Ep. 368: The History of Choice in Florida

April 20, 2023

On this episode, we have an all-star guest list joining EdChoice President and CEO, Robert Enlow. Our special guests have all been in the school choice movement for years and discuss the history of choice in the Sunshine State.

Robert Enlow: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the EdChoice State Policy podcast where today we’re going to be talking about the amazing progress of Universal Choice in the Sunshine State in Florida, and a shout out to maybe a couple other states like Arizona and West Virginia. Specifically, we want to start and share with our listeners what happened this year to put Florida back at the top of the school choice class or EdChoice educational choice class. We also want to talk about how we got to where we are in Florida. What happened over the years? Did it just happen overnight or did it take time? We then want to sort of briefly check on the challenges that are going to be there as a result of this bill and over time, what are the challenges going to be and also what are the opportunities? I’m super excited this morning to be joined by three longtime colleagues in this movement and people I consider friends in this movement who’ve been fighting for years.

Patricia Levesque. Patricia Levesque is the CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and executive director of ExcelInEd Action, a National Advocacy Organization. Patricia has over 25 years experience in education policy, and was formerly the Deputy Chief of Staff to Governor Jeb Bush. Also joining us is Doug Tuthill. Doug is the president of Step Up for Students and National School Choice Advocacy and Implementation Organization. Doug has also been a teacher, college professor, software executive, newspaper executive, and yes, even a teacher union president in his past life. Dr. Matt Ladner is also joining us. Matt is the director of the Arizona Center for Student Opportunity at the Arizona Charter School Association. He is also the executive editor of the web blog, [ReimaginEd], and he’s a fellow at EdChoice. Matt has 20 plus years experience with AFC, the Goldwater Institute, the Charles Koch Institute and Excel and M. Welcome to all of you to our podcast this year.

Dr. Matt Ladner: Thanks for having us.

Robert Enlow: So I want to start with a very simple softball question. So I really want our readers to know, first of all, just tell us a little bit about yourself and your organization and the why of what you do. I really want people to hear a little bit about you, why you do what you do and what you do. So why don’t we start with Patricia, sort of give us a little bit of information about yourself, your organization, your why.

Patricia Levesque: Well, Robert Enlow, thank you for having me on. Thanks for EdChoice for hosting this podcast. Our organization, ExcelInEd is a national education policy organization that also does advocacy, and we are a group of people who believe that policy changes lives. And kind of my history on this was I moved to Tallahassee, the state Capitol 20-something long years ago, and I was kind of placed in education policy. I worked for the speaker. And I will tell you, when you work for the Speaker of the House, no matter where you are, you get his constituents. So you get constituent complaints and you get constituent correspondence.

And I learned pretty early in the process that when a parent came and had a problem with something, I’ll give an example of a father who had a child with special needs who was a junior in high school and he was just coming to the realization that his daughter was going to graduate as a senior and have a diploma called a special diploma that really was worthless and meaningless, and it was because of a decision that was made back when she was in third grade and he didn’t realize it. It wasn’t fully informed back then by putting her on a different curriculum track, she would nine years later not have a diploma of value, but policy when you realize you can change words in the law to make sure that doesn’t happen to another father, or mother, right? It becomes really powerful.

I look at problems in education and realize there’s probably some kind of policy, solution or incentive that can get the adults in the system to work on behalf of the best interests of kids. And for me, it’s just this constant, how do we make this system work for kids? That’s my why.

Robert Enlow: Doug, tell us about yourself and your organization and your why.

Doug Tuthill: Well, Robert, I also want to say thank you for inviting us and it’s wonderful to see you again. I do consider you a friend and we’ve been fighting this fight for a while, so it’s wonderful to see you and it’s an honor to be with Patricia and Matt. You’ve got sort of a dream team here in terms of EdChoice, so it’s exciting to be with these folks. So I’m old Robert, and so when I was growing up, I was raised in segregated schools. It was against the law for me to go to school with black children. My high school wasn’t integrated until my junior year, and frankly, I was radicalized by the inequalities I saw, not just in schools, but in the community. It was just horrific. Jim Crow was in full force back in those days and it was bad. And so I really became committed to equal opportunity.

How do we make sure that particularly in education, because I saw so many inequalities in education and that’s what motivated me. And as you said, I started off thinking that as a teacher and as a member of a teacher union, a teacher union leader, I could use the power of teachers and teacher unions to facilitate greater equality of opportunity. But after about 15 years, it finally dawned on me that I was actually doing the opposite because basically, as you know, public education, every decision in public education has a political decision. Resources are allocated politically, the most valuable resource is quality of teaching, and that quality of teaching resource is distributed very much politically and those who had the political power get the greatest resource and those who don’t, don’t. And so I did everything, I killed myself, Robert, as a teacher union leader, trying to figure out how do I change that?

And I decided it was systemic. And so I said, okay, it’s a power problem. How do I redistribute power? I said, yikes, money is power. Maybe the way to give power to people who historically haven’t had it is give them control of the public education dollars. And so that led me to transition. I eventually found John Kirtley, who we all know as one of the legends in the EdChoice movement and sort of the founder of Step Up for Students. And John and I got together in 2006. I became president in 2008, and basically the goal was to redistribute power by giving people control of their education spending dollars. And that’s what we’ve been doing in Florida. Step Up For Students really has two focuses. It’s really about infrastructure. It’s policy infrastructure the way Patricia articulated, you have to create a policy infrastructure in order to implement a public education system that gives families more control of their funds and regulates that process.

And the second infrastructure is implementation. You can pass any bill you want, but if you can’t execute it at a high level, it doesn’t really matter. And so we do two things. We work really closely with policy folks trying to create a policy infrastructure that’s going to work and then an implementation infrastructure that’s going to allow us to go to scale. Scale is a big issue for me because we basically have the in current industrial model of public education, top-down command and control because it’s scalable. So as we move to a much more decentralization and customization, the question is can you scale that? And that’s sort of the holy grail of our business is can we scale this up? It’ll be interesting to see. In Florida, we’re going to have probably over 300,000 ESAs in the fall of 2023. Those are very complex. We might get into this later. It’s very complex to managing ESA. So the question is can we scale that up at 300,000-plus moving forward?

Robert Enlow: That’s a great question and that is previewing the exact conversation I wanted to have near the end about the challenges and opportunities. Matt, share about yourself, your history and what you do and why you do what you do.

Dr. Matt Ladner: So I’m just your friendly neighborhood school choice math scientist, lived here in Arizona for 20 years, probably been a senior fellow with EdChoice for 20 years, had the pleasure of working for Patricia for five years. And I work for Doug and Mr. Kirtley now. Originally from Texas, but I’ve lived here in Arizona for 20 years. I’d say that Arizona has the American founding followers for the people that took John Locke seriously. Arizona was a state that took Milton Friedman seriously, and we’ve passed multiple universal choice programs and seen a flourishing of open enrollment in the process. And we have a very, very strong charter school sector that is very pluralistic and diverse. And Arizona students, this is not well understood, but Arizona students actually show the largest learning there. Gains per year of schooling in the country, in the Stanford Educational Opportunity project data. So we put a big bet on freedom. It started before me, but it’s working out quite well.

Robert Enlow: I think we’ll get into that. It absolutely is, and it certainly is in Florida. So let’s just talk about Florida right now. What happened this year? So just for some numbers to set the framing, we have been saying at EdChoice for a while that 2011 was the year of school choice. There were more bills passed for tax credits and vouchers than ever before at that time, 2021 was the year of educational choice. There was more ESA bills passed and more choice bills passed than ever before. And 2023, as we’re saying, is the year of universal choice.

So far this year there are 101 bills relating to vouchers, ESAs, and tax credits in 39 states. That’s how many bills have been introduced in 39 states. And of those 101 bills, 79 bills, or 78% of the total are ESA bills. And most of them are universal, is what we’re seeing. Not all of them have a chance to pass, but one that did was in the great state of Florida. So I’d love to have our listeners hear what happened in Florida this year, and then Matt, sort of maybe set the stage to start, what happened in Arizona last year that sort of helped set the stage in this year to bring Florida back to the top of the class. So Matt, tell us a little bit what happened in Arizona, and then we’ll jump right into Florida.

Dr. Matt Ladner: Sure thing. Arizona passed the first education savings account program in 2011. It was not universal. It started off as a special needs program. Our lawmakers added eligibility categories over a period of time, and then last year we actually went full universal. So it’s about 4% of students are in the program and they’re getting about 3% of the K-12 money. So it’s grown pretty rapidly. We’re in 50,000 students now.

Robert Enlow: It’s amazing. So in 2023, Florida took that and amped it up. So Patricia and Doug, tell us about what Florida did this year specifically with their bills and how they made it universal and what did they do with their existing bills?

Dr. Matt Ladner: I want to start back just a little further to connect with Matt because Matt and I were working together when Arizona passed that ESA. And I remember, I can actually remember sitting at my kitchen table where he was talking to me about it and just these light bulbs going off in my head. And the timing was such that we had an incoming senate president who had a son with Down Syndrome. And so just the ability to talk to that incoming Senate president about the customization that he fully understood his own son needed, and then him just taking and running with that in Florida to pass, I mean the early days, I think we called it the personalized learning account program. And then it was changed to the Gardiner Program. And now a couple years ago, Robert, I think what you were asking about, Florida had a tax credit scholarship program for Low Income students. We still do.

We had a voucher for kids with special needs. We had an ESA for students with special needs. We had and still have a scholarship for kids who were impacted by bullying or assault in the school system. We had a lot of programs. And a couple of years ago, they were all merged under this umbrella called the Family Empowerment Scholarship. When I say all, I don’t mean the tax credit scholarship program, that’s still separate, but this year what happened was the legislature led by House speaker Paul Renner said we want to have every family eligible. And so the income requirements were taken off. So every family now is eligible to pursue getting an education scholarship account for their child.

So not only was income eligibility removed, but also, we basically had two different systems. We had education savings accounts for students with special needs, and then we had a voucher for everybody else. That component was changed to be an education savings account. So now all families are eligible, and all families can personalize education to what their child needs, whether that is tuition, fees, tutoring, therapy, curriculum, devices, there’s all kinds of uses for the funds. And that’s the big picture. I will just say, Robert, that we’re still in our legislative session, and while House Bill one passed, and so the law is in place, the details of funding and how many kids and how much the scholarship amount is still being debated right now.

Robert Enlow: We hope it’ll be universal funding for everyone, as many dollars could follow all kids as possible, which I’m sure will continue. Doug, go ahead, please.

Doug Tuthill: Well, I just want to add a little bit of history too. I had a kitchen table experience like Patricia did only mine was at an airport where Matt and Ed Kirby flew in. We were somewhere in South Florida and John Kirtley and I met Matt and Ed in the airport and they said, sit down guys, we’re going to tell you the future. And they said it’s about ESAs. And then Patricia got with Andy Gardner, Center Gardner, and they passed the personal learning scholarship accounts in 2014. There’s a long history in Florida, Robert. I actually started Magnet schools in the early 80s, which were the really initial, I think choice programs in Florida really. And in today, the magnet programs in Florida are still the largest number of kids who are participating in choice or actually participating in those magnet programs. But what I think is happening in Florida and it goes back to Milton Friedman is we are gradually trying to build a highly effective and efficient market in public education.

That’s really what’s happening. And step by step, we’re putting in place a more effective and efficient market. And so there’s all kinds of pieces that we mentioned policy before. Patricia’s right. There’s debate about how do you fund ESAs moving forward at scale as you start moving to 300,000, 400,000, 500,000 kids, how do you work a budget? Does it run through the traditional budget? You create a separate kind of budget process, that’s all being figured out. Accountability issues have to be rethought.

The way I think about it is, imagine the national transportation system was all about trains. So if you wanted to go from New York to LA, you had to go by train. We got up one morning and said, wait a minute, planes are more effective. Let’s start using planes. But it turns out planes can’t take off and land at train stations, planes don’t stop at railroad crossings. Literally all the infrastructure we’ve built for the old system, almost none of that infrastructure is applicable to the new system. So we’re having to build new infrastructure in terms of policy and new infrastructure in terms of implementation, it’s an ongoing process. We’re going to continue to evolve, but the story in Florida is really a long story of taking Milton Friedman’s notion of a highly effective market, and piece by piece over several decades, continuing to build the infrastructure to have a public education market that really works.

Robert Enlow: So I love hearing that. Matt, you’re going to get the credit for all this. So Dan Lips, I remember this back in 2010 when you and Dan and Goldwater were like, what do we do now that we lost this court case? And you said, there’s an inkling of an idea here that we can use and how about if Dan writes this piece for Goldwater, and we’ll use that as the way to get ESAs going. And I remember that jumping around and you then right in the way forward in 2011 with us. And so it’s amazing to see what’s been going on. Doug, right now in Florida, how many kids are actually using the various programs? Well, obviously everyone’s eligible, right? And do you prioritize the eligibility now going forward, but how many kids are actually using it? How much percentage of the total number of kids in the state are using it, things like that?

Doug Tuthill: Well, in this year in Florida, Step Up For Students funded about 255,000 kids, which is about 9%, eight or 9% of the total K-12 population in the state of Florida. We anticipate serving another 75,000 kids next year. So we’ll be at about 325,000 kids funded in the fall. So 325,000 would probably be around 11, 11 to 12% of the total population. So it’s pretty dramatic growth.

Robert Enlow: Is that ESAs and tax credits or is that both of them put together?

Doug Tuthill: Yeah, everything is now ESAs moving forward. So whether it’s a funding is a tax credit funding mechanism or it’s a direct state funding mechanism, that’s irrelevant. On the expenditure side, they’re all going to be ESAs.

Robert Enlow: Yeah. Oh, I see that. But there’ll be differing amounts of funds set aside for kids. What’s the breakout of the sort of tax credit kids versus ESA kids right now?

Doug Tuthill: The two programs are pretty much equalized in terms of how much money the kids get, et cetera. But it’s about 50/50. This year we had about 95,000 kids being funded through tax credits, and we had about 85,000 kids being funded through direct state funding. But on the unique ability side, we had about 70,000 kids over their direct state funding. So altogether, direct state funding was about 155,000. Tax credit funding was about 95,000.

Robert Enlow: That’s awesome. So look, you guys have mentioned this a lot and it’s interesting to hear you guys talk about it because I think we all talk about the same thing. This didn’t just happen overnight. None of this stuff just sort of came out and said, oh look, this president was elected or that president was elected or that speaker was elected or this speaker was elected. This is a long-term process of education and advocacy. So let’s go back to a little bit of the sort of history. So how did we get from here today?

You’ve talked a little bit about some of the bills, but what was the intentional, I go back, for example, Patricia, you probably remember this, 1999 sitting in governor Bush’s, right after his election, myself, Susan Mitchell, a few others were sitting in the room and, you got to go universal. And he’s like, “Nope, we’re not going universal yet. We’re doing what we said we were going to do.” But he started then in ’99 with the Failing Schools Charters program and then continued it forward. So this has really been a process going on for a long time. Talk about some of the steps you guys have specifically taken in order to continue growing forward. Patricia, I’d love to hear from you on the policy side.

Patricia Levesque: Yeah, so we’ll start with that first one, and it was what Governor Bush campaigned on. So he campaigned that schools should be graded like students, A, B, C, D, F, and then part of his campaign message was, and students shouldn’t be stuck in a failing school. So it was really tied to the academic accountability that he wanted to place on public schools. And so he’s one of those politicians where way back when you campaigned on what you were going to do and then when you become elected, you actually do what you said you were going to do. And so that was his number one bill in 1999. It was called the A plus plan. I was a staffer in the House of Representatives. It was my first bill that I carried as a staffer. And I remember it was 185 page bill. It was actually three bills combined into one, 185 pages. And we had one week of committee hearings just on that bill.

And the vast majority of the 100-plus amendments were about on the eight pages that were the voucher, the opportunity scholarship for students who were in failing schools. And that was the first statewide voucher program in the country. The day that he signed it into law, the teachers unions filed a lawsuit. And so there was really his entire tenure over two terms, the Opportunity Scholarship program was in litigation. The Florida Supreme Court didn’t decide it until his last year in office. But what people don’t realize is when that first Opportunity Scholarship bill was moving, there was a little bitty provision stuck in to say, oh and special needs students in Sarasota County also get this choice. It was a little bitty pilot project, and that first year there were two special needs students in Sarasota County that took part in the program.

So the next year, in the year 2000, there was no real private school choice legislation. I mean there were bills that were being debated, but nothing that was going to get across the finish line. And in the last two weeks of session, the senator who put in that little bitty Sarasota pilot project, he just did amendments on every single education bill to just strike Sarasota out. When you did that, it became a statewide voucher program for students with special needs. And so that was what became the next year was named the McKay Scholarship Program. The third year was the Tax Credit scholarship program. So we knew that the funding mechanism, which was kind of what was being challenged under opportunity scholarships in our state Blaine Amendment funds from the treasury, couldn’t go in aid of a sectarian institution that we went down the path of a tax credit scholarship, which were not funds of the treasury, and it was targeted to low income students.

And that was the third statewide program that passed of that scale, I guess, in the country. And so those were the original three. Those were the things that moved, and Doug knows this, that every single year for 20 years there has been legislation, but one year, there was one year when we didn’t push legislation and that was because of a Senate president who on his way out the door would’ve messed things up. And so we didn’t follow legislation that year, but every single year there has been moving the ball down the field. It was adding kids with 504 plans in addition to students with IEPs. It was expanding the revenue that entities could get for credit for the tax credit program. It was raising the income cap a little bit on eligibility. There were things done every single year to make sure that we were giving more opportunities every single year to parents.

And then of course, we already talked about it. The first ESA in Florida that passed, that became overnight the fastest uptake of any school choice program that we had, with a lot of credit to Step Up For Students who literally the bill becomes a law and they have three months over the summer to implement an ESA functionally. Functionally the infrastructure and the computer programming needed to register the students and have a usable workable system for parents by the time the next school year started. And that program for special needs students has been oversubscribed every single year it’s been in place. We have had more parents apply than we had funding available. I think what is also really important is not just that first ESA for special needs students and the infrastructure that was built around it, but it really became the first program in Florida for home education families to be able to participate. Because not that many home ed families wanted to get the voucher for students with special needs and put them in another school. These families wanted to be the hands-on educators for their children.

So that was a game changer of getting home ed families to be able to benefit. Then I would say the other big thing that occurred two or three years ago was removing the public school attendance requirement, the requirement that you had to have your child in the public school system in order to benefit from one of these programs. And that was really important, especially as we were growing the eligibility, because that provision is only done in state law for budget reasons, so that there won’t be a big fiscal note on the programs because we’ve already been funding the kids in the public school system. But if you think about it, that is a very problematic provision for families who made a decision to educate their child outside the public school system before the law passed. And so now you’re telling these families you have to disrupt your child’s education for a year in order to be eligible for the financial support that you need in order to provide your child with all the opportunities you want to provide them.

So that was probably the other really big thing that Florida did a couple of years ago from a policy perspective. And then this year, woo, everybody’s eligible.

Doug Tuthill: I just want to add a little bit of context because I’m the old guy on the call today.

Robert Enlow: It’s very rare that I’m actually not the old guy on the call. I got to be honest with you. it’s really off-putting for me.

Doug Tuthill: From my perspective, the cultural transformation, the narrative, as I said earlier, really started with the Magnet schools, because you saw an explosion of Magnet schools in Florida in the early 80s, and that really opened up people’s minds to choice outside of traditional neighborhood schools. And then you saw the charter school bill passed in the early 90s by Democratic Lawton Chiles governor. You saw the Florida Virtual School in the 90s. And by the way, just a little bit of history, when Jeb Bush ran for governor the first time, he ran on a universal voucher proposal. He took a beating on it, but he introduced that concept again, you know how these things work. You introduce a concept, people think you’re crazy. 20 years later it becomes normative. And that’s how these things work. But in my perspective, it’s about a 40 year history starting with the Magnet schools. And the other thing I would add is, when Patricia had mentioned something like eliminating the public school attendance requirement, that was like a four or five year struggle.

And so I think that part of the Florida story, and that’s probably true in other states is, in our case, some of these things took years. We pounded away for years on that public school issue. We pounded away for years on increasing the income cap. So you got to stay with it. And we’re lucky because we have Patricia and Jeb in their operation. We have Step Up, our operation. John Kirtley, and completely independent of our C3s has a very aggressive pack operating in Florida. All that together I think allows us to keep pushing the rock up the hill. But your listeners should know that this stuff is hand-to-hand combat politically, and you got to just keep at it, and you got to keep at it and keep at it. And over time, if you have good ideas, eventually you’ll win out. If you have parents who buy in, ultimately it’s the parents who make the difference because you can pass anything. But if the parents don’t buy in, you’re not going to succeed. But the parents in Florida are really the heroes because they’re the ones who’ve stepped up and said, we want this.

Robert Enlow: I loved hearing that. And Matt, I want to hear your comments about this because you have the history of the national organizations as well and everything that’s been going on, sort of how we moved from Jeb Bush’s idea of vouchers, which sort of people were worried about to tax credits. And then even before that, people don’t realize that Maine and Vermont have had choice programs since the 1800s. Allan Rock in the 1970s was a union sponsored voucher program in the district of Allan Rock schools in California. This progress of choice has been going on for a long time for a lot of reasons. Matt, I want to hear your perspective on all this as well.

Dr. Matt Ladner: Yeah, so you may remember Bonnie Raitt, the kind of blues country singer. In 1991 she had this huge hit called Thing Called Love, and she said it’s great being an overnight sensation. It only took 25 years of work. I do want listeners who are maybe a little younger to the movement than the four of us to realize that it’s just not easy. It doesn’t just happen. It took a tremendous amount of work to get where we are now, I can remember the four year gap between Arizona passing the first DSA program, and Florida passing the second one. And I would literally go around to people like you, Robert, and say, “Hey, Robert, whose boots do I need to lick to get you guys to stop passing voucher programs and move on to the next thing?” And you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s going to happen.” And it did.

But what I’m getting at is that there has to be a consistency in that effort. The big strength of the School Choice Coalition in Arizona over the years has been that we always had a North Star. We didn’t get there instantly. We took incremental gains, but we never made the mistake of thinking our incremental gains were actually our goal. And that’s the mistake I think some people around the country have made when they’ve mistaken the compromise for the ideal. The ideal is that if you start with the premise that every heart, that there’s a yearning to be free, we’re trying to set everyone free. And the exciting thing about ESA is my opinion is that they are less constrained by supply limitations. We have a super robust charter school log here in Arizona, but even here, we’re talking about the need to go out and build new buildings every time you want to open a school.

Well, ESAs are actually kind of like raising the question of what is a school, and what can a school be, and ala carte education is very exciting. And I think of it as a process that we’ve been underway at here in Arizona for decades now. It’s like the hands of a potter at a potters wheel shaping the clay. And the one hand are the teachers and the educators, and the other hand are the families. And together they shape the K-12 space into the image that they want. And contra a lot of school choice skeptics like, “Oh my gosh, there’s going to be witchcraft schools and blah, blah, blah.” This all started in Arizona in 1994. There are no witchcraft schools. There’s a whole lot of classical education schools on the other hand, because people demand it, there are a lot of progressive schools too because people demand that as well. When you put teachers and families in charge of shaping the K-12 space, it’s amazing to see what they can do. And I’m super excited to see what happens next in Florida.

Robert Enlow: Yeah, I love that. And I love you quoting Bonnie Raitt. That’s really good. That’s actually perfect timing to move on to challenge. I won’t quote of course, Rod Stewart, this is all great because young hearts want to be free tonight. Let’s talk about some of the challenges. I was thinking about that as I was looking up our EdChoice numbers over time in Florida, of the share, we call it the EdChoice share. What percentage of kids, one of our North Star’s is, if we’re going to achieve Milton Friedman’s goal, you’re going to have a diverse system of educational supply. Parents will tell us all the time that if you ask them, “Hey, if money were no object, what kind of school would you like to go to?” Roughly between 30 and 40% say a traditional school, 30 to 40% say a private school, somewhere between nine and 12% say charter school, and then somewhere between five and 10% say homeschool, just depending. So our goal is always to say, “Hey, if we’re being successful, we’re actually matching what parents want to what’s happening.”

If you look at Florida, and this is one of the questions about challenges that I want to discuss with you guys. So Florida in ’01, ’02 had a traditional public school share of 86.2%. We couldn’t find Magnet school data back then, but we could find private school, homeschool, what was there for charter school and then fee paying private school parents. So that was 86.2% in 2001, two, and the latest data of ’21, ’22, that’s 53.2%. Of that, 19.4% are in Magnet schools, and 10.7 are in charter schools, and about four and a half percent are estimated to be in homeschooling. Here’s where it gets interesting that I want to ask you guys one of the challenges, and this is one of the challenges we see. In 2001 and two, there were 10.7% of kids attending private schools in Florida. Today we’re on fee paying private school and roughly the choice program, it’s 11.9%. So it’s not been a dramatic increase in the type of private schooling opportunities, but it’s been a dramatic increase in the number of options.

Using that as a framework, when you look at Universal Choice, what are the challenges you see in advancing in not the implementation, but just in advancing this whole policy? Are we going to get to new supply? How does that happen? How does that work? And what are the next steps forward? Patricia, I’d love to hear from you on that.

Patricia Levesque: Sure Robert. One thing I would just say about the percentage numbers that might be impacting what looks like the percentage isn’t going up so high, or as quickly as Florida’s just been growing students hand-over-fist. When I left working in the Inside Government process, I think we were at 2.4 million students and we’re now at 2.9 million students. So I mean, we grew by 500,000 students in just the last 10, 15 years. So there’s huge growing student population. So those ticking up in percentages represents a lot more kids that are choosing private school options. But, what are some future challenges? I do think that while ESAs provide so many other opportunities from a supply perspective, that there is still an issue of supply. There is still, if you, I think Step Up surveyed all the private schools that are participating in any of the private school choice or ESA programs, and within three to five years, current private school supply would run out if they didn’t grow any more students or seats.

Now, what I think is helping with that is the expansion to universal eligibility. Where many more operators could decide, I want to start a school knowing that there is a market wherever they want to put the school, whatever type of school that they want to start. There is now a more consistent, ready supply of parents that you can try to share your school model with, and then have more parents able to participate in your program. And so that makes a big difference when you know that you will have more supply coming in because more parents are eligible. Florida has some unique things that we will have to think through, and that is local funding for students. So Florida, like many other states, school districts or education system is funded from a mix of local property tax revenue and then state revenue, ever how the state revenue is collected or created.

And in Florida, the districts all have a different proportion of state funding versus local funding. What many people may not realize is we have some districts where 90% of the funding is local, only 10% of their budgets are state funding. And yet when we’re funding these scholarship students, we’re calculating the amount per student based on the state and local amounts, but we’re only funding from the state portion. And at some point, in some counties, if we’re successful, we’re going to have enough families on ESAs where the state revenue amount will go away. And then policy makers are going to have to make a decision, does private school choice become something that costs us money, because we’re going to continue to only use state revenue, or do we figure out a way to have local revenue that never touches the state coffers follow the student?

And so that is something Doug and I have been talking about that is a longer term issue. It’s not a right now this year issue, but that’s going to have to be worked on. And then the other thing that I’ll say that is something that we’re going to have to be ever vigilant about, and that is when you pass really important, innovative, very family student/parent-friendly legislation, there still exists people who don’t want that to work. And so the opposition is constantly looking for ways to beat it back. And so when they can’t do it at the state capitol, they’ll do it in other ways. And so this has already started to happen. Since House Bill 1 became a law two weeks ago, county commissions are telling little bitty programs that were, let’s say, private tutoring programs, or in some cases little bitty microschool where the student was getting part of their education through that micro school or that private tutoring opportunity.

Since House Bill 1 passed, county commissions in South Florida are telling these entities, now you’re considered an education entity that meets compulsory attendance requirements, therefore we got to have traffic studies and you got to rezone or else, even though you’ve been operating well for five years, you don’t get to exist anymore in this space. And so luckily the Florida legislature is still in session, and luckily we hear about the problem and there’s an amendment to say, counties, you can’t do that. But this is ongoing. This is not going to stop. When states pass universal policies to empower every family, they’re going to have to be ever vigilant for the things that then will occur that try to pull that back, stop it, crush it at the local level. Those kinds of things are ongoing challenges that we have to pay attention to.

Robert Enlow: I love that Patricia, I want to hear you from Doug and Matt, but that’s the challenges of funding and how do you get funding to be following the kids, including in local funding. We’ve had that problem in Indiana as well. Where do you get to that? And then I love essentially the challenge of a thousand cuts. So if they can’t cut you at one level, they’re going to continue to try and over-regulate you at another level. Challenges, Doug and Matt.

Dr. Matt Ladner: Choice advocates should actually try to move to get private schools exempt from municipal zoning before they pass university joints programs. The a situation here in Arizona is that charter schools have that and private schools don’t. And it was an oversight on the private school side. We also face exactly the same funding challenge. It’s a big deal that is going to be a next generation issue that the choice movement has to deal with. Local funding cannot be the entitlement of school districts. It has to be the entitlement of the child.

And every single taxpayer, we have these false distinctions about funding. I’m a taxpayer. I live in Phoenix. I pay local taxes, I pay state taxes, I pay federal taxes, and all the money is green, we don’t mark some of that money red. It’s like, oh, well this is local funding. We’ve got a large portion of total K-12 funding that’s not following the student. And then that’s something we’re going to have to deal with in the years to come.

Doug Tuthill: So Patricia, I had a list of challenges and Patricia basically hit them all. So the only thing I would add, and Matt, is Step Up has a challenge of figuring out what’s an appropriate expenditure with ESA funds. And so that’s a national issue. Every state that passes ESAs, everybody can say, “Okay.” It’s interesting. You can turn almost anything into an instructional opportunity. I mean, anything. So we’ve got to figure out how to manage that, and that’s going to be an ongoing process. I think over time the states will cooperate and we will share purchasing guides and purchasing policies, and eventually we’ll figure some stuff out. But the next couple years, is it okay to purchase a $3,000 Peloton bike? Is it okay to take your kid on a field trip to a waterpark and get subsidized for that? Is it okay to buy chickens and chicken coop for your autistic kid, because that’s the only thing that keeps your kid centered?

So to the public, that all sounds crazy, but it’s not that crazy necessarily from a family’s perspective, although there are crooks out there. There are people, we periodically find families, they’ll go buy a laptop for their child and then the next day take it back and reimburse it or return it to try to get the money and use it for something else. Or we had a guy who was buying weights for his son. It turns out he was actually building a gym for his own personal business. So there’s a fine line between all those issues, and I think you’re going to see us working hard the next couple years develop a set of policies about what’s acceptable education expenditure and what’s not, because there’s a lot more gray area than there is black and white.

Robert Enlow: Yeah, I love that you brought that up, Doug, because I think that is the challenge of ESAs going forward. And extensively, do you whitelist things in the front? Do you say you can’t spend it on this upfront because we’re worried about poor spending? Or do you look on the back end and say, “Okay, well we think, you haven’t explained to this why this is a good expenditure, so we’re not going to let you do it going forward.” I was thinking about this. I don’t know of any other government program that starts like an ESA that doesn’t have these problems, that doesn’t figure them out over time, and do annual government audits and figure out where it’s working and where it’s not.

I think one of the challenges that I think we have in the reform side of this world and the advocacy side is, oh, do we stop everything from happening at the beginning, or do we actually think and listen to parents and what they want? So how many of us have been in a classroom? I’ve been in classroom tons. And you know what? Every classroom has some version of a chicken coop. They got a rabbit den, they got a turtle terrarium, they got every kind of educational environment. So that’s been using public funds. So it’s some conversation. How do you show that you trust parents while then being responsible at the same time? So I think that’s a great question, Matt, you were going to add to that.

Dr. Matt Ladner: I can think of a government program that operates that way, it’s called Social Security. And we issue social security checks and we don’t say, “Oh, we need to audit grandma to make sure she didn’t go down to the boat and give all her social security check to the one arm bandit” I agree with Doug that these are difficult issues. The very first year of the ESA program in Arizona, it was like, can I take a karate class? I mean, the board administrator was inundated with these questions. Can I take a karate class? Can I buy this? Can I buy that? Blah, blah, blah. And he winds up making rulings like, “Yes, you can take a karate class, but only if your dojo leader is a certified therapist.” And quite frankly, these issues are very difficult to resolve. Once you start sliding down that rabbit hole, there’s no ending to it. And this is just my own personal opinion. The very first ESA paper that I wrote for the Goldwater Institute, we proposed structuring the ESA program as a contract between the state and a family.

And we wanted there to be mutual benefits realized by the state and by the parent. The state gets us some savings, and the parent gets more flexibility on how to fund their child’s education. And that when mutual benefits are realized, that those funds are technically not public funds anymore than the funds that you pay a state worker, a state worker could take their paycheck and go down the street and go to a Catholic school. Now, that is not to say that we don’t want to have a system of controls and whatnot, because we do. So I think we’re going to have about a three to five year period where we try to figure this out and reach some kind of consensus on these issues.

And if we’re not able to, we may wind up going down the road to personal use tax credits because in the end of the day, the juice has to be worth the squeeze on this stuff, and there is no end to the dojo master certified therapist type stuff. And that is the exact opposite of what we’re aiming for here. We don’t want to micromanage people, and the juice needs to be worth the squeeze. So yes, we have to prevent fraud, but we also need to let people figure things out for themselves.

Robert Enlow: This is one of the reasons why, Matt, I think originally when we talked about this way back in the day, we liked the idea of parents being able to carry stuff over, there was a cost incentive that made people spend their own money or feel like they were spending their own money. So there was a limitation built into that. I think getting the incentives right are going to be a huge issue. And Patricia showing what we mean by equality or accountability or however you want to phrase it as is going to be an issue. Because I think that whole debate is still ongoing. And with ESAs, what does it look like, and how does it look? And so there’s a lot of opportunities. So in the last few minutes we have left, Matt Ladner said something to me that struck me and frustrated me, but made me love him even more.

He said, Robert, you guys have been in this movement long enough. You’ve earned your place in Valhalla. All of you guys on this phone have earned your place among the gods of educational choice. Because you guys have been there for so long, doing this incredible work. And that’s not meant to say arrogant. There’s the new generation, there’s all of that. It’s just trying to say, look, you guys have been here doing this for a long time. You’ve earned a spot, wave a wand and tell me what you see the next 20 years. What do you want to see in the next 20 years after a result of all this? What is the end state of Valhalla, Utopia, Nirvana, whatever you want to say. I’d love to hear this conversation as we end.

Doug Tuthill: Well, from my perspective, it’s a highly effective and efficient public education market that works really well, that serves the families and the kids, and also serves the public good. And I think that’s what we’re working towards. It’s sort of a combination of Milton Friedman and Jack Coons in terms of the right balance of how you regulate the market. But ultimately, the most valuable aspect in public education are people. And right now we’re dramatically underutilizing the people because the market is so dysfunctional. I know I sound like Milton Friedman, but yeah, when you have a very healthy market, what that market does is it maximizes your HR capital. You take the wisdom of families, and that wisdom informs the supply side. And you get that virtuous cycle of supply and demand feeding off each other. And I think ultimately that’s what we’re trying to build.

Now, the key is how you regulate that market. That’s part of what we’re talking about is, can you buy Budweiser with, not really, that’s not really where we’re trying to get to. So ultimately in 20 years, I’d love to see a highly effective, highly efficient, properly regulated market that actually is able to deliver equal opportunity. That’s the other piece, Robert, is from my perspective, I don’t want to leave where I started here in our conversation today, I started as a high school kid looking around saying, this ain’t right. This is wrong. And that high school kid is still here saying that same thing, and I want to see that market also deliver equal opportunity.

Patricia Levesque: I want to chime in and just echo what Doug said. The ideal is the system works for the kids. And that parents have enough money and decision-making authority and the funding mechanism, reimbursement mechanism, whatever the way to administer the program is so seamless and efficient that parents can make good decisions because there is a market that informs those decisions. There’s publicly available information that even helps parents make these decisions. I would add to some of the pie in the sky thinking for myself, and that would be we don’t need to have state boundaries anymore. That would be a dream for me. So you have an incredible Khan, World school at ASU prep that is serving students inside the state of Arizona, or you have, Stanford University has an online private school, right? High school. Why couldn’t kids in Florida use their ESA, use their funds and give their own children these opportunities that exist in other states that don’t exist in their own state? That would be part of that ideal dream state for me. And the one other way that I think about it is, again, I started with policy changes lives.

So for me it’s what are the other policy infrastructure or supports that need to be in place that truly allow a parent to make a full and complete decision? And what I mean by that is, a family that wants to put their child in a micro school because whether it’s the academics, the size of the school, there’s just something that they want that is going to be the best academic or other environment, social environment for their child, but yet they also want their child to be able to do, fill in the blank, participate in debate, participate in whatever. Yes, with ESAs, parents can spend money in that way, but there should also be other laws on the books that allow that family to not have to pick between the really incredible debate program at their local public school, and choosing a micro school for the rest of their education. There has to be, in my opinion, this further, blending is not the right way. But these blurry lines.

If you’re a parent, you should be able to go in and out. And that’s why we push part-time public school enrollment. That’s why we advocate for things that really let parents, and I would say we have to start thinking about how do you let educators move more seamlessly among these systems? Those are all things that keep me thinking about what’s next.

Dr. Matt Ladner: Yeah. So Robert, I think over the next 20 years, I mean, we desperately need a more effective and flexible K-12 system. We know some things that are going to happen over the next 20 years. The average baby boomer reached the age of 65 last year. There was a baby bust that started in 2008 and shows no sign of abating. Turns out that a pandemic with social distancing didn’t do anything to help that. We’re going to see some states are going to be early adopters of these policies, and some are going to be late adopters. And I’ll put a bet right down right now that the early adopters are going to be very attractive to young families, and that the late adopters are going to depopulate young families. It’s already happening. You can already see this in the data. Right now, the NCES has projections of K-12 populations by state out to 2030. And Arizona is one of maybe three states that’s projected to grow and it’s not much. So it’s only people moving into Arizona that’s keeping us afloat.

And when I look at our numbers, I see first grade kindergarten cohorts that are considerably smaller than our eighth and ninth grade. So there’s going to be a lot of adjustments. There’s going to be a lot of political difficulties because quite frankly, the district infrastructure in this country is wildly overbuilt. It simply was built for an era of the baby boomers going to school and there’s far fewer kids now. So all of this is going to be very tumultuous, but the states that are going to win are the ones that provide the best ROI for young families, give them the most freedom, the most flexibility, and do the best job of equipping them to get their kids ready to face the future. And I think that the early adopters will lead the way. Certainly Florida is one of those states, the biggest of the states thus far that is an early adopter.

And we’re just going to have to see our way through this. It’s not going to be easy. I hope that no one gets the impression that from 2023 that this is all going to be easy from here on out. It’s not going to be. It’s going to be difficult and challenging in a variety of different ways, but we’re making progress. And I think the future is ultimately.

Robert Enlow: I think that’s right. I love hearing all of those comments. Better infrastructure, particularly on the technological side, Doug. I mean in the sense the government can’t even talk to itself much less an actual modern technological piece of equipment. More flexibility, more adaptability, more tolerance of risk, more supply being built, more information. Milton Friedman, if you look at Milton Friedman’s concept, you need consumers empowered with real financial choice. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last 25 years. But you also need an unencumbered set of supply with good information. And our next phase of this movement is going to be probably talking a lot about what that looks like and how it looks and encouraging patients and longevity. It’s already happening Matt, to your point, we just did an analysis of all of our polls and who were the swing and who were not. Someone looked at 13,000 responses, and found that young 18 to 35-year-old people are the ones that are going to be the swing votes for choice in the future, very specifically swing votes.

And that’s less so on the older and less so on the Republican. It’s very interesting to see what the shifting swing votes are going to look like. And so you’re right, I think early adopters, much like the states, we talk about Arizona, Florida, Indiana, hopefully Wisconsin gets back to stage. I mean, some of these early adopters will get there, and West Virginia we hope will keep going forward. So look, I really, really, really want to thank you guys for an incredible day to be with you guys. It started my Wednesday morning off fantastically. It’s wonderful to see you guys. I want to say thank you very much for all you have done, not only for Arizona and Florida, but for the movement nationally, and as CS Lewis used to say, onwards and upwards. So thank you all very much for an incredible job.

Dr. Matt Ladner: Thank you, Robert.

Patricia Levesque: Thanks, Robert.

Doug Tuthill: Thank you, sir. Thanks guys. Nice seeing everybody.

Robert Enlow: And ladies and gentlemen, that’s the end of our State podcast for today with this incredible panel. Please tune in next time when we talk about the next movement to the states around the country. Thanks very much.