Ep. 259: The Monthly Debrief – June Looking to July 2021

July 30, 2021

In this episode of our Monthly Debrief series, we discuss school choice happenings across America—focusing on the wrap-up of this year’s legislative session.

Jason Bedrick: Hello. And welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your temporary host, Jason Bedrick, the director of policy here at EdChoice. This is our monthly state debrief podcast, which is usually hosted by our CEO, Robert Enlow, who is out today. So I’m joined just by my colleague, Jordan Zakery, who’s one of our directors of state relations. And we are finally at the end of the legislative session for the year. So there may still be some special sessions that pop up from time to time, but finally, all of the legislative sessions are done.

As we’ve mentioned a number of times in this podcast, this truly has been the year of educational choice. We had more school choice bills passed than ever before, and again, not just school choice, but educational choice—education savings accounts that empower families to truly customize their child’s education and recognizes that education doesn’t just take place in a traditional classroom. To recap, we had 18 states pass seven new educational choice programs and 21 expanded programs. So it really has been an incredible year. Jordan, why don’t you update us with what happened in Missouri?

Jordan Zakery: Sure. So this month in Missouri, it was signed into law, Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Now, these are tax-credit funded ESAs, and this is the first school choice program in the state’s history. So that is a wonderful accomplishment. And I just want to talk a little bit about what the program actually is, and what it’ll offer to families and students. So just to start, the eligibility for the program, you have to be from a charter county or cities with more than 30,000 residents. As far as a prior public requirement, it could be one month out of the previous 12 months that your student is enrolled in a public school, or there is no prior public requirement if they’re just starting kindergarten or first grade.

As far as going into what qualifies you, you could either have IEP, or you could come from a household under 200% of the federal free and reduced lunch standards. So, to give you some context, that is around $98,000 for a family of four, and this has given priority status. And then additionally, I want to talk about some of the parameters of the program. So with the program, it’s currently sitting at a $25 million dollar cap, but one thing that is good about this is that it can be adjusted for inflation. One good thing also is that the credit value for donors is 100%. For the specific amount of the scholarship, you’re looking at about $6,300, and that equates to 52% of the per pupil funding spent by the public schools.

We would like to see that improve, but that is actually pretty decent for a lot of other tax-credit funded programs. One good thing that’s parent friendly with the program is that they distribute the scholarship accounts quarterly or in a lump sum upon the parents request. So, parents have some flexibility when it comes to accessing their funds and being able to use them when they would like on the items that they need. I want to talk about some things that could improve this program though. And while we’re all ecstatic that this program is being passed into law, it can be made better.

One, just the general concept of more students needing access. And what I mean by that is that it would be really, really important in subsequent years to remove the geographical limitations on this program, and make it accessible to students everywhere in the state of Missouri. Another thing is raising the cap, getting that $25 million dollar cap up. So that way there will be no issue of potentially running out of funding for students who are applying for this scholarship. Another thing is just increasing eligibility through other routes.

I think also one goal for Missouri that would be great is that long-term work this towards a publicly funded program. But for now, this is a really, really big accomplishment for the state. And I just want to give a big congratulations to all the people who have been working tirelessly on the ground in Missouri to make this happen, and a big congratulations for the parents and the students who will be able to benefit, and give their children the type of educational options they’ve been looking for. Jason, I want to go ahead and hand it back to you, and you can tell me about some of the last updates you’ve had during the end of session.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. Well first, I just want to say, and congratulations on Missouri, because that state has been like Lucy and the football, every single year coming up with something, and it just didn’t happen. But I think that’s actually one lesson that we should take from this session that advocates around the country should learn is that these bills aren’t passed overnight. Right? It takes many, many years of disappointment before you finally have a success.

And we’ve seen that this year, Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, these are all states that just a few months ago did not have a school choice program, where advocates have been working tirelessly for many, many years with little to show for it. And then the opportunity presents itself, and they were able to pass something. And look at some other states that had let’s say a similar political dynamic, and similar dynamics let’s say during the pandemic, but didn’t pass anything, because they didn’t have that coalition that was already on the ground that had been for all those years. So they weren’t able to seize the opportunity to actually make progress for families in their state.

So don’t lose heart if you’re out there fighting, and you lose one year, and you lose the next year, and you lose the year after that, because you are really building towards something. As far as my states, I think the biggest win in the past month, definitely that would go to Ohio. So, congratulations to our friends at School Choice Ohio and the Buckeye Institute and all the others that were working to make that happen. In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine signed HB 110, which increased funding for all five of Ohio’s voucher programs, and actually created some other programs, which we’ll get into in a minute. The EdChoice in Cleveland scholarships were increased to $5,500 per pupil in grades K-8, and $7,500 per pupil in grades nine to 12.

It also included scholarship eligibility to include siblings of current scholarship students, as well as children who are in foster care and kinship care, and students who are entering ninth grade. So they are able to not only increase the funding, they were able to increase the eligibility as well. They also created a new tax credit scholarship program that is funded by contributions from individual taxpayers for up to $750 per person. And anybody in the state is eligible for a tax-credit scholarship from one of their scholarship granting organizations, although priority must be given to children from low-income families.

They also created a few other programs. There’s now an individual tax credit for homeschooling expenses, and also for students who are attending what are called non chartered private schools in the state of Ohio. Those are schools that aren’t otherwise eligible to participate in the voucher program. They even created something there they’re calling ACE education savings accounts. These are not education savings accounts by EdChoice’s definition. In order for it to be classified… And this is a been an ongoing discussion both internally and with a bunch of our national and state partners, what is the platonic ideal of an education savings account?

For us, basically it has to tap into the public funding that is otherwise allocated per pupil for K-12 education, and it has to do two things. One, there actually has to be an account that allows families to save the money from year to year. That makes it a savings account. Right? And two, it has to be used for a wide variety of purposes, not just private school tuition. So what they created here, we’re calling a micro grant. Others may have different names for it, but in Ohio families under 300% of the federal poverty line are now eligible for a $500 grant or after school expenses, summer expenses, things like that.

So, it’s not exactly for the K-12 education, but it’s sort of let’s think of it as something that’s supplemental. So they made some progress there. Another state that has made some progress was Arizona. They increased the tax credits for Lexie’s Law for disabled and displaced students. Those are students with special needs, or students who were adopted through the state foster care system. There’s now a million dollars more, so that should serve hundreds of new children participating in the program. And very importantly, Arizona did not get an expansion to their ESA this year, but they did get a number of very important technical modifications to the program that is going to make it much easier for families to participate in the program.

So, for example, instead of having to wait 100 days in a district school for being eligible to get an ESA, which means that’s more than one semester, it’s one semester and then into the next semester, so essentially two years. But with the new law, they cut it down to 45 days. So that’s just in one single year. So that’s very useful for families. If they see that after 45 days, it’s just not working, then it’s a lot easier for them to get an ESA, and you’ll find something else that is working for them. We, of course, would prefer that they eliminate this requirement altogether, but this is certainly a step in the right direction.

There was also some cases where families, let’s say they were a little confused about what was an eligible expense or not, so they weren’t committing fraud or anything, but let’s say that they went to a vendor that sold both eligible and ineligible items, and they purchased things like art supplies, or pens, and paper, or other consumable goods that were clearly meant to be used for educational purposes, but that they made a mistake, those actually aren’t covered by the ESA. Previously, they had to pay back the state, and they’d lost that money, but that was not the intent of the legislators who crafted the program. So they have now clarified in law that if there is an honest mistake, they have to refund their own… They have to pay out of pocket. They can’t use their ESA funds for that, but that money goes back into their ESA.

And there are a few other things that they’ve done just to make the program a little bit more family friendly, to make it clear what things are and are not eligible. And they brought in sort of the eligibility categories for what you can spend the funds on, which is very helpful. So I’ve spoken to a number of ESA families in Arizona. We’re very excited about these changes, because it’s going to make it easier for them to use the accounts and provide a high quality customized education for their children.

So, Jordan, just looking back and reflecting over this past year, we talked about some lessons earlier, one is don’t lose heart. You’ve got to be in it for the long term, and you could have years of disappointments, and then that leads to a victory, eventually. Are there any other lessons that you take from the legislative session this year?

Jordan Zakery: Yeah. The big thing, and you covered it a little bit, is just the power of a strong coalition, the power of having parent advocates ready to roll. And like you said, when you look at this year, it was the states that have been building that foundation for several years that were ready to strike when an opportunity came. And that’s the biggest thing that I’m taking forward going into the following years. Maybe every year is not going to be like this year. Maybe we won’t see an abundance of programs being passed, an abundance of expansions, but we can constantly build. We can constantly move ourselves in the right direction.

And I was just so impressed about how our local partners stepped up to the table, and it showed that they’ve been prepared. And then also in some of the states I’ve worked in, I think about New Hampshire as one of them where there’s just parents speaking out, having a voice. So the biggest thing I could take is that parent voices really, really matter. I mean, there’s value to a great under the dome effort, but if you don’t have the parents showing up, pressing their legislators, being loud, being active, it’s really hard to get robust change in a state. So the biggest thing is, do not discount the power of parents, and then do not discount the power of preparation. So that way, when the moment comes to strike, you can strike and could have wonderful outcomes like we saw this year.

Jason Bedrick: I think that’s 100% right. The parent voice is absolutely essential. We talk a lot in the movement about the opposition from the district school establishment. Right? And there’s a whole bunch of different organizations, and they’ve got their lobbyists, and they can be very powerful. They’re very coordinated. They’re very organized. They’ve got a lot of money, and they’re very effective at blocking reform. Legislators are interested in hearing from advocates like us to an extent. Right? In other words, if their heart is already in it, and EdChoice or some other group has a white paper or some report, they want to make sure that they’re passing something that is going to have a positive effect. That’s not going to destroy the public school system. That’s going to lead to positive outcomes. That’s going to lead to higher parental satisfaction, higher graduation rates, higher test scores, all these sorts of things.

And we can provide them with the data for that, but that can help change minds, but it doesn’t help change hearts. Right? What really matters is the parent voice. And we heard this over and over from legislators this year, who in previous years just weren’t there. There were no votes, or maybe they abstained, but they wouldn’t vote for school choice, because they had all these various lobbyists, the superintendents, the teachers unions, and whatnot in their ear saying, “Don’t vote for this, we’re against this.” But the legislators have changed their minds this year we’re saying, “You know what? We heard from so many parents, so many constituents saying, ‘This just isn’t working for us right now. We need alternatives. We need options.'” That is what changed their minds.

Really what changed their hearts was hearing from the parents. The parent voice is absolutely essential. So I think that’s got to be one of the main takeaways that we as a movement should have from this legislative session. And we should continue to help support families, support parents, make sure that their voice is being heard, because ultimately they’re the ones who are taking care of the children that this entire system is designed to support. So they have to be a key, even the key, element here.

Jordan Zakery: Jason, I couldn’t have said that better, and that’s true. That’s why we do this. We do this for them. And if they’re not a key element, we’re not doing this right. And like you said, it was done right this year, at least from what we’ve heard from a lot of legislators, that the parents changed their hearts. I don’t think what you said could have been said any better.

Jason Bedrick: Well, this has been a fantastic year. We are looking forward to shifting now from the legislative phase to the implementation phase, helping all our state partners set up the scholarship organizations, make sure that the rules and regulations promulgated by the various state agencies that are going to be overseeing and running some of these scholarship programs and education savings account programs are designed properly. There’s a lot of the behind the scenes work that doesn’t really make the papers, but is absolutely crucial to making sure that these programs work well for families. We will be turning our attention to that. So I’m not sure what sort of updates we’re going to have for you next month, but it’s been an incredibly exciting year, and we of course are very much looking forward to building on these successes, and we will keep you, the listener, apprised of what we’re up to. So thanks for tuning in, and we’ll catch you next month.