Ep. 341: Monthly State Update – September 2022

September 16, 2022

The EdChoice state team gives the listeners an update on some implementation issues in Oklahoma, legislation updates in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire and the results of the Nation’s report card.

Jordan Zakery: Hello, listeners. Welcome to another EdChoice State Team Update podcast. We’re here today with our policy director, Marc LeBlond. We also have Ed Tarnowski, and we have the newest member to our state team, out of Oklahoma, we have Caitlin. Caitlin, can you go ahead and introduce yourself to our audience and just tell them a little bit about you?

Caitlin Lee: I am Caitlin Lee. I am the state advocacy director, and as Jordan said, I live in Oklahoma. I will be covering the western side of the United States, and I’m excited to join the team. I came from the House of Representatives, worked on staff there. I’m also a former public school educator, so I’m familiar with education and actually was a big proponent of choice even long before I had children of my own and before joining the team. So it’s something I’m very strongly a believer in.

Jordan Zakery: Well, Caitlin, I think you have a lot of awesome background that can add to our team, that I think coming from the experience of teaching but then also having the political experience, it’s going to be wonderful to see what you can do in Oklahoma and the other states that you’re going to be working in. So for our listeners, just be ready to hear wonderful updates from Caitlin going forward on her work. I want to go ahead now and turn it over to Marc first, and I want to get some commentary from our policy associate about the release of the new NAEP scores. Marc, what are your thoughts?

Marc LeBlond: Thank you, Jordan. Appreciate it. Well, we are just exiting Labor Day weekend, and EduTwitter, the edu sphere generally is all a buzz with the NAEP scores. NAEP just released on Friday, their long-term trends report. Now, look, anybody who’s listening to this podcast knows what NAEP is, but for the listeners, we’re talking about the Nation’s Report Card, formerly titled National Assessment of Educational Progress. Now, I’ve got to be honest, I’m not going to sugar coat it. This was discouraging news, Jordan, discouraging news for minorities, discouraging news for kids who were already in the lower 25% of achievement. We also saw some regional effects, that were still parsing out the northeast of the United States, got clobbered generally. The suburbs also got clobbered, so we’re still looking into what that means exactly. Stay tuned on the EdChoice blog. We will be posting something shortly for it.

But the long and short of it is, look, Black students in the United States lost 28 years of NAEP progress. This is an emergency. Hearkening back to 1983, a nation at risk, we have got to do better for all kids. We’ve got to do better for these kids who were negatively impacted over the last two years. So what we really need to do as far as solutions goes, we need to empower parents. We need to empower children so they can attend a school of their choice, inject some flexibility into the market. We’ve seen that where flexibility exists, where choice exists, like in Arizona, like in Florida, the market responds to that, and that’s what we need to do urgently for these kids.

Ed Tarnowski: Yeah, absolutely, Marc. I think these numbers just confirmed what we’ve known for quite a long time, that the response of the pandemic had devastating effects on learning loss in children across America. As Marc mentioned, students have lost years and years of progress in education, and something needs to be done to get America’s kids back on track. As you know, we believe the answer is more choice.

Jordan Zakery: I think that’s a really, really good point, that choice can solve a lot of the issues within our education system. Thankfully, students are getting more choice, and our society, the hearts and minds of people have been opening up more and more. Speaking of choice, and while typically EdChoice has been in the private school choice space a lot, we believe in all choice is good. Caitlin actually has an update out of Oklahoma on open enrollment and specifically some of the obstacles with implementing open enrollment in Oklahoma. Caitlin, could you give us the low down of what’s been happening there?

Caitlin Lee: Yeah. So this past year, the legislature passed open transfer, allowing students to transfer from one public district to another, and requiring that public schools post in their website the available seats in each grade and within the school district. The idea being that sending districts could no longer block transfers and that a student would no longer have to receive the permission of their sending district to go to a new district. There were still, of course, exceptions that the receiving district could prevent for certain reasons, but the idea being that parents could choose to send their students to new districts that worked with their family. Now those numbers, though, they’re saying that they’re keeping the numbers artificially low, and there’s been a lot of skepticism about districts not reporting the numbers accurately on their websites.

Classrooms were already overcrowded. Being a teacher formerly myself, I had classrooms where I had 37 kids in one hour, and eight in other. It’s hard to say that you have room in your seventh grade class when you have teachers teaching 37 kids in one math hour. So you don’t have room for those transfers. The only districts that have room to accept kids are your inner city schools, and I don’t know of many parents that are trying to necessarily transfer their kids into those districts. Most of the time those are the districts that parents are trying to transfer their kids out of and are trying to get them into the smaller schools, or the more desirable districts a lot of times. Or you’re in rural districts and it’s just a better district for whatever reason because it’s close to the parents’ work, or it’s the district that has the sport that they want or the activity they want. It has the FFA program or the 4-H program, whatever the case may be.

So you’re seeing now that the receiving district is saying, “Oh, sorry, we don’t have any seats.” And they may have, in reality, room but they’re reporting that they don’t. So open transfer is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not offering the choices that they were sold that parents would have. So now I’ve heard quite a few people saying unless we force it, and administrators are saying, “No, you’re going to take the kid and you’re going to have to figure it out. Take the kid. Take the money. Hire more teachers,” which if you’re going to do that, let the kids go to private school and closes some public schools down or whatever it is. I mean, figure it out. I’m not sure what they’re going to do with that. I’ve heard more and more criticism of it lately, but I think it’s hitting close to home that they weren’t given what they were sold necessarily.

We’ve also noticed that enrollment this year, we’re a few weeks into school, and they’re reporting those numbers back to the State Department now, and enrollment is still down from pre-pandemic. It has increased this year from last, but it’s still down from before the pandemic. So a lot of parents are still homeschooling and a lot of parents are still sending their kids to private schools. So those numbers have not recovered still.

Jordan Zakery: Caitlin, it sounds like there’s a really big desire for choice then in that case in Oklahoma, and it’s unfortunate that open enrollment has not been implemented in a way that’s conducive to easy access for parents and students. But there’s hope that these issues that you outlined will get straightened up, and we’re going to lean on you to make sure that our listeners from Oklahoma and elsewhere are up to date on the status of that. Hopefully it gets figured out. We’re going to turn now also briefly to Marc to give an update in Pennsylvania about what’s been going on there.

Marc LeBlond: Thanks, Jordan. And I will touch on Pennsylvania. Before I do, really quick, I just want to piggyback off something that Caitlin said about open enrollment and how it’s done poorly in many states. I think that’s a common theme across the United States where, all too often, the district can refuse a child, but it can work. We’ve seen open enrollment work in places like Indiana. My sister’s a public school teacher in Fort Wayne, and she teaches in a different school zone than which she lives. Her kids, my niece, my nephew, both attend the school at which she teaches, and they both say to me, my sister, my brother-in-law, they say to me, “Marc, we love Indiana. We love school choice because we want our kids to attend the same school where…” And I’m not going to name her because I didn’t ask permission to tell her story, but where my sister teaches, they love the fact that their kids can go to that same school. So we just need to make it work across the board.

Now onto Pennsylvania. And it’s fitting, we’re kind of bookending the holidays here. When we left Pennsylvania, it was the 4th of July, now we’re on Labor Day. When we left Pennsylvania in July, the Lifeline Scholarship Program had passed the full house, had passed the Senate Education Committee. It was awaiting a vote for the full Senate. Session resumes next week, it remains to be seen what’s going to happen. Will the Senate vote on it, put it on Governor Wolf’s desk? We will keep you posted, of course. Lifeline Scholarships, this is a targeted ESA for children in low-achieving school zones. So think Philadelphia, think Pittsburgh, think Harrisburg. Sponsored by a representative in rural North Pennsylvania, Representative Clint Owlett, and it’s co-sponsored by a representative from Philadelphia, Martina White. So you’d see this interesting meeting of representatives in urban and rural coming together to solve problems for children.

Also, quick update on House Bill 1, which I don’t think we’ve talked about for a while, but House Bill 1, sponsored by Representative Andrew Lewis, is a universal ESA that was introduced last year. To borrow a phrase from The Princess Bride and from my predecessor, “mostly dead means slightly alive”, which is why I’m mentioning House Bill 1. So we’ll see if it’s going to run this year before new session starts in January. We’ll keep you posted on any universal ESA movement or any ESA movement at all if it happens on Pennsylvania.

I also feel like we’re due for a follow-up to the massive tax credit expansion that happened as part of the budget in July in Pennsylvania. It was a hundred million dollars to K through 12 schools, 125 million overall to their tax credit programs. And already, we’re starting to see the reports of the fruit of that come in the form of anecdotes, in the form of news reports. You’re seeing 250 kids granted scholarships by this foundation in Pittsburgh. You’re seeing 10 pre-K scholarships granted in Pike County, Pennsylvania. We’re hearing reports from all over Pennsylvania about the receipts, and receipts in a good way, coming in of these additional philanthropic dollars as part of the budget through the tax credit scholarship programs and what they mean in the real lives of children. So, glad to see these policy wins already bearing fruit in Pennsylvania.

Jordan Zakery: That is really great to hear, Marc. Pennsylvania, I think it’s been one of the most choice-iest states despite over the years, whether it’s been the governor or the legislative makeup having a lot of obstacles. You guys have accomplished a lot in that state and have been able to serve a lot of students. I just want to wrap up with a little bit of news also out of New Hampshire as we began the school year. It’s wonderful to hear that the Education Freedom Account program has just over 3,000 students using the program. And while this is technically the second year, they literally passed this thing in, I believe it was July when the program started and had it running the next school year. So this has been, I would say, the first amount of time to really work on reaching out to parents, letting them know that the program exists, educating them about the Freedom Account program.

So with just over 3,000 students, we’re looking at, based off the total population in the state of school age, K through 12 students, we’re getting close to 2%. And this is the second year of the program. So that’s actually really wonderful. Based out of the students eligible, because it’s only offered to students in households making 300% of the federal poverty level or less, based off eligible students, they’re actually approaching 6% of eligible students in year two enrolled in the program. So I just wanted to give them a quick shout out. They’ve been doing some wonderful work, the state of New Hampshire, the coalition, the DOE, on really just making sure that families are aware of this program.

So just to wrap up, I wanted to say thank you to our listeners. We will be back next month. And then I also just wanted to quickly finish by turning it back to the state team members if they have any final thoughts about what our listeners should be looking forward to in the next upcoming months.

Marc LeBlond: Thanks, Jordan. I’ll just conclude by bringing it back to the children, which I think is what we should always do, is a reminder of why we do this work, why we do what we do. It’s for the kids, it’s for the EdChoice mission that all kids would have access to educational freedom and choice as pathway to successful lives and a stronger society. That’s why we keep doing what we do day in, day out so that these kids would have the opportunity to thrive in an educational environment that fits their unique needs and gifts. I’d also like to thank our producer Jacob. Mike McShane does a fantastic job of this and you too, Jordan, but I think Jacob, the unsung hero behind the scenes, makes us sound much better than we actually do in real life.

Jordan Zakery: All right, guys, well, make sure to tune in next month. We look forward to giving you an update and connecting with you then.