With the session ending, the EdChoice state team has given us a summary of all the recent happenings in the states. It’s been an exciting year for school choice so far with seven states enacting new programs and nine states expanding their existing programs, seven of those nine being nearly universal.
Joey Magaña: Hi everyone, and welcome to the State Update podcast. We’ve got the usual team members on here with one exception of Caitlin who is taking some personal time off. I think we’ve all done that a little bit over the past summer months, as we’ve definitely needed it from the highs of session and soon to be the highs of conference season that we’ve already kind of begun. But I know that the highly anticipated end of session wrap up was recently done by Marc and Ed, so I’m going to just throw it over to them and let them talk about that.
Marc LeBlond: Thanks, Joey. Well, it’s certainly fitting timing with Milton’s birthday happening just a few days ago that we’re now talking about the end of session wrap up and the absolute flurry of excitement and activity this session in the year of universal choice.
So just to sum up from a very high level, seven states enacted new programs in 2023, most of those were ESAs, education savings accounts. We had a tax credit scholarship in Nebraska, and a refundable tax credit in Oklahoma. We saw nine states expanding existing programs. And most exciting among the new programs and the expanded programs, seven of those are newly universal or nearly universal. We’re counting Indiana in that with close to 97–98% of their students being eligible for their voucher program. And we could see North Carolina added to this list this year, potentially going universal with their voucher program, the Opportunity Scholarship program.
And I think it’s worth mentioning, it’s not just a matter of the tail of the tape that’s so significant. Seven new states with programs, nine states expanding programs. Seven universal. It’s important to talk about the increase in access for students. Last year, all of the ESA programs across the United States had 65,000 students enrolled in them. That’s as of 2022. This year alone, we’re seeing reports out of Florida, just Florida from Step Up for Students, they’ve processed 350,000 student applications. They’re going through 2000 a day. So demand and access is just off the charts, going through the roof. So you could say that we’ve reached escape velocity or that we’re approaching escape velocity for educational freedom and choice.
Joey Magaña: Yeah, it’s been truly amazing to see what’s happened over this past year, and I know Florida has… we’ve been getting updates from them about just how many people are signing up for the program. Do you happen to know what they’re at right now?
Marc LeBlond: I believe that’s the total, 350,000, which is just massive exponential growth.
Joey Magaña: We can only expect to see more of that just across the states who have passed very significant school choice programs. And I know we’ve talked about before, we’re seeing some diversity in programs as well, with Oklahoma passing their refundable tax credit. I assume we might see more of that moving forward. Some states like Florida have combined programs. Some states had no choice before, like West Virginia, and just went to a full-blown universal ESA.
So states are doing it their own unique way, which is what we like to see. One size does not fit all, obviously, so I really appreciate that. As far as updates are concerned, obviously as I mentioned before, it’s kind of been the valley of the peak seasons of session earlier in the year, and then conferences that are kind of going on right now and really kind of kicked off last week. But having said that, obviously, Texas was not able to pass a school choice measure during regular session, but they’ve already concluded one special session and are looking to have another special in October to specifically try and address what they can do on school choice.
Lots of interim studies going on that our CEO Robert Enlow has spoken at, was, just a couple of weeks ago, with Caitlin. So, we are diligently working to try to get them as much research as possible so they can make informed decision. So, TBD in Texas. Oklahoma, we’re still waiting on rules and regulation from the Oklahoma Tax Commission who was tasked with implementing the program, which makes sense since it’s a tax credit, but still no guidance. They’ve kind of made a public statement that they hope to have an FAQ page and the coming weeks. Hopefully, they’ll have more than that as families are very eagerly awaiting to hear what they need to do to get their kids signed up for alternative programs like private schools. And of course, we’re still waiting on the great state of North Carolina. Nathan, what updates do you have for us included with North Carolina?
Nathan Sanders: Yeah, absolutely. So just to, as we go into North Carolina, I always sound like a broken record when we do these state updates and we talk about all the states, especially the southern states, but just what a fantastic year for educational freedom, educational choice. We’re talking about as session was going on, we talked about these programs that expanded or these new programs, but now that we’re seeing more and more on implementation and access and the demand for these programs when it comes to applications, it’s just so encouraging to see. And it’s so encouraging to just talk with other legislators and other states and other partners in other states to say, “Here’s what the demand, and here’s what the need for these programs into these other states.” And just to use that and to be able to spread the word and to see the need there is super encouraging.
So just wanted to preface with that, that I’m still super excited as we go through the summer and the rest of the year to be able to just do this every day. But North Carolina still waiting on their budget process. The good news is the OPS, the Opportunity Scholarship voucher is still safe. It’s in the budget. The legislature has assured everyone that it’s still there. Their budget process extremely long and tedious, and they’re working on some other things that don’t really pertain to choice. So the bad news is it may take a little longer, maybe around September for that draft to come out and that process to start moving along. But the good news is choice is still safe, and they’ve assured everyone that they’ll be able to expand that access to pretty much all of North Carolina children. So that’s the great news about North Carolina.
Some other updates just around the South, as Marc mentioned. And Joey, as you mentioned, Florida, just over 350,000 scholarships awarded. Like I said, it’s super encouraging, super exciting, and I think even a couple thousand per day in terms of applications, that was just that 350,000 was the end of July. So now that we’re halfway through the week in August, applications are being processed, which is great news.
South Carolina that ESA, of course, passed this past session, and that program will take effect the 24–25 school year. So it’s super important just to get the word out, make sure that the access is made and that the parents are made aware of this program as we get into next year. That’ll be extremely important for South Carolina children.
Other than that, as I mentioned before, just when you look at states like Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, especially Georgia, because Georgia got so close at creating a new program this past session, it’s just so important to look at these other states, look at these other programs that are expanding or new and as they start to implement them, just to take that and show these other states that the need is there and that parental choice is so important to not just Southerners, but all around the United States right now. And just to use that as we go into next session to prepare and to expand access to educational opportunities.
So, I’ll end with that. I’m extremely encouraged as we go through the rest of the year just to work with everyone to expand educational options.
Joey Magaña: Yeah, no, I think that’s great. It certainly is exciting, and I know we will kind of talk through later in the year about our expectations for the next year. But I know there are several states in your area who might do something next year, and I know a lot of us that come from a more political/government affairs background, cycle gears where there’s an election we don’t expect much, but maybe, we’ll see. But we’ll definitely preview that at the end of the year.
One thing I neglected to mention in some updates I was giving was Arkansas. There’s a group there who have been collecting signatures to put their new universal ESA on the ballot, obviously to repeal the law. They came out with a number yesterday or the day before, and they came up short. So we’ll see if the Secretary of State, I think they’re allowed maybe a few more weeks, if they allow that. So TBD, but it’s looking good. They were not able to get all the signatures needed to immediately put it on the ballot. So good news out of Arkansas, my home state.
Marc, I’m sure you don’t want to give a Pennsylvania update, but there might be still maybe some hope in Pennsylvania, but what’s kind of the update out there?
Marc LeBlond: I was afraid you’d ask that, Joey. No, I actually wasn’t afraid, but returning to the holy hot mess that is Pennsylvania. Last we looked, last we updated, I think Governor Shapiro who had supported the Lifeline Scholarship proposal, targeted ESA proposal, had made an agreement with the Senate. The Pennsylvania House was not included on the deal, and that’s where it broke down. So a budget with Lifeline in it with increases to the tax credit scholarship programs passed the Senate and just completely fell apart in the House.
So where we left it is, the Senate still has to sign off on that budget, and Governor Shapiro had in the fog of negotiations and in the fog of getting the house to agree to something, the sticking point was that Lifeline Scholarship program. So, he ended up going back on what he had said and saying, “Okay, I’m going to line item veto just that Lifeline Scholarship proposal,” which of course is counter to what was agreed to with the Senate.
But be that as it may, the Senate still has to sign off on that budget. So we were looking at potentially an impasse lasting up until September. Just yesterday, the Senate President, Kim Ward, the President Pro Tem, Kim Ward, called the Senate back into session to continue their work on the budget. So maybe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, we’ll see. But what’s hanging in the balance, of course, is large increases to basic education funding. So we’re around three quarters of a billion dollars to public school funding, increased in the budget, about $150 million increase to the tax credit programs and maybe hope upon hope, Lifeline scholarships.
Joey Magaña: Yeah, we’ll hold out hope as long as we can. It’s not over until it’s over, so we’ll see what happens, but we’ll keep an eye on it. Ed, what have you been seeing out there with your unique perspective? What’s going on in your world?
Ed Tarnowski: Yeah. Well, with the momentous year for bills being signed into law also came a momentous year for bills introduced. Just to give this monthly and final update for this session, this year we tracked 112 bills introduced in 40 states across the country related to education, savings accounts, vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and refundable tax credits. 79% of those bills were related to ESAs. It has been a massive year for bills introduced for school choice. We saw lots of states really making a push. While not all of them were successful in making them law on the end, I truly do believe that this shows a new level of momentum for school choice that we hadn’t seen previously.
Joey Magaña: Yeah, I would imagine so. I keep telling people as I travel the country that it really has been an amazing year. School choice is no longer tolerable, it’s preferable. And it’s been amazing to see, and especially for families who we all work for at the end of the day, to get them options and the best education that’s possible for them.
Ed Tarnowski: Absolutely, Joey, and let’s hope next year we get to 50 states.
Joey Magaña: Yes, absolutely. That’s the ultimate goal, and we’ll get there someday. Well, thanks everybody for the update. Appreciate all of our listeners out there. Stay tuned for next month, and we’ll let you know about a conference season that’ll be kind of hot and heavy. We’ve already completed the American Legislative Exchange Council. Next week we have the National Conference of State Legislators, among several others. So having good conversations out there at these conferences where people are getting together and talking about policy that different states are doing. And so really good opportunities for us to talk about school choice. So stay tuned and we’ll see you next month.