Ep. 377: State Updates – June 2023

July 7, 2023

If you need a rundown on the latest litigation involving school choice across the states, the EdChoice state team has you covered in this podcast.

Joey Magaña: Hi everyone. Welcome to the State Update podcast. We’re back at it again. State sessions have slowly ended. So this month, started with a bang and then ended with a putter, but we still had some good wins and good policy get through the finish line, but we’ll start with Ed. Ed, what’s happening in the northeast and all the tracking you’ve been doing? 

Ed Tarnowski: Yeah, absolutely. So just to give everyone an update on New Hampshire, so as you may have heard very recently, the New Hampshire Senate did pass an expansion to the state’s Education and Freedom Account program, which would expand the program from 300 to 350% of the federal poverty line. However, given New Hampshire’s unique process, after that passage, it still had to go through Senate finance and then pass the full Senate again. Yesterday evening, it did get the green light from Senate finance, and we’re anticipating a final vote in the Senate on that on June 8th, where it’ll then be sent to the governor’s desk if it does pass. So that’s the update on New Hampshire. 

Regarding tracking in the States, we are wrapping up sessions, so these updates do get less and less drastic, but we do have an update nonetheless. At this point, between ESA, voucher, tax-credit scholarship, and refundable tax credit legislation, there have been 106 bills introduced in 40 states this year. And between ESAs, vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, refundable tax credits, tuition reimbursement programs, individual tax credits, microschools, micro grants, and constitutional amendments that are favorable to school choice, that’s just the more expanded list of school choice legislation. Between those pieces of legislation, we’re at 134 bills in 43 states. That pretty much wraps up the update from my end. Yeah, as I’ve said, session’s coming to a close. It’s definitely been quite the exciting year for school choice with record numbers of legislation being introduced across the country. 

Joey Magaña: Yeah, it’s really crazy how much records have been broken as far as it relates to all types of school choice and just education reform in general. It’s been quite the year. I know Robert, the CEO, and I were talking about how not as many states have enacted choice policy, but it’s more quality over quantity, so much more universal type legislation, which is great. We want all kids to be eligible. So Caitlin, what about you? What’s happening in the southwest? I know there’s one particular state that’s our home state that did some good things. 

Caitlin Lee: Yeah, so Oklahoma passed the refundable tax credit, and that was past the end of April, actually, I believe. Maybe the very beginning of May, but the governor actually finally was able to sign that bill after the house released it. It was held up for a while during budget negotiations as part of that deal, but the governor was finally able to sign that last week, and so the most robust choice legislation that we’ve seen in Oklahoma, so that was a big win. 

And I know that you and Marc’s going to discuss the uniqueness of that program compared to what we’ve seen in the past and states that have done an ESA or voucher program, so… because it’s a little bit different from other tax-credit programs. That’s the only thing majorly that’s happened in this area. Texas finally wrapped up their session with another year without an ESA or any other major- 

Joey Magaña: Again. 

Caitlin Lee: Again. The main difference would be that I would say that there’s a more likely than not chance that they will go into a special session. Abbott vowed that very early on that they would do that, and then he has already said that that’s going to happen and the lieutenant governor has also committed to that. So we’re just waiting for timeline on that. 

Joey Magaña: You can say if you disagree, but it seems like both the governor and lieutenant governor have really done everything they possibly can to try to get this done, and so they’re using the next tool in their tool chest, which is a special session, but they really have been champions on the issue. 

Caitlin Lee: They have. This year’s been very different in that nature as far as… Instead of being more passive on it, they’ve been, every step of the way, pushing and pushing, whereas they don’t always have as much power. In the past, they’ve had to be a little bit more passive and the governor typically has to just be on the sidelines a little bit more and has less power, but he has done everything he can to really push this along. And I think special session’s the next way we’re going to see that. 

We did see in Arizona limiting their universal program. There were some efforts made to cap the program and to slow that enrollment down and that was unsuccessful, so that was a good thing in May, as this year, we knew that defending the program was going to be the most important thing we did in Arizona. The renewal of contracts was also a big thing where people did submit bids for that. So we’ll be watching that as well. So that’s all I had majorly for my states down in the southwest. Nevada, we’re still watching. The governor is using his passion for choice and negotiations on the budget, and it looks like he may actually be able to get a little bit of an expansion on that. 

Joey Magaña: Yeah, I thought that was a little bit of surprise just given the political dynamics in that state, but just another case where another governor is a choice champion and really fighting hard to try to get something for families out there, so I’m happy for that. Nathan, what about you? What’s happening in the southeast? 

Nathan Sanders: Lots of things happening. Lots of great things happening in the southeast. I’ll start with North Carolina. So I think in the last state update call that we did, they had passed H823: “Choose your School, Choose your Future” for out of the House. In terms of development in the state, there hasn’t been much going on since then. It’s a slower process. North Carolina has a longer legislative session than most states, so they don’t have as many deadlines as some others, but just to recap, the “Choose your School, Choose your Future” H23 piece of legislation that would give universal school choice to North Carolina passed the House, and they have companion legislation in the Senate that has not yet passed the Senate, but because of that, there’s still really two options on the table. One’s more likely than the other. 

They could go the budget route. Speaker can fit their “Choose your School, Choose your Future” piece of legislation into the budget and send the full budget to the governor. Or they could choose to pass the piece of legislation in the Senate and then send a bill to the governor in an anticipated veto and then choose to override the veto in both chambers. So both of those options are still possible and on the table, but it seems like the budget route is what is being touted. Now, a big development, if you will, that’s happened since our last state update call is an unprecedented state of emergency from the governor’s office who’s essentially made this school choice bill a state of emergency from the governor’s office, saying that it will completely destroy and defund these public schools and all of these things that we always hear, and he did a press conference about it. 

Joey Magaña: So we’re not talking about a hurricane or a tornado or a flood. We’re talking about giving money to families for their education. Is that right? 

Nathan Sanders: Yeah. No natural disaster. No one has died. There has been no real emergency. But if you look on the governor’s website, in a huge red banner on the top of the website, it’s “Governor declares state of emergency,” but it’s for a school choice legislation. It’s absolutely insane. Everyone’s talking about it. From what I understand, it’s completely unprecedented, especially in North Carolina, but maybe even in the United States as a whole. It’s completely crazy. So the governor’s office is absolutely fighting this. So if it comes to his desk as a bill, he will absolutely veto it. No one’s expecting anything different from that. But if they go the budget route, it’s a little bit more strategic, fitting it in with some other initiatives that the governor’s office has. He may not have an option. So we’ll see how that develops. I think on the right side of the whole state of emergency thing, it just shows where the governor’s office is. 

They know that the legislators want this. They know parents want this. They know that the constituents want this, North Carolina, and that students want this, and I think this is just a last ditch effort to do anything for it, and so just using a state of emergency as a virtue signaling effort to tell people to contact their legislators, but I don’t really know how effective it will be. So that’s an interesting thing that happens. Be on the lookout over the next couple of weeks. The budget usually is due at the end of the month of June for North Carolina, so over the next couple of weeks, they’re expecting some developments there. So we’ll see how that goes. 

Marc LeBlond: Nathan, I actually have a question for you about your state update. So Roy Cooper, I’ve heard, sent his own children to private schools. Can you tell me if that was a state of emergency when he sent his own kids to private school in North Carolina? 

Nathan Sanders: But yeah, Marc, you’re right. The governor did send his own kids to private school, but him and his office just adamant to make it more difficult and continue keeping kids trapped in their zones, so you’re right. You’re right, Marc.  

So Louisiana, there’s been some developments there with a couple of the ESA bills. The universal ESA HB 98 has pretty much all but died this session. It didn’t get scheduled for its Senate committees because the certain makeup of the education committee in the Senate. That was expected, although there were some hopes that it would be scheduled and see where some of the legislators stood on universal, but again, that was expected. We’re expecting more optimistic votes and an optimistic, I guess, attitude towards ESAs next year with new leadership and some new legislators as some of the older ones get turned out. 

All expected. No big let-downs, I guess. But there is another ESA for students with exceptionalities, HB9, which has passed its first Senate committee hurdle. It’ll be scheduled next week for second hurdle in committee, and after it passes that, which is all expected to, it will go to the Senate floor and then hopefully to the governor’s desk. Now, that will probably be its biggest challenge this session, is to see if the governor will sign it. Early in the session, the governor was working with the bill author, but after some of the amendments that he wanted to put on that weren’t very good were not put on it, thankfully, he backed off a little bit. So we’ll see if he signs that. He’s never been a huge supporter of any type of school choice bill. This one of course is a… targeted for students with exceptionalities, which, again, look, our legislature, the House and the Senate it seems like overwhelmingly bipartisanly support this bill no question. 

There are only a few people who have not voted for it, but overwhelmingly, especially in the House, there are only three people who voted against it. And so hopefully the governor takes notes and reads the room. For HB9, there’s only three people who didn’t vote for it. Most Democrats in the House and all the Republicans in the House voted for it. Hopefully the governor reads the room, takes some notes and signs the bill. And so pretty optimistic on that one. I’m feeling good about that one, but we’ll see how that turns out over the next couple of weeks as session ends. 

Session ends on Thursday. Constitutionally, they must end at 6:00 PM, I think. It’s been good. I’m extremely optimistic for next session, again, with new leadership and some new legislators stepping in. Especially as we’ve seen in other states like Florida, Arkansas, hopefully North Carolina, these states passing these expansive school choice packages, I’m hoping that Louisiana takes some notes and says, “We don’t want to be last anymore. Let’s pass something like this,” especially with the new governor and takes that big leap. So I’m optimistic for next session. I’m excited to start working there. Yeah. 

Joey Magaña: Yeah. Again, I just want to point out that Louisiana is one of the only states… Not the only, but one of the only states where even though it’s a targeted ESA, it’s still an ESA nonetheless. It’s still a choice program nonetheless. And where traditionally, the other side, the Democrats have voted in lockstep against it, Louisiana now for the second year has been an exception, whereas you said it was unanimous last year and some smaller measures this year as well. As far as I know, there have not been any other choice measures this year except for Oklahoma. There was one democrat in the House who’s a good friend of Caitlin and ours who voted for the refundable tax credit, but no other Democrats have really voted for it. Now, Marc, we’ll go to you. I know Pennsylvania, there’s some lights at the end of the tunnel as well there for some bipartisanship. So what’s going on there? 

Marc LeBlond: You’re right about that, Joey. It’s heating up here in Pennsylvania, literally and figuratively. Literally because it’s 90 degrees outside today and I’m sweating, and figuratively because we’re heading into budget season. Session is winding down, so that’s pretty much all of the month of June is budget season and education related, there are two main proposals on the table. Proposal number one is to expand the state’s tax-credit programs, tax-credit scholarship programs. And proposal number two is to pass lifeline scholarships, a targeted education savings account proposal, and both of these are supported by the governor and he continues to support them. 

Now, it’s interesting to note about the tax credit programs, these programs have been waitlisted for years, and they’ve been waitlisted both on the student side and on the donor side with, at times, hundreds of millions of dollars sitting on the sidelines that donors want to donate, but they can’t because of program caps. So the last data that we have in terms of the student waitlist is about 75,000 students, which would… In simple math terms, it would take about $150 million to offset that waitlist and to allow every kid who meets it an opportunity in Pennsylvania through the tax-credit program. Yeah. So we’ll see how that shakes out. It is helpful, and it is a welcome change to have the governor’s support after eight years of not having a governor who’s supportive of these types of programs. 

But speaking of supporting choice options in Pennsylvania, EdChoice just sponsored an event in Philadelphia. One of our longtime and dear partners, Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, run by Keisha Jordan and her staff over there, and they do amazing work at CSFP. Their average family income is about $46,000. They are truly helping more than 5,000 Philadelphia families a year who really, really need the access and really need the opportunity. We held an event at St. Francis Cabrini Catholic High School in Philadelphia with a number of local partners, local policy makers, all professing support for supporting these programs, for expanding these programs. We heard from parents, from teachers, from the school principal just real life stories of the needs of families and of transformational change of these programs. 

Joey Magaña: That’s great. And I want to make sure that we talk about a specific policy, which was the refundable tax credit in Oklahoma. You as our policy director see all of the different angles of these choice policies, and we’ve talked about vouchers of the past that are still around obviously, but that was first thought of as the way to do it, and then ESAs came about about a decade ago as the next best way to do it for allowable expenses and different things like that. And now we’ve come to refundable tax credit, which is obviously not a new thing in the world of tax policy, but in the world of education it is. 

There was only a handful of states, really, two that I can think of that did something like this on a much, much smaller scale. Oklahoma blew it out of the water and said, “Everybody’s eligible. It’s universal.” There is a funding cap on it, but it’s 150 million the first year and 250 million the third year in its final phase of implementation, so it’ll give it to a lot of students and I have it in mind that it’ll continue to grow as we move on, but I’d love you to just spend a couple of minutes on what you think about this new policy for choice. 

Marc LeBlond: I’m with you, Joey. I think it’s exciting. And the only other two… I hesitate to say comparable… semi similar programs would be, I think, Alabama and South Carolina. And neither of those are as expansive as what you’ve got going on in Oklahoma by a long shot in terms of the amount of the scholarship offered, in terms of the number of students who have access. So your Oklahoma parental choice tax credit, it’s universal eligibility. It’s up to a $7,500 credit for tuition and fees, and there’s that homeschool component. So I think a lot of states are going to be looking to Oklahoma as an example of, “Hey, here’s something else you can do if maybe you don’t have the appetite for a directly funded program.” 

You can do a tax-credit type of a program, a refundable tax-credit program, and I see where there’s room for Oklahoma to grow their program. They can expand the caps, they can expand the scholarship, they can expand the credit amount on the homeschool side of things. They can expand use for the tuition and fees component. I think really, really exciting things. Yeah, really happy for y’all there in Oklahoma. 

Joey Magaña: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more, and I think you’re right. A lot more states will be looking at this. They already have. There’s a couple of bills filed in some other states that just put it out there, not even really knowing, I think, what Oklahoma was doing. Ever since Oklahoma has passed it now, there’s a lot more states that are much more serious about it, Idaho being one of them. I think Kansas has some interest in it. So lots of exciting things when new things like this pop up, just as a new, innovative way to think about how we can help families out with their educational needs. So that’s the state update for this month. Lots of exciting things heading into summer. So lots of things are going to be winding down and we’ll start conference season where a lot of these legislators will go to these conferences and talk about education policy, what they’ve done, what they want to do. We’ll keep you attuned to that as well. Have a good weekend, everyone.