Ep. 370: State Updates – April 2023

May 9, 2023

Members of the EdChoice team give the latest updates on legislation going on in the US, with emphasis on the Southwest and Midwest regions.

Joey Magaña: Welcome everybody to the next State Update, a monthly roundup of what all’s going on with the school choice policy around the country. We’ll just do a quick run around the horn. We’re all kind of busy in states as sessions are slowly winding down, not enough of them to make our work any less than it has been. Nathan, why don’t we start with you? 

Nathan Sanders: Sure. Well, happy to be on the podcast again talking about state updates. I’ve been talking about sort of the national perspective with all these different states with some local partners here in Louisiana for the past couple of days because Louisiana just had a universal ESA pass favorably through its first hurdle, Education Committee, House Committee. So I’ve been talking back and forth with some partners, with some legislators about the national perspective, so it’s good to sort of keep that conversation going. 

So yeah, I mean, I guess I’ll start with Louisiana since I’ve already mentioned it. Universal ESA in Louisiana, almost the same exact bill, although it’s been amended, that was passed last legislative session. It was introduced again, this session. The partners are super excited for this, they’re super pumped. They have lots of support, lots of legislative support for this. The biggest hurdle for this one continues to be the governor; he hasn’t shown any indication that he plans to sign it and that he supports it. And so we just have to keep the conversations going, just keep showing the legislative support, keep showing the parents’ support, showing that almost 80% of parents in this state support and education savings account and how that benefits their families and their kids. 

So that’ll be a fight. We’re not quite halfway through legislative session in Louisiana, so that’ll continue to be the fight and the conversation going forward there. The education chairman is a big champion for choice, and so we work closely with him to get data and research out there to show other legislators that this is the right way to go. So that’s it for Louisiana. I just left the capital there today. 

Moving on, Tennessee last week passed an expansion of their ESA pilot program, finally, and they ended session, I believe it was on the last day of session when they did that. So that’s great news, although it’s not an universal ESA by any means, you’re still expanding on an ESA program and serving more kids that also continues to show legislators and elected officials there that it works and that’s what parents want. And so as sessions and years continue on in Tennessee, we’ll continue the conversation there as well. 

Joey Magaña: And that was an expansion just to more counties, is that right? 

Nathan Sanders: That’s right, yeah. They expanded out to a couple more counties. I believe it’s Hamilton County and, I forget the other one, but they’ve expanded out just to another county, so covering more kids, which is great. 

Moving on to South Carolina, this week, they should pass their ESA program, although limited a bit by funding. At full implementation and full funding, it services about 80% of kids in South Carolina, which is great. The support from legislators and from leadership, especially in South Carolina this whole session for this bill has been tremendous, which has been great. They’ve sort of gotten the bill through quietly, not big opposition from any big groups or any legislators really. So they haven’t really amended it or changed the bill much, but they’ve kind of gotten it through that way. And so that bill was scheduled last week on the House floor, but they’ve pushed it to this week, and I believe their session ends at the end of this month or close to it. And so they’re getting close to wrapping up as well in South Carolina. And so hopefully after, I believe today or tomorrow, they’ll have an ESA passed in South Carolina. And the governor’s already said that he’s going to sign it and that’ll be great, and they’ll be able to serve some kids in South Carolina. 

Joey Magaña: And that’s another phased in plan, is that right? Three years? 

Nathan Sanders: Yes, I believe so. 

Joey Magaña: 

South Carolina’s been at it for a long time, so maybe that’s why it’s flying under the radar. What about North Carolina?  

Nathan Sanders: Yeah, North Carolina, the big one. So they’ve had… This whole session they have been talking about educational freedom, educational choice, ESAs, and they actually had an ESA bill introduced earlier this session, but then they decided to go out swinging and they decided to expand their opportunity scholarships, their current program they have in place, expand that out to a full universal ESA. Tons, and I can’t even remember how many co-sponsors, Mark may have to help me on this one, but tons of co-sponsors, leadership has signed on, they have tons of support. The governor has indicated that he is not for this program whatsoever, but because of the support that they have in the legislature, even if they don’t fit this into a budget bill, they’ll be able to potentially have the votes for a veto to override it. And so lots of good things happening in North Carolina. The bill’s great, serves tons and tons of North Carolinians’ families, and so very excited about what’s going on there. 

That one, the first hurdle would be tomorrow, the Senate companion Bill S406 will be in Senate committee tomorrow. And so that one’s going to start moving along very quickly through Senate committee and then the House version through the House committees. And so their session is a little bit longer than some others, but that will move very quickly. 

So yeah, it’s been a big year just in the South. I know some other states have had some great success. So just in the South alone, we’ve seen some big programs and some big expansions pass. And just like the conversations I’ve had with some legislators and some people in Louisiana, it’s just indication that it’s not reason to pass these programs, rather it’s indication that this is what parents and families want and this is the right way to go. So super excited about what’s going on here.

Joey Magaña: Yeah, it’s interesting that you bring that up. I mean, it’s a lot of Southern states, a lot of Midwestern states. I mean obviously Arizona being in the southwest, kind of that frontier spirit and maybe some good old southern charm is what’s kind of pushing some of this stuff through. Caitlin, what about you? What’s happening in your states? 

Caitlin Lee: So Oklahoma, it’s a waiting game. We are just waiting for the legislators to work together, not so patiently because not only are all the education groups waiting, every other sector is also kind of waiting on education at the moment because a lot of things are being held up in crossfires at the moment. So the Senate has caucused for two days in a row now seemingly about education, and the House is playing its normal game of chicken. And if the Senate only hears 20 bills, the House will play to hear 25 bills. So we are in our fifth month of the last month of the legislature in Oklahoma. So it’s kind of where we stand with that. And seemingly everyone’s giving education lobbyists and education policy groups dirty looks in the rotunda because they all blame us currently, which is great because that just kind of signals that everyone understands that this is a big issue and it’s important and something needs to be done. So sometimes it’s good to be hated. And it’s not true hatred, so they all do it with love and respect mostly. 

So the other state that I’m working in that I’m kind of waiting on is Texas. So Senate Bill 8 is kind of the one with the most momentum and that we’ve been following and caring about the most by Senator Creighton. It’s passed the Senate and it’s been referred to House Public Education Committee so we’re expecting it to get a hearing sooner than later. They’re also three ESA’ bills HB 4340, 3781, and 4807 that are currently under deliberation by the House Public Education Committee. 

So we expect at least one more committee hearing in the next few weeks, and then some floor votes as well. The House floor is going to be the biggest hiccup in Texas, but we’ve made some progress there, we believe, looking at where legislators stand, and we’re working with groups in Texas to kind of see how we can help support the local efforts there with some of our research and data. So that’s kind of it for right now, gearing up in states that we worked in earlier this year, Wyoming is getting ready to start their interim process. So later in May they’ll start interim process to hear ideas for next year and we’re excited that school choice is on that list of topics that will be discussed. 

Joey Magaña: Yeah. So even though there’s no session, the work continues. 

Caitlin Lee: It does continue. 

Joey Magaña: And just to show how different states are with legislative session, Nathan, tell me when Louisiana started their session this year. 

Nathan Sanders: So Louisiana started about three weeks ago. I forget the exact day, but they started about… This is their third or fourth week in session, and they end, it’s a little bit shorter than the usual session, they end the first week of June. So I believe they started mid-April. 

Joey Magaña: Yeah, which for most states is pretty late. Most states start in January. Oklahoma’s a little bit of an odd duck it starts in February, and then you’ve got good old Louisiana that starts in April. So got to love that. 

I did want to mention as well, Caitlin and Mark, the three of us were in Iowa last week for kind of a first ever implementation summit. And it was a gathering of about 230 private school leaders, parents, advocates all together to kind of talk through what implementation looks like in Iowa, what are some of the best practices of how can we do this right to serve families. And I just thought it was an amazing thing to see. I mean, one of the things I took out of it was the exchange between the vendor who’s going to help carry out this ESA, it’s Odyssey. And so their CEO was there answering questions at a full hour, did his presentation of what it would look like online to families, giving information on the vendor side with private schools, what the application process might look like. So as you can imagine, very popular on that side. But I wanted to give you two a chance to pick out your highlight from that implementation summit. 

Caitlin Lee: So I would say I was really impressed with all the questions that were asked. We’ve had a chance to review those, and that’s probably my biggest takeaway was I really appreciate the chance to hear admin’s questions and how schools, the questions that they have going forward. Because those are the things that we’re going to need to address as more of these programs go into place, is how we can assist them and how we can help those schools and get them prepared to move forward. 

Joey Magaña: Yeah, pretty critical. 

Marc LeBlond: And I would echo what Caitlin said, the same thing with the questions from the school leaders to Secretary Chad Aldis and to Joe Connor from Odyssey, just that operator perspective is so essential. And I really enjoyed the parent panel, seeing, albeit in other states, but Kimberly Doley in West Virginia to Shalimar from New Hampshire, seeing that peak into the future and emphasizing the importance on getting this right for parents and getting the user interface right. And so striking that balance of, hey, this is a victory and we’re jubilant, and now the real work begins, and we’ve got a real responsibility to kids, parents, and school leaders. 

Joey Magaña: Yeah, I mean, we really can’t afford for these programs to fail. There’s a lot of families that are depending on it. And now we have, at my account, six states to the past universal ESAs in one way or fashion, but universal, meaning all families, all kids. And there’s a lot of excited folks out there for the opportunity to have a different kind of education. So, we’ve got to make sure that we all get it right. 

So yeah, I mean in North Dakota there was some unfortunate movement there. I know Mark, you and I were kind of looking closely at that. They had, I think it was a 10 million dollar choice program, 3,000 per kid, basically a voucher, that the legislature passed, and then the governor vetoed at kind of the last hour. So that was unfortunate news. 

I know in Illinois they have a tax credit scholarship program there that’s pretty robust that they’re trying to get extended. It’s under a sunset provision, so if they don’t extend it, the program dies. So we’re trying to help out there as much as we can and get that program extended because I know a lot of kids and families depend on that. Idaho, I can’t remember if we talked about this last time or not, but Idaho ended their session without any school choice program. Again, they still have their micro grant and that’s still going strong, which is great, but we’ll continue to work in that state and hope for the best that they’ll pass robust choice program in the future. Some great conversations out there, some good folks, but some typical hangups that we’ve seen over the past few decades. Mark, what about you? What are you seeing out there in the policy world? 

Marc LeBlond: So I think Nathan was right to describe the session in 2023 so far as exciting. But we’re also looking at Nebraska. They’ve got a tax credit scholarship program moving through their legislature, LB 753, and that’s just got a couple of steps or two, fingers crossed before that gets to the governor’s desk. Idaho did pass an open enrollment bill, which is not what we were hoping for, universal ESAs, but hey, we’ll take it, more choices for more kids. In Pennsylvania we’ve been waiting with bated breath for some of these bills to drop, and they’re finally starting. House Bill 514 is sponsored by a Democratic representative out of Philadelphia named Ed Neilson, and that’s a targeted education savings account. It’s about 90% of the state funds targeted to students with specific needs, so students with disabilities, military families, foster kids, and the like. There are seven Democratic sponsors on that bill and one Republicans. So a really interesting legislative development there in Philadelphia. 

We’re seeing House Bill 311 has been introduced by Representative Milou Mackenzie. That’s a constitutional amendment for all money to follow the child to public school or private school, basically changing the default. So instead of those monies revolving around the district, they would center around the child, which is what we want. And still waiting for updates on Lifeline Scholarship. We’ve got proposals out there from Senator Judy Ward and Representative Clint Owlett, waiting on legislation to drop on those. And then there’s a tax credit scholarship increase proposal from Philadelphia Representative Martina White that would increase the programs by $500 million. 

And just more broadly, I’m very encouraged by what we’re seeing in the ED policy space, talking to Catholic school groups, talking to Christian schools’ associations, other educational organizations, and people get the ESA concept conceptually. It seems like we’ve turned a corner where people would default to vouchers, default to tax credits or charter schools. And now they’re starting to talk about ESAs, and they’re even starting to talk about universal ESAs. And it’s interesting to see how some of these groups are responding to looming ESAs and ESA implementation. 

In Iowa, talking to a bunch of school leaders, they’re starting to think about not only, “Hey, how can we serve our kids? How can we serve our families?” They’re thinking in terms of, what other creative things can we do in our school, our school space? For instance, the Catholic diocese so heavily subsidizes tuition, they’re not going to have to do that anymore. That’s going to free up budget space elsewhere. Well, can we pay our teachers more? I was just talking to a school principal who’s creating a 401K plan for his teachers, this is creating an innovation for those new kinds of thinking that we’ve been looking for in education. 

Joey Magaña: So Ed, we’ll turn to you and I’d love to hear what you’re seeing as far as the bills that you’ve been tracking, what you’ve been seeing around the country, and particularly kind of your home area of the Northeast and what’s been happening in New Hampshire. 

Ed Tarnowski: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you, Joey. So just to give a short update now, New Hampshire. In the House, we did see two small expansions previously passed, and we are waiting to see what will happen there in the Senate. One of those bills increases the limit on the program from 300 to 350% of the federal poverty line. The other bill actually increases the eligibility for certain special groups. So we’re watching closely in the New Hampshire Senate to see what happens there. We’re also watching to see what may happen in the budget, see if any kind of expansion may happen there in the Senate. 

Regarding tracking across the country, it continues to be a momentous year for school choice. I have started to group our tracking to two different groups. For today, we’ll call them Group A and Group B. So in Group A, this includes just bills related to ESAs, vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and Oklahoma’s refundable tax credit. There are 103 of those bills in 40 states, now the percentage of those that are ESAs is 78.6%. 

Now, Group B is a little bit more broad, and I use this because a lot of these are worth talking about. They’re a bit different than some of the categorization of Group A, but I do think they’re worth talking about. Group B includes bills related to ESAs, vouchers, tax credit scholarships, refundable tax credits, tuition reimbursement programs, individual tax credits, micro school bills, micro grants and bills related to favorable constitutional proposals to educational choice. For those bills there are 131 in 43 states, which means just seven states now have not introduced bills related to school choice this year, which is really, really impressive. And just one more thing to mention- 

Joey Magaña: Who wants to live in those states? 

Ed Tarnowski: No comment, because I like some of the states. And one final stat throughout there, there are now 81 ESA bills in 33 states. So again, I want to continue to emphasize, as I’ve mentioned previously, ESAs are now king in this movement as we continue to see, which is great for families because they’re the most flexible and broad type of school choice program out there. 

Joey Magaña: Yeah, for sure. I remember when you started that list and it just keeps growing and growing. I figured it eventually would stop, but it hasn’t. 

Ed Tarnowski: And we’re hoping to still get to 50. I’m still watching those every day, so we’ll see. 

Joey Magaña: Good. We’ll keep us updated. Well, that’s it for us this month. Stay tuned, and we will probably have another robust round of updates next month.