Ep. 239: The Monthly Debrief – January Looking to February 2021

February 25, 2021

In this episode of our Monthly Debrief series, we discuss school choice happenings across America—from a possible expansions in Arizona to consolidating programs in Florida.

Robert Enlow: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Monthly State Debrief podcast, featuring your state team from EdChoice. We’re excited this month about what’s going on around the states, because school choice is seemingly everywhere. You can’t get away from the concept in states. While the federal government struggles on to get any kind of options on the table, states are blowing the doors off for the idea of school choice. And in fact, so many states are considering, that this podcast won’t have time to consider them all.

But we’re joined on this month’s podcast by Jason Bedrick, Lauren Hodge, Jordan Zakery, and, of course, my name is Robert Enlow. So welcome, again, to the Monthly State Debrief podcast, your place to get up-to-date information about what’s going on with school choice in the States. So we’re going to go ahead and start here, get you right off out of the gate. And we’re going to start with the wonderful state of West Virginia that Lauren is going to share with us.

Lauren Hodge: Thanks so much, Robert. And I hope for everyone listening in the Arctic vortex, snowpocalypse, whatever we call this, has dodged your home and that everybody is safe and warm. I wish that for all of our listeners. Pretty cold in West Virginia right now, so we are going to head there first, as we talk about House Bill 2013 that was introduced pretty recently, but it’s a very exciting bill. As it was introduced, it would enable parents in West Virginia and children in West Virginia who are either entering kindergarten or in first through 12th grade enrolled in public school to be eligible to receive what they’re calling a Hope Scholarship account.

Now this Hope Scholarship account is what we would consider an education savings account at EdChoice. It can be used for a variety of expenses that include certainly private school tuition, but that also includes homeschool expenses, that also includes virtual curriculum, that also includes being able to purchase public school services from the traditional public school. So, this very, very broad and expansive bill is moving quickly through the Mountaineer state and just recently was amended to potentially include all children in West Virginia beginning in 2026. So it’s definitely an exciting bill. If it did pass in West Virginia, it’d be the first school choice program for the state. I don’t know. What do you think, Jason? But they came out swinging for the first program in the state. As we’ll be watching that one very closely and keeping you up-to-date, but so far a pretty exciting start for the Mountaineer state.

Robert Enlow: Fantastic news in West Virginia that could become the darling of the school choice movement here in the next few weeks. Jason, what’s going on in your state?

Jason Bedrick: Well, as you noted at the top of the hour, there are just so many bills this year that we can’t possibly cover all of them. So I do highly recommend that our listeners go to our website, read the full blog post, if you want to get the full picture of what’s going on all across the country.

So I just want to highlight some things that are going on in three different states. First of all, in my adopted home state of Arizona, there are a whole bunch of bills that have been filed and that are moving through committees. It’s a very exciting time right now. Bills to expand various tax-credit scholarship programs and to expand the education savings account program. All of those, the largest is SB 1452. This would add a new category of eligibility to the state’s education savings account program, also called here the Empowerment Scholarship Account, that would allow low-income families or families whose child is assigned to what’s called a Title 1 school.

Now Title 1 schools are schools that under federal law get some additional support because of the high percentage of students who are from low-income families that are assigned to that school. One of the things that this does, is it makes it a lot easier for low-income families to qualify. Because if they are assigned to one of those schools instead of having to go through an onerous income verification process, all they have to do is show their address and then they can skip the income verification. So that’s a lot easier, it reduces the burden of paperwork on low-income families. And it looks like between 70 and 75% of students in the state would actually qualify under this expansion. So that has actually passed the Arizona Senate, and was sent over to the Arizona House. So we are looking forward to making progress there.

Another state where things are moving is Kansas. They’re considering both an ESA bill and a tax-credit scholarship expansion. Right now, they have a tax-credit scholarship for students that are assigned to low-performing schools. We’ve talked about some of the issues with that model in the past. They are changing the eligibility structure for that program, so that low-income families would qualify, and the Kansas Senate has passed that bill. And there is a companion bill that has passed in the Kansas house education committee. So things are proceeding very nicely there.

Lastly, I wanted to highlight Florida, because Florida has five different educational choice programs. They’ve got a special needs ESA, they have a special needs voucher, they have a low-income tax-credit scholarship, a low-income voucher and a tax-credit scholarship for students who have been the subject of bullying or abuse. What Florida is doing is they’re taking these five different programs and they are consolidating them into two Education Savings Accounts. One for students with special needs, one for a low and middle-income families and those children who have been subject to bullying.

So it’s going to be a lot easier for those families to navigate the system, because they’re only dealing with two different programs. And it means that really everybody in that state is going to have access to education savings accounts, which means that they’re going to have a much greater degree of freedom and flexibility to customize their child’s education. If that bill does pass… It’s already moving through the committee system right now, it’s pass the Senate education committee. It’s SB 48. If that is adopted, they will skyrocket to having by far the most students on an education savings account anywhere in the country. There would be more than 150,000 students that are on the ESA in Florida. So, very much looking forward to that.

Robert Enlow: That is fantastic news about Florida. The idea of consolidating programs and putting them into a better, more effective mechanism for parents, it’s fantastic news. Great to hear. Last but not least, let’s talk to Jordan Zakery. What’s going on in a couple of your states, Jordan?

Jordan Zakery: Sure. Like Jason said, choice is all over this year. And I wish we had more time to go into all of our states, but the two that are really sticking out to me are New Hampshire and Iowa. Parents in both states, they’ve been vocal for more choice. Both of these states currently have programs, but currently their legislatures are considering education savings account programs. In New Hampshire, earlier in January, they introduced House Bill 20. And what that would do, would introduce the Richard Dick Hench education freedom accounts. Like Lauren mentioned, these are what we would call education savings accounts at EdChoice.

Currently, the education savings account proposal sees the bill having nearly a universal eligibility. On top of that, the bill includes private school students as well, and that would be current private school students. They would have access to an education freedom account. These freedom accounts, they would be able to be used for tutoring, tuition, textbooks, curricular materials and much more.

The current status of the legislation has seen the education freedom account bill be introduced to the house education committee for two hearings. Currently, it is awaiting a vote on an amendment and for the bill itself by the committee. After the committee process is complete, it will move on to the floor for a full vote. But right now, Granite Staters are really, really enthused about the prospects of having an education savings account, and this is going to be a bill to watch going forward.

And Iowa, another state that’s seeing choice being brought up and discussed more. Currently, you have Senate File 159 that has been not only introduced past the subcommittee and the House Education Committee, it has also made its way to the Senate floor in Iowa, and it passed by a vote of 26-21 out of the Senate. This piece of legislation is an omnibus bill. So what that means, it has several education related issues all into one bill.

As part of this omnibus bill, there’s various areas of interest if you’re into school choice, particularly the education savings account side of things. There’s also other portions of the bill that deal with open enrollment and tuition and tax credits. Senate File 159 introduces student for scholarships. These scholarship would serve children in school districts designated for comprehensive support and improvement under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Currently, the bill itself is awaiting its first committee hearing in the House. And at EdChoice, we’re extremely excited that it’s got this far and we’re really looking forward to following this bill and seeing where it’s going and what its next steps will be throughout the legislature.

Robert Enlow: That’s great news, Jordan. From sea to shining see, really as it were to do it, right? In fact, I was on the phone in New Mexico. They’re trying to do a constitutional amendment to allow for private choice, right? So from New Hampshire to New Mexico, from Texas to Indiana and Iowa to Florida, all the way over to Montana. This movement is just finally catching the kind of heat and light that it has been gathering momentum for such a long time. 2011 was seen as the year of school choice and 2021, 10 years later, may even surpass that. We don’t know, but this is really exciting. And we can’t wait to share with you hopefully by next month some real growth.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. And I would just add Robert, that not only are we seeing a greater quantity of bills this year than we’ve seen in years past that we’re seeing a greater quality of bills. So whereas a decade ago it was the year of school choice, this is the year of educational choice. More states are pursuing, instead of vouchers or traditional tax-credit programs, they’re pursuing education savings accounts that again, provide a much greater deal of flexibility for parents to customize their child’s education. And they’re going much bigger in terms of eligibility. Even the low-income programs have much higher incomes, so that it’s low and middle, really. You’ve got a lot more states like New Hampshire, like West Virginia, that are pursuing universal programs. They’re going a lot bigger and bolder. And I think, Robert you’ve also got some news from Indiana.

Robert Enlow: Thanks for asking me that, but I hadn’t thought about saying that. Indiana was the hero of 2011. Governor Daniels passed the Choice Scholarship Program among a whole host of other reforms, which at that time created the largest scholarship program in the country, single scholarship program in the country. And so where would we go from here, right? So, this year what’s happened in Indiana, the House of Representatives yesterday passed a HB 1005 by a very large margin, 61-36. And HB 1005 expands the existing Choice Scholarship Program. Right now, the Choice Scholarship Program is for people who are low and middle income. As I recall, it’s 150% of free and reduced-price lunch. That’s the eligibility limit now. And if you’re poor, it gives you a 90% scholarship, and if you’re working poor, it gives you a 50% scholarship.

So, what HB 1005 does is basically says, “We’re going to increase the income eligibility to 300% of free and reduced-price lunch, and we’re going to make every scholarship worth 90%.” This is amazing purchasing power for low- and middle-income families that will give them opportunities that they’ve never had before. And at the same time, it also creates a new education savings account program for children with special needs, children from military or reserved families, and children in the foster care system. So, Indiana is also coming back 10 years later and making a huge gain and huge momentum. And now it goes onto the Senate and we hope it will get through there.

So ladies and gentlemen, you’ve heard it from the state relations team at EdChoice. There is a lot of movement. In fact, so much movement that my dear friends, Jason and Lauren and Jordan, said they’re tethered to their computers all day every day. And that’s how fast it’s going and how the fast pace is, and so that’s exciting. We’re happy to be part of that, we’re happy to make sure that we help educate the public to understand why these changes are needed.

So that is our Monthly State Debrief. For those of you who want to learn more, please download all of our podcasts on various podcast platforms and go to our website, edchoice.org to make sure you get the most up-to-date information. So again, thanks for joining us. Thanks very much onwards and upwards with school choice.