Ep. 225: The Monthly Debrief – November Looking to December 2020

December 3, 2020

In this episode of our Monthly Debrief series, we discuss school choice happenings across America—from a recent bill passed in Ohio to what parents are saying about education, as reported in our monthly EdChoice Public Opinion Tracker.

Lauren Hodge: Well, hello there, listeners, and welcome back to another Monthly Debrief with EdChoice, where we walk through what’s going on in the states. So thank you so much for joining us, as we near the end of this year. I am joined today with another state director, Jordan Zakery, and it’s going to be just a quaint, close, little podcast between the two of us today, as Robert and Jason, our policy director, are off in the many directions that life has pulled us, as we near the end of 2020. And so, really, regular listeners to the show know there’s not much that goes on in the legislature this time of year, so I’m going to kick it over to Jordan for the one state update we do have from the great state of Ohio. What do you have, Jordan?

Jordan Zakery: Yeah, Lauren, in Ohio recently, the House and Senate passed Senate Bill 89, which was signed by Governor DeWine. What that does, is it expands eligibility for Ohio’s income-based scholarship program, and that’s going to take the eligibility from 200 percent of the federal poverty line, to 250 percent. So what that’s going to equal to, is about $65,000 per a family of four. So the bill, what it also does is it changes the eligibility for the EdChoice scholarships, which have been based on whether or not a student was assigned to a low-performing district school. However, now students, if they’re assigned to a school in which about 20 percent of the student body is made up of Title I or low-income eligible students, and its academic performance was ranked in the lowest 20 percent statewide for the previous two academic school years, they will now be eligible.

Lauren Hodge: Great to know, and great updates from Ohio, as they continue, one of the really, kind of a legacy states in the school choice movement, who have really been pushing the needle around this issue for a number of years. One of the things that strikes me, 2020’s been a crazy year. I think we can all agree. For anyone who’s also listening, we wish you a wonderful 2020, but I think that it’s thrown some curveballs perhaps that we didn’t see, and I think one of those parts of just life that has been impacted the most in 2020, has been education. And I think as we look at the way that the pandemic has impacted education, one of the things that strikes me the most is that parents are really grappling with what my child needs, right? And how do we meet those needs, and understanding that the needs right now might look different than the needs that they had even last year. Right?

When we think about being remote 100 percent, when we think about equipping those children with special needs, when we think about just the social and emotional toll, one of the things that 2020 has really highlighted for me is the need for educational choice, and we knew that going in. I mean, it’s something that I think, Jordan, this has been a core mission for EdChoice. We all believe in this, but never have I seen more crystallized example of just school choice needed if for nothing else than to empower every child to be able to continue to learn during this very strange and difficult time.

And I think one of the things I’ve looked at, and I’m sure that you’ve heard stories in the states that you’re working in, but I think back to, I just had a phone call the other day with a parent from North Carolina, who’s just looking for options, just wants to know what’s on the table. What can I do? How do I stop the learning loss? How do I empower my child? How do I make it through this year, parents leaving the workforce, so that they can handle remote learning online? So many of kind of these challenges, and I’d be interested, Jordan, since you’re newer to the team, what has that impact looked like? How has that worked? What’s your take on this situation?

Jordan Zakery: No, Lauren, I think so much of what you said is true. I’ve gotten more calls, especially recently from parents and like you said, they’re looking for options, they don’t necessarily know what to do because we don’t know what’s going to happen with the pandemic. And as unfortunate as the pandemic has been, it has highlighted a need, and it’s created this conversation that’s very real and very serious, about needing more options, about needing school choice. So what I’m experiencing from talking to parents is that they want options, and they want to know how to get them. So many more parents are becoming interested on the issue of school choice during these times.

Lauren Hodge: Absolutely, and we have just been graced with the presence here of Jason Bedrick, our policy director, who’s now been able to join us on the podcast. And Jason, we walked through kind of the Ohio update and what had happened in Ohio, but we were just kind of closing out, as this is the last podcast of 2020, with kind of some lessons learned from the pandemic, what we’ve experienced in 2020, and where do we go from here?

And I’ll give you a moment to ruminate on that, but one of the things that we’ve seen through the EdChoice Public Opinion Tracker that we have online, is the thoughts of parents around education now have so drastically changed. I mean, even from what was the traditional, right? “I want my kids to be safe. I want my kids to be in a values-based learning. I want my kids to feel supported.” I mean, you now are contending with just, “I just want my kids to be safe, period. I want a school to be safe. I need to be able to go to my job. I need to be able to continue to provide for my family.” Those thoughts have become so much more complex, and just overwhelming at times. And so, as we think through why we’re in this movement and why we work the way that we work, I think that this is one of those really key moments in history where our work really matters, and empowering every family truly does have the ability to change lives this year.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s what we’ve seen, I mean, consistently, is that parents want choices, because different kids are in different situations. Early in the pandemic, there was a lot of concern about what is this going to mean for children? How contagious is it? How dangerous is it for children? We’ve gotten to the point where we see that for the vast majority of children, this is actually not a very significant risk. It tends to be a risk for older people, but transmission rates in schools have been quite low, children getting very sick from it, it’s usually in a case that they’re already immunocompromised. So for children that are immunocompromised and already have other medical issues that they’re dealing with, they certainly need some sort of learning environment where they are protected, or where they’re at home and they’re not around many other children.

But for most of the children, they seem to be okay if they are in an environment, even with lots of other children around, where there is some physical distancing, and masks, and appropriate precautions are taken, but we’ve also seen that if children are at home, many of them are suffering from depression, or anxiety, or just the learning losses are absolutely incredible. There’s a new report out just this week from NWEA saying that they’re seeing that kids tend to be dropping one quintile on average, in terms of their math instruction, and that this is probably understated, because a lot of children did not take the test this year, and it tends to be already the lower performing children that weren’t taking the test. So it seems that there have just been massive learning losses.

So parents are looking for a variety of options. They want high quality options, they want, if they can, to have their children to have in-person instruction, but again, like I said, there are those families that need to have their children at home or in small learning communities. So this is really the moment for educational choice, for us to provide families with a wide variety of options so that we can meet everybody’s learning needs.

Lauren Hodge: Well, and Jason, one of the things that has really stuck out to me, and I was reading, is all of the polling comes in, and all the tracking, and I mean, I feel like sometimes it is just day by day with the information that you are kind of getting flooded with. I think one of the pieces that struck me the most, was a third of parents don’t want to return to the new normal, when the normal does get there, and I think part of what this pandemic has really done is open parents’ eyes to education, open parents’ eyes, to how their child’s learning, right? When they’re sitting with them at the dining room table, when they’re watching them work through these processes, when they’re seeing where they struggle and really where they excel, I think that even as we look forward into 2021, there will be a new normal that comes out of this.

And I think part of what’s a really empowering piece of this is that parents are saying, “No, no, no, I want to control my child’s education. I believe that that my child can do this, or we need a different approach to this, or they need some support here,” and I think that it’ll be interesting to see what that new normal looks like as we hopefully, and eventually get there, right? And we can travel again and we can be together in person again, and we can do the daily things in life that just make it a little bit easier. It’ll be interesting to see what parents are looking for, and how this impacts education, just moving forward.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, and also from the policy side, we’re hearing that there are a lot of legislators out there that in the past, have not been particularly friendly toward educational choice policies, but who have been reaching out to some of our local partners around the country and saying, “You know what? Send us a bill. Send us an educational choice bill. We’re open to it this year,” because the pandemic I think has opened up a lot of their eyes to the necessity for many families of having multiple options. So I think that obviously, the pandemic has been horrific. We wouldn’t wish this on anyone, or wish to go through something like this again, but we may be able to squeeze some lemonade out of the lemons that have been given to us, if it means that we can find ways of empowering more families with educational opportunity.

Lauren Hodge: Well, and I think this really highlights what I find to be helpful in some difficult times, the underlying desire, no matter what political aisle or affiliation you have, or where you are in life, the joint desire to make sure that education and children succeed, right? And I think when we think about our mission and we think about how EdChoice is grounded, that fundamental belief that when we put the child at the center of education, that child is able to succeed, and the community is lifted up, right? We all win when children get the best education. We all win when a child is able to reach that full potential.

And even though we may not always agree, even though we may have different approaches, one of the things I do find as a kind of saving grace in this whole year, is that desire to rally around the child, and I think if we keep children at the center of that focus, we really have a chance to make some big leaps forward going into 2021. I think that as we close out this year, one of the things that I look forward to in 2021 is hopefully expanding these options, hopefully empowering more families, and hopefully making 2021 the brightest year it can possibly be, and to help kind of block out some of the darkness that this year has brought. Anyone else, wishes for 2021, as we look forward?

Jordan Zakery: Yeah, Lauren, I want a return to stability for families and kids, but I also, my wishes are that the bright note, kind of like how we’ve all touched upon, out of this pandemic, is that part of that stability and part of that comfort I want students and families to have includes school choice, as they’re seeing what their children need from at-home learning, or partially remote, or in learning pods and they’re experiencing new ways of learning, that those new ways of learning become part of the new norm, part of the stability going forward for families as they approach and think about education.

Lauren Hodge: Well, I want to thank you all for being a part of the podcast today. We wish you all a safe and healthy end to 2020, and we wish all the best things for 2021 moving forward, and hopefully it is a year of empowerment of families, empowerment of children, and really a year that can shine very bright. So from the EdChoice family to yours, we wish you a wonderful end of 2020 and a happy, happy new year.