Ep. 245: The Monthly Debrief – March Looking to April 2021

April 8, 2021

In this episode of our Monthly Debrief series, we discuss school choice happenings across America—including the first school choice programs passed in Kentucky and West Virginia.

Robert Enlow: Good afternoon, and welcome to our monthly state policy debrief. We’re going to be looking at what happened in March, which was an amazing month for school choice in America. And in fact, one of the best months ever for the issue of school choice and parental freedom in education. For those of you who don’t know, we’re already looking at four states that have enacted legislation, some of it very broad, some of it expanding their existing policies, and a whole host of states that are introducing and likely to pass policies related to school choice. South Dakota, for example, expanded its tax-credit program. Georgia just expanded its scholarship program to special needs students. And you’re going to hear from Jordan about Kentucky, and Lauren about West Virginia. On top of all that, we’re looking at so many states that are trying to get broad choice. And what’s really unique about this effort is, and what’s going on this year, is it is about broad choice.

It is about getting parents into whatever system works for them, regardless, whether it’s public, private charter, at home, or online. And so we really have moved from Milwaukee’s idea to Milton Friedman’s idea. And so it’s a unique time and I’m looking forward to having our team share with you what happened in Kentucky and West Virginia this year. So, we’re going to start with Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, the state south of our border here in Indiana. Jordan, talk a little bit about what happened in Kentucky and why that’s important and who is some of the big drivers.

Jordan Zakery: Yeah. So in Kentucky, it’s been a whirlwind of action recently. Kentucky just passed their first school choice program, and this is going to be a tax-credit-funded education savings account program. And they’ll be known as education opportunity accounts. Recently, education opportunity accounts passed into law by the governor’s veto being overridden. And it was a close vote, Robert. The vote was 51-42 in the House, and they needed 51 votes in the House in order to override the veto. In the Senate, the vote was 23-15. So, they met the constitutional majority threshold on both sides and were successful in overriding the veto. It’s a big deal for a lot of the groups that have been working in Kentucky—groups like EdChoice Kentucky, the Bluegrass Institute, ourselves, the Institute for Justice, Commonwealth Educational Opportunities, and the list goes on. But really the biggest influence has been the hard-hitting advocacy of parents on the ground. Making sure parents are reaching out to legislators and talking to them and letting them know that they’re looking for options for their children. That’s by far been the biggest impact on getting this program passed into law.

An example of that, which was one of the really big things that happened this week, was a show of support for legislators when many parents showed up at the statehouse and cheered them on in a rally. To rally for House Bill 563 and to rally for school choice in general. I really believe those organizations locally—the ones I mentioned—and the parents made all the difference in the world. Going into that veto override, they needed to have three more votes picked up on the House side and it happened. Right now, I know so many of the folks working on this piece of legislation are extremely happy and satisfied. I know the parents are happy, and it’s going to be one of the most expansive programs in terms of eligibility that we’ve seen around the country with 175% of free and reduced lunch households being eligible for this program. There’s still a lot of work we have to do going forward. But right now, it really is a big win for students in Kentucky.

Robert Enlow: So, Jordan, tell me about the actual policy. It’s a tax-credit funded ESA. The legislature took the bold move of overriding the governor’s veto, who basically said, “This little program is the end of public education as we know it,” right? I mean, so yet another example of you hearing policymakers saying the sky is falling and now 20 years from now, there’ll be saying the same thing if Indiana is any proof to it. And of course it won’t have fallen, but give us a little more information about what the actual policy is.

Jordan Zakery: Yeah, Robert. Specifically, the program is a tax-credit funded ESA, and it’s capped at $25 million. This program will be able to be used at private schools for tuition, or it will be able to be used for additional educational services—many of which we associate with an ESA. That could be tutoring, that could be curriculum, that could be additional textbooks and other services. Also, what’s really neat about this program, it’s not just available to students in private schools, but also available for students in public schools. So, it’s truly a program that’s going to be available to a lot of students from a lot of households, from a lot of different backgrounds. Specifically, the tuition aspect of it, it will be available for students in the largest counties of Kentucky. Those are counties with populations of 90,000 and above. So, going forward, they’re going to be able to start implementing the program in fall. Parents should be on the lookout and be ready for applications so they can start signing up for this opportunity.

Robert Enlow: So, one of the weaknesses I’m hearing you talk about it, while it’s a great program, it’s a great step in the right direction. You know, it’s a tax-credit cap of $25 million. And so that’s a great start, but that’s really not as broad as we’d like it, and it’s certainly limited by the amount of tax credits. But it’s a great program. It’s a great start in the Bluegrass State, a state that’s been fighting for choice for a long time. And frankly, we’ve been working there since 2005 and seriously working there since 2015. So, we’re excited by all of our efforts there and excited to see results and are proud of our partners at EdChoice Kentucky, and Bluegrass Institute and Commonwealth parents. And so we’re excited for all of that. And so it’s a great step in the right direction. And as Governor Daniels said to me in 2011 when we made the big voucher push in Indiana, “Enjoy your victory tonight. Tomorrow it’s time to implement it well.”

And speaking about implementing it well, and with fidelity, West Virginia passed something we’ve not seen before in this entirety of America, right? Just for everyone’s knowledge, there have been broad choice programs that have passed in America, but they have not actually ever been implemented. So, way back in the day in the state of Utah, we passed a universal sliding scale voucher. Every family would have been able to get a voucher to go to private schools—even wealthy families would’ve gotten 500 and lower-income families would have gotten more. That never got off the ground because it was defeated in a referendum vote. So that was the first one that passed. The second one was in Nevada, passed a universal ESA bill that applied to all public school students, that didn’t include existing privates, but it was a very broad program. And that program while constitutional, in its base form, right? So the state said that it was constitutional, found that the way it was funded was not constitutional. So while the program is legal and still sits on the books, I believe, possibly, there’s no money in it.

Now, we come to West Virginia, who on Saturday, we had Governor Justice sign into law a bill that basically allows everyone to choose. So I’m going to turn it over to Lauren Hodge, who’s been leading this effort, and thank you Lauren for all your work and tell us about it.

Lauren Hodge: Thanks so much, Robert. And it is a wonderful day to share with you a truly phenomenal program coming out of the Mountain State. You know, I’m sure this quote belongs to someone, but success is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and that is the story of West Virginia. There’s no secret sauce. There’s no shortcut. There’s no way to get around the work that needs to happen. And West Virginia put that work in beginning five years ago, six years ago, in 2015 is really when they started their educational opportunity platform and really working around the country. And so I’d like to start by just kind of sharing a little bit about the bill itself. It’s called the Hope Scholarship Program. It’s HB 2013, and the Hope Scholarship Program is an education savings account. And it is a pretty cool education savings account. It has 100% of the state per-pupil funding, as we would call it at EdChoice.

So that means the amount in the scholarship is equal to 100% of what that state is sending over for each student. Additionally, it’s eligibility is broad, which means that every single kindergartner in the state is eligible for the program, and every single child in grades one through 12 is eligible for the program as well. So long as they have a prior public enrollment of 45 days, or if they were enrolled last year, for at least one full instructional term. The really interesting thing about the West Virginia program though, was that that wasn’t enough. And I mean, that in and of itself is a very broad program, to include all kindergartners and all kids grades one through 12, with a public enrollment requirement… That would have gotten to nearly 90% of the population in West Virginia, but they went a step further, actually. And they said, hey, you know what? If in 2024, July of 2024, less than 5% of the public share of students who are in the program, then we will expand this program out, and it will simply be available to every single child of school age in West Virginia.

What this means, and where this is just truly trailblazing in the Mountain State, is that every single child potentially has the opportunity to simply be funded in West Virginia, to go to a school of their choice, to be able to say to child to child, family to family, our situation has changed. Our needs have changed. Maybe a child has a learning disability. Maybe a child needs a different environment. Maybe a child has simply a social-emotional learning need that needs to be met somewhere else.

And what’s very cool about the education savings account, is that we’re not just talking about private schools. We’re not just talking about a single use that you can go through and take these dollars to. It is an education savings account. And if you’re familiar with EdChoice, and you’re familiar with the movement at all, you know what that means. But for those of you who may not be as familiar, what that really enables families to do, is to take that share of the money, put it into an account and then use it the way that works best for that child. So, that means a child’s education can be entirely customized. Maybe they buy a couple of classes from the public school. Maybe they buy a couple of classes from a private school. Maybe they do an online curriculum. Maybe they have tutoring. Maybe they need special needs services. Maybe they need therapies. All of these really broad uses, and the bill itself covers an expansive list of uses, including certainly tuition, but also tutoring, fees for norm reference tests.

It includes tuition for online public school options. It includes tuition for alternative education schools, afterschool programs, summer school programs, educational services, and therapies, curriculums. And it also allows parents to use a portion of that money for fees, for transportation. Now, all of those expenses, all of those options have to be approved by the treasurer’s board, which is the way that the system was working in West Virginia. So it’s not that a parent can go out and just hire an Uber to take their child to school every day, unless Uber becomes an approved vendor by the treasurer’s board. And so there is a good amount of oversight into what those educational might look like, and what actually might happen.

So that’s kind of the nuts and bolts of the bill itself. The program per the bill needs to be implemented by July 2022. And so we will be kind of watching that, and as Robert has noted, now the work really begins. The fun work of trying to say, let’s implement this. But it is with excitement and wind in our sails that we look forward to working towards implementation of a broad and expansive program in the nation.

Robert Enlow: You know, you would think that West Virginia would be the last place you ended up having the broad choice. I mean, to be honest with you, if perceived reputations are to go by, but it’s really interesting how it’s come together, and how a group of committed people on the ground. I’m a big—this is a total dated reference—but I’m a huge Battlestar Galactica fan. Not the new one, but the old one. And so the starting of that whole theme is like, it’s a rag-tag fleet, and there’s something about that kind of grittiness in West Virginia that was there with a group of people that just sort of got together, and decided to make a dream come true as the song goes, right? So sprinkled a little stardust, got a major bill, so that’s exciting.

What do you think the next steps in terms of what needs to be done in West Virginia to make sure it’s done well, and implemented well, in your opinion?

Lauren Hodge: So, I think there’s a lot of exciting next steps. And I think the part that’s very exciting about it is because the program is as broad as it is… It is, as Robert, you refer to it often in the office, “blue sky thinking.” That is where we are at with West Virginia, we are under the blue sky. We are thinking about what next steps might be, and there are a lot of exciting next steps. I think an important one is education, right? And educating the public, educating schools, educating those education service providers, educating people who perhaps want to come into the Mountain State, now that there is this program. Letting them know that this program exists, letting them know what that means.

Definitely another logical next step is going to be watching how the rules and regulations around this program develop, right? So we’ve been in the movement for 25 years, we know there are certain things, certain rules and regulations that really stifle and stymie the ability of a program to thrive. So I think really watching those rules and regulations, seeing how they play out, so that we can give the best information possible in an education capacity to partners, to education service providers that wish to come in. I think those are two of the necessary next steps. And I think to a certain extent, one of the very important pieces about this, is going to be continuing to have conversations with West Virginians across the state about what education does look like. I mean, the one thing that we have all experienced from the global pandemic, and living through a year of unlike any other, right, is that education can be in many forms. Sometimes it forces us to be in many forms, but for a lot of parents across the country, we’re rethinking what is education, we’re rethinking how that delivery method is available.

And because this is an education savings account, because this isn’t just dollars to a school alone, I think encouraging parents, and challenging parents, and having those conversations across the West Virginia to say, what do you want your child’s education to look like? If you can close your eyes and you can say, what does this mean to you? How would you box up your child’s education? So I definitely think those deeper, more challenging conversations of just, what do you want education for your child to look like? And we can truly begin to ask that question with some delivery behind it now.

Robert Enlow: You know, I really appreciate hearing you say that for two reasons. One, even in a state like Indiana, where we’ve had choice for 10 years, and you would think it’s really well-known. Barely 30% of the people in the state know about the program. And so we have a lot of educating to do, both of parents and of schools and of the community. Because you got to make sure that people understand that. And those of you who’ve heard me say this a thousand times inside our office, I can’t wait until we get all this done like West Virginia is in every state, and I can become a parent social worker again, right? And just go door-to-door, and knock and say, “So, what’s best for your kid? What do you want to do? Here’s some options for you. What are you thinking about that?”

And that’s where I think we need to head in terms of how to help, how to come alongside families and communities and help them be able to pick the best education possible for their kids. So I tell you, it’s an exciting, exciting time. Let’s take a look a little bit ahead as we close up here. I mean, these two incredible victories right now that we’ve had, and the other two that we’re having, and then many more. Kansas has passed something out of the House and expansion. Montana’s on the verge of passing an ESA. So give me a couple, Jordan, states that you’re working in and Lauren, some states that you’re working in that can be looking ahead to April and May.

Jordan Zakery: Yeah, I think looking ahead to two months that are coming, I’m still seeing my states with active legislation, with opportunities to empower parents. Specifically New Hampshire, they were able to pass a really great and a really expansive ESA proposal out of their senate. We’re going to be following that closely. Missouri has tax-credit funded ESAs that have passed to chamber, and they’re in the Senate right now, awaiting further hearings. And Iowa is still working really, really hard on an ESA program. So, when we’re talking legislative sessions, we’re in the seventh, and eighth, and ninth inning and it’s crunch time, but we’re still in the game and we still have the opportunity to win in spectacular fashion. So everyone should pay attention to those states—New Hampshire, Iowa, Missouri.

Robert Enlow: Great. Lauren?

Lauren Hodge: I think for me, one of the places that I’m looking for possible opportunities are in those states that have the school choice programs already started and COVID has really pushed a demand for options. I think unlike any other time in recent history, and certainly since I’ve started working in the movement that I’ve seen.

So, one of the places I’m looking is to see what North Carolina does. They managed to get some additional appropriations into their programs. And of course, that appropriation model as we’ve talked about with EdChoice before, that holds some families hostage, right? There’s a wait list to get into those programs. There’s not the ability for every single child to be funded in the same way as some of these other programs we’re talking about.

So, I think that I’m definitely going to be looking at North Carolina to see if there’s interest, and they have a couple of bills there that they’ve considered previously. We’re tracking a few of them to see where they go, but certainly to expand some opportunities where, especially infrastructure and the supply side of education service providers, is already robustly developed. So I’m definitely going to be seeing what North Carolina does next. Fingers crossed, it’s been a good year for school choice thus far. I think that it is nice to have a little bit of sunshine after a very, very interesting and very tough year for families around the country. If we can get to a place where families really are empowered, and families are having the opportunity to educate their child in the best way possible, wouldn’t that be a beautiful gift out of a tough year?

Robert Enlow: I think that’s exactly what would be a beautiful gift. And as parents want sort of to mix, and go to hybrid and not just be about going back the way it was, there’s a lot more opportunity for school choice to come alongside families and serve them.

And I’ll just end as a homer in Indiana, we expect hopefully a very large expansion of our program here in the state of Indiana, in the Hoosier State. It might be that our basketball teams aren’t performing as well as they need to be at Purdue and IU, but clearly our school choice efforts should be having some successes here. We look to expand that existing scholarship program to allow for at least everyone to get a 90% scholarship.

And this is really important because you’re a middle-income family, which by the way means… you know who doesn’t qualify for a choice program currently in Indiana? A teacher and a cop, if they’re married. Or two teachers. I mean, it’s ridiculous. And so we want to expand it to include that kind of group of people. And in fact, we need to expand it. They should get 90% of instead of 50%. And so, I think it’s a big deal to allow parents to have more, typically low-income and middle- income parents, to have more economic power. So in the end it’s going to be out there as well. By the end of April, we hope, after they come close to the budget session finishing on April 21.

So, there’s just a lot of movement out there. Florida, let’s not forget Florida. Florida may make a major expansion to their program. There’s two bills working there, and it looks like there’s a lot of opportunity there. So it clearly is looking to be the year of school choice again. And we’re excited by that.

So, I’d like to thank everyone on our state team and on our EdChoice team, and all the groups around the country, and say we hope you enjoyed another podcast of our monthly state debrief. And we look forward to seeing you next month. You can download our podcast, obviously on all of the normal podcast places. You can certainly go to our website and download it as well. Again, thanks very much for joining us, and if you have any questions ever about what’s happening in states, please don’t hesitate to get our website and email Lauren, Jordan, Jason or myself. Again, thanks very much. Bye.