over that period of time. And we have a number of studies that show that the areas of greatest improvement are those that have the most competition, meaning that the most number and diversity of private school options. So this is really a win-win scenario in Florida.

Robert Enlow: That’s super good to hear, and we know that there’s going to be more movement in the state of Florida and other states next year. And at a future podcast, after the elections, we’ll go over where we think there might be movement in the states, and what the election outcomes were and are, and what they mean to school choice. So with that note, I’d like to say thank you everyone for joining us for the monthly state debrief for educational choice. And we at EdChoice and our state team are grateful that you’re listening to us. And please do not hesitate to call or email any of us if you have questions. You can always go to edchoice.org. And you can obviously download the podcast at all of the many different outlets that we’re on. So thank you again, have a great day everyone, and here’s to more parent freedom.