Ep. 358: State Updates – February 2023

February 14, 2023

Members of our policy and advocacy team discuss the current policies going on in the states involving school choice.

Robert Enlow: Ladies, gentlemen, welcome to Ed Choice’s Monthly State Update where we go over all of the policies that are going around the country on school choice and the movement that School Choice is making and the progress that it’s making for EdChoice. We are joined by our policy and advocacy team, Joey Magana, our Vice President of Policy advocacy, Caitlin Lee, Marc LeBlond, Ed Tarnowski, and our newest member Nathan Sanders, who are going to talk about all the states and all the activities in the states. As we start about this program though, let’s think about this. You didn’t think 22 could be better than 21, but it was. 2021 was the year of educational choice where I believe 19 states passed some form of school choice. It was incredible. Seven states enacted new laws, 15 states expanded 23 laws. 2021 was the year of educational choice. In 2022, we were thinking, wow, could this be better?

But it was, and 2022 was the year of the first universal choice program in the nation in Arizona. It was an incredible year and we then think, well, 2023 can’t be better. There’s no way 2023 can be better. But in fact, 2023 has started off hotter and faster for school choice than any other year in the 27 years I’ve been at ED Choice or formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. There is no doubt that Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman would be thrilled about the progress that’s being made. They said at the origins of our foundation that we sense that we’re on a verge of a precipice, a verge of a tipping point will then sweep like wildfire across our nation. I think we’re there. I think we’ve seen the growth in private school choice percentage of use go from 0% to 1% in 25 years and 1% to 1.6% in two years.

Dramatically fast growth in the last couple years and we’re really excited. So we’re here today to talk about the progress in the states and I’m going to turn it over here to our vice president, Joey Magana. I will tell you that our home state of Indiana where we reside will be making moves to pass an expanded voucher program to make that universal this year. And there’s already a bill that’s passed the Senate for Universal ESAs or Senate Committees. So there’s a lot of movement in the great state of Indiana, which was a leader in 2011 in getting the ball going forward for all of this progress. So really excited by the movement that’s being made and I’m going to turn it over to Joey, our Vice President of Policy and Advocacy.

Joey Magana: Well, I’ll just say real quickly, not to butter up my boss on a public forum, but like you said, thanks to Milton and Rose kind of having this idea and starting the foundation and with you and others working tirelessly over the last 27 years, really at the start when nobody even wanted to talk about school choice working with in-state partners who were passionate about the idea of giving parents options. I know that you’ve seen we’ve come a long way and I haven’t even been here quite a year yet. And like you said, what a year it has been so far for 2023. So I’ll just start us off. I’m in the great state of Arkansas, go Hogs. It’s my home state. I’ve been here for, this is probably my third week in the last month and a half. Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in her inaugural speech that she wanted to give parents kind of the reins back of education for their students.

And she has talked in a big way about doing that and I’m optimistic and hopeful that we will have bill plans for that hopefully by the end of this week and then start through the process next week. And what has been discussed is a full universal ESA that’s kind of phased in over time. So we are super excited about that. We’ve provided a lot of research, data, and resources to both legislators and the governor’s team because they’ve been very thoughtful about how they want to do it, which is how we want everyone to be, as thoughtful about these things. I’ll leave it up to Caitlin to talk about Oklahoma, but I’ve also been to the great state of Idaho. They have a micro grant up there and they’ve been talking about both expanding that and also doing a universal ESA. There’s a senate bill that’s up believe later this week that they’ll start talking about that.

I’ll let Ed talk more about New Hampshire, but New Hampshire who really kind of started the ESA movement with a means tested ESA really wanted to go universal this year, but they’ve got a couple of bills out to try to expand what they do have. Illinois’s got a tax credit scholarship program that they’re fiercely trying to defend and keep that program running so that students there can still have options. So there’s just a lot going on and I will hand it over to… We’ll go ahead and start with Caitlin since that’s both where we live now and she can talk about Oklahoma and some of her states.

Caitlin Lee: Thanks Joey. I am the state advocacy director that covers most of the western half of the United States and I’ll start with Oklahoma. They just started session yesterday picking off with the state of the state address from Governor Stitt. Started very heavy with school choice message. He campaigned heavily on that during this last election cycle and he is vowed to bring school choice and parental choice to the state of Oklahoma. Not a new message for him, but something that we’ll have to see how the legislature picks that message up and how they run with it. So there are a lot of different ideas floating around, so we’re not really sure what we’re going to see yet. Some changes to Valencia Nicole Henry Scholarship have already been drafted and put into language, but we haven’t really seen what the executive branch and the legislature are going to kind of come to a compromise on a true expansive school choice policy still.

So with the way session goes in Oklahoma, we aren’t really expecting to see language that we would expect to pass for several weeks, if not a month or two quite honestly. But we’re looking forward to seeing what they produce. Other states, and we’ve got, honestly, there’s a lot of legislation that was filed this year on school choice as Robert kind of put out there. This is kind of the year of school choice. We thought last year was, and comparatively it’s 23, so Colorado even has a tax credit scholarship that they’ve put out there. I’m not super optimistic about its chances, but the language is pretty good on that bill. So it’ll be interesting to watch and see how that moves through session. Hawaii also has a bill establishing a school voucher program and for someone to put that out there is pretty impressive. So looking at Montana, they are making a big push to create charter schools in their state this year, which is new for them.

And they’re also trying to increase the limit on the state’s tax credit program, allowing for more kids to participate in private school choice. Those will be the two biggest things they do. They also went ahead and provided open enrollment this year and a kind of backpack approach to education. The ESA bill that they filed won’t go anywhere this year, and I don’t expect their special education ESA to go anywhere either with what they’re doing on charter schools and the tax credit. Those will probably be as far as they get. So Alaska has a couple bills, but they’ve got some litigation that’s ongoing that will kind of prevent anything from expanding there. Texas, there’s two major pushes. The funding mechanisms are the key difference there, whether it’s appropriated or whether it’s a tax credit scholarship. The governor is really determined to become a champion. So he’s been doing events all through the state, so we’re looking forward to seeing which program they go with there.

Utah has actually already passed, the governor signed it on the 28th of January, and so students in Utah will have the option to participate in school choice and eligible to use their ESAs starting the 2024 and 2025 school year. It is an appropriated funded program, so if that ends up with a wait list by the next legislative session, it’s possible they could even get the leadership to increase the appropriations to that. So Wyoming, which as Joey has been spending most of his time in Arkansas, I’ve been spending more of my time in Wyoming than I have at Oklahoma it seems.

They have actually pushed really hard this year for the Wyoming Freedom Scholarship Program, which would allow for $6,000 for eligible students to put towards tuition or education expenses. They had companion bills with the House and the Senate. The House bill didn’t make it out of committee. It didn’t fail, it was just tabled due more than anything the timing of when it got called up in committee, so the Senate file is 143. It passed out of the Senate committee, Senate Education Release, Senate Appropriations Committee, and then it also passed the floor.

It has a large number of co-sponsors on the House side, so there’s some political movement going on over in the house in Wyoming. So we’re looking forward to getting busy and figuring out how we can get that moved. So we’ve been working with the Treasurer’s office to make sure they’re on board and make sure they have the support they need to properly pull off the program once this passes, hopefully. So currently it’s co-ops and homeschool work groups are currently not legal in Wyoming, so they’ve also working on passing legislation that would make that legal again. And I think that’s all I have, Joey.

Joey Magana: Great. When you mentioned Utah, I was remiss to mention obviously Iowa. You must be living under a rock if you haven’t heard that Iowa has passed also a universal ESA, so I want to make sure and give a shoutout to them. That was a lot of hard work over about a decade to get them there and we are very happy that they’ve gotten there. The governor has been a great champion. There’s lots of legislative champions. So I just wanted to mention that. We will go to Marc, our director of policy who you know is from the great state of Pennsylvania and has some updates there, but also tell us kind of about what you’re seeing in all your legislative reviews.

Marc LeBlond: Sure, thanks Joey. So in Pennsylvania we’ve been in sort of a holding pattern, sort of waiting for the clouds to lift and they should be lifting. There’s a special election that the House has been waiting for and that is happening today. So we should have a clear picture of where things stand legislatively in Pennsylvania by the time this podcast airs. So in terms of where things stand in Pennsylvania, the governor has indicated his support for school choice, Governor Josh Shapiro, a Democrat in the form of Lifeline scholarships, which is a targeted ESA. He specifically mentioned Lifeline scholarships as a school choice vehicle he would support. He specifically mentioned the tax credit scholarship programs, expanding those as something he would support. The Senate has indicated support of Lifeline scholarships specifically, and so we’re just waiting on the House to come together. And so theoretically at least sessions should resume at the end of this month for both chambers and then we’ll see where we stand then.

But what can you do when you’re waiting for session to resume? One of the things is, and we like to do this here at EdChoice, you can sponsor and attend inspirational events with key state partners, and I had the privilege of attending such an event last week. EdChoice sponsored an event for Philadelphia charter schools for excellence in keeping with the EdChoice mission of educational freedom and choice for all. Just a reminder that school choice can happen in any type of a school. It can happen at your district, at a charter school, at a private school, at a homeschool, at a learning pod. Wherever that needs to happen for your child, EdChoice supports it.

And this was a wonderful event. It was well attended by a number of policy makers, several former Lifeline sponsors from the last session. A couple in particular, Representative Danilo Burgos out of Philadelphia, a Democrat and representative Martina White out of Philadelphia, a Republican, both sponsors on the Lifeline legislation. Representative Jesse Topper who has been a longtime school choice advocate and a member of Pennsylvania’s education committee was in attendance as well as Representative Amen Brown, a democrat from Philadelphia who made headlines last year when he took a tough vote on the Lifeline Bill in the face of immense pressure.

And the keynote speaker, which I’d be remiss not to mention, was Senator Tony Williams who in many ways is school choice royalty. And in many ways he is Philadelphia Royalty. He’s the original author of the Tax Credit Scholarship program, 20 plus years ago, and he’s just been steadfast over decades in his support of school choice. And he opened up his keynote address by talking about how he’s an African American Philadelphia Democrat and how it’s very, very difficult for him to maintain his position as a school choice friendly politician and why does he do it.

And so Senator Williams’ why was his own life story, which most people don’t know, but it’s a very moving story about how his life was literally saved by his opportunity to attend a private school. And Senator Williams by his own accounting, he was on the wrong path, had the opportunity to attend a private school and now we know the rest of the story. He didn’t end up six feet under, his own words, he ended up very successful in life, thriving in life, and advocating for other children to have school choice opportunities. And lastly, just to highlight why we do this work, there were several choir performances at this event. The Maritime Academy Charter School, the boy’s Latin Charter School choir in particular was very, very good, very, very inspirational. Just a reminder why we do this work. It’s that reminder that all children are worthy, all children are deserving of that opportunity to thrive and get their best education.

Joey Magana: Great. Let’s go to our newest member of the team, Nathan, who hails in the great state of Louisiana. Nathan, what have you been able to gather from your states as you’ve come on board?

Nathan Sanders: Yeah, so I’m extremely excited to kind of mimic Joey there in the beginning. Fun fact, I started with EdChoice the same exact week that National School Choice Week was happening this year. And so I was just overwhelmed in a positive way at all of the… Not only the online traction, but the in-person traction and excitement for School Choice this year. And so just in the past few weeks, just this year in 2023, I’ve gotten to work with partners, parents, and other organizations who are just so excited about school choice this year. And as Robert said in the beginning, it’s just been steamrolling right ahead. And so I’m super excited to start with EdChoice and I’m excited to jump onto that momentum and keep rolling. So yeah, I mean, I’m from Louisiana and I’m working throughout the south, mostly the southeast and different states.

And so lots of states are starting to throw out some decent legislation that gives parents choice. One in particular is South Carolina. They have a bill in their legislature right now that’s already passed their state senate, and so it’s just pending their house. It’s referred to committee, and so that one’s rolling right along. Florida, excitingly is expanding their voucher program to make it a universal ESA. And that one’s rolling right along with hardly any opposition. It’s pretty much expected to roll right on through and expand choice for all Floridians, which is extremely exciting. But even in states like Louisiana and Mississippi, you’re seeing these pieces of legislation go through and although there are some roadblocks, like in Louisiana, we have a governor that’s not so school choice friendly, but the excitement and the support for it is there, right?

We had an ESA pass our legislature last session here in Louisiana, although it was vetoed by the governor, but it passed through and parents were excited about it. And so that one’s being introduced again this session and we’re hoping that one rolls right on through. And so just lots of good bills to the south, lots of excitement, and so I’m excited to work with the states and work with the partners to keep them rolling. So yeah.

Joey Magana: Great. Thanks for that update. Now last but not least, we’ll go to Ed who’s been helping us out with a lot of different states in the Northeast, but also with Mark keeping track of all the different legislation happening throughout the country. So give us an update there, Ed.

Ed Tarnowski: Yeah, absolutely. Just to start with New Hampshire, we do have two bills that we’re tracking there that do expand the nation’s fastest growing private school choice program, New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Accounts. We have a bill that would increase the… Currently the program is available to those with incomes of 300% of the federal property level, and they’re looking to increase that to 500% of the poverty level with that bill. We’re tracking another bill, which basically adds some more disadvantaged groups to the eligibility. We’re definitely tracking those closely. We’re not sure what’s going to happen quite yet, but New Hampshire’s always something to watch. They always have some great legislation coming out of there. To move nationally, I cannot understate what an exciting year it has already been so far, and there is a lot more to come. We’ve only been through one month and we already have two Universal ESAs.

It’s hard to understate how immense that is in terms of school choice progress and how quickly in the last three years, we’ve gone from zero to already multiple this year on top of Arizona’s Universal last year. We have two new Universal ESAs this year, and we have more to come. To give you a larger breakdown of what we’re tracking in the states, there have already been 65 bills introduced in 29 states across the country. 77% of them are ESAs. The reason I’m bringing that up is because what we’re seeing now is ESAs are really becoming king in the school choice movement. They’re the most flexible option. They give families the most options, and I think that that’s really resonating with a lot of people and why we’ve seen ESAs become so prominent over some of the other options that are out there. Speaking of ESAs, there are now 50 ESA bills in 23 states. I’d say that’s the basics of what we’re tracking in the state so far. Definitely stay tuned. It’s an exciting year and there is so much more to come.

Joey Magana: Appreciate that, Ed. Thanks for the update. Stay tuned, everyone. As you can tell, we’ve gone through a lot of updates in the states. As Ed said, there’s a lot of legislation filed out there. We already have two states that have Universal ESAs. Definitely more to come, hopefully from where I’m standing in Arkansas. It might be the next one, maybe Wyoming, maybe Oklahoma, who knows? So stay tuned.