Ep. 62: The Monthly Debrief – July Looking to August 2018

August 21, 2018

In this Monthly Debrief podcast, EdChoice’s Director of State Relations Lauren Hodge, Director of Policy Jason Bedrick and Senior Director of State Relations Michael Chartier discuss the latest school choice happenings in the states in July and look forward to what’s still to come as we close out August 2018.

Michael Chartier:  All right. Thank you listeners. This is Michael Chartier here, the senior director of state relations here at EdChoice, welcoming you again to another EdChoice Chat. We’re going to be looking back at what happened in the month of July and maybe previewing a few things … Not very much, but maybe a few things that happened in the month of August here. We have in studio with me our ever-present Lauren Hodge, who’s continuing to get her feet wet across the country, learning a few state capitals along the way, and becoming a bit of a world traveler. On the phone Jason Bedrick, our policy director, who is ever-present at these policy conferences, and leading us into the future of expanded EdChoice policies. So I’ll give them a second to introduce themselves, and we’ll get started.

Jason Bedrick: Michael, thanks for having me, as always.

Lauren Hodge: I’m glad to be here, Michael. It’s wonderful to have another chance to sit down and talk about what’s going on across the nation.

Michael Chartier: Perfect. First we’ll start with Lauren. We had a major case come down in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico I understand had a court case involving their sort of newly passed voucher program, and I hear that there are some rulings in that case. Lauren, would you want to give our listeners an update on what’s going on with that case?

Lauren Hodge: Absolutely Michael. So Puerto Rico is a really interesting case that’s come down. To those of you who have listened or followed the school choice movement, you know that there have been numerous legal challenges along the way, challenging the viability of the voucher system, challenging the way that tax-credit scholarships work, so Puerto Rico was no exception to this rule.

The etymology for this lawsuit in Puerto Rico is interesting, and I think for the listeners that it’s really important to set the stage for where vouchers in the country came from and … You know, Puerto Rico is no exception to natural disasters, so what you had was the devastation of natural disasters happening in Puerto Rico, but there’s a constant need to rebuild, especially in this most recent year.

One of the things that came to mind was the education system. So what’s kind of interesting is that Puerto Rico was able to see … And it’s anecdotal at some times, but you can actually watch that there have been students that have gone from Puerto Rico to Florida, and it’s interesting because Florida has such a rich choice environment for students, so you weren’t having that same opportunity in Puerto Rico.

So they tried to pass what was essentially a voucher, and that, of course, like many times as we’ve seen previously, was challenged in the court system. What is extraordinary about this case, and if there are any attorneys listening you will know this is extraordinary, the parties were given five days to submit their briefs.

For anyone who has ever had to work on that type of litigation, five days to submit a brief is a jaw breaking and jaw dropping. So it was a really interesting move that was made by the Puerto Rican Courts and they said because this is so important, because education is such a foundational issue here, we want to make a decision before the school year.

So in an extraordinary show by the courts, who typically are not fast-moving bodies, they issued this opinion before the actual school year started, so it’s a big win in Puerto Rico. They upheld the vouchers. This is following the national trend that we have seen, where vouchers are being held constitutional time and time again. So now, adding to the school choice movement, we have the wonderful territory of Puerto Rico.

Michael Chartier: Yeah. That’s perfect. That is a territory, right? I think it is a territory.

Lauren Hodge: Just double-checking. I’m learning the state capitals as we go along, too.

Michael Chartier: What’s the capital of Puerto Rico? San Juan.

Lauren Hodge: San Juan. Right.

Michael Chartier: I think one of the things that I want to talk a little bit about as we kind of move through our state/territory update, obviously legislative sessions are out of town and legislators are looking to that month of November … There’s something that happens the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November that I guess affects all of us. I’m not really sure what that is, but I know a lot of legislators keep talking about that, so I think that the legislative sessions and sort of bills and whatnot are dying down because of that thing, but we kind of move here as a state team and as a policy team over to sort of conference season.

We attend conferences across the country, both in terms of policy and networking and talking about the EdChoice brand and what we stand for and what we believe in to a variety of people, both other nonprofits, legislators, lobbyists, and those other interest groups out there.

So I wanted to maybe sort of briefly talk about the conference of … The National Conference of State Legislators, or NCSL, that I think a lot of you guys are probably familiar with. We all flew out to Los Angeles and hosted a booth out there and we attended the NCSL conference. Robert spoke on a panel about educational funding and what these different funding mechanisms look like across the country and sort of what the interplay is between school choice and those funding mechanisms.

I know we could probably do a podcast with him down the road maybe about those sorts of things. I’m sure he’d love to talk about that, but just to kind of give you guys an update on what we did and what we’ve been kind of doing across the country.

I think what was most interesting about NCSL is that it’s one of the most well-attended legislative conferences across the country, at least that I’ve been to. I mean there were hundreds, if not in the low thousands of legislators there from all 50 states, both Republican and Democrat. Long-time friends from both sides of the aisle stopped by the booth and chatted with us. It was definitely very good to kind of go out there and meet and interact with old friends and obviously new friends that we came across.

I think one of the things we were trying to do at NCSL was to reach a new and diverse set of audiences. Our boss, Robert Enlow … Certainly if he’s listening to this … I hope he’s not, but likes to crack the whip and make sure that we’re out meeting new people and new audiences. I think that’s one of the best places that we have and will continue to be able to do that.

One of the other places that we went to is ALEC, what’s known as ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. I think for the listeners that don’t know what ALEC is, ALEC is a mix of both folks in industry, in the nonprofit sector and the think tank sector, as well as legislators, coming together and talking about policy. It’s basically like NCSL, just a smaller conference. I think people would consider that more of a conservative type conference.

They both have model policies. We advocate for model policies in both NCSL and ALEC. We have presented at both and kind of taken a little bit of time to talk about policies and our view of educational choice at both NCSL and at ALEC. I know that Robert Enlow obviously spoke at ALEC as well and kind of gave an update on what his views of educational choice are and how our mission impacts folks at both NCSL and ALEC.

But I do know, since we have our Policy Director on the phone, that there was a model bill that came up that kind of discussed a version of school choice, education savings accounts, and for our listeners that don’t know what education savings accounts are, a parent controlled account for educational expenses funded by state government or … This policy has not passed yet, but also it could be funded by tax-credit scholarships.

Parents would have control over their account to spend on approved … Obviously it would have to be approved, educational expenses for their children, so they can really customize and tailor their child’s education. But in this last proposal there was from … Bart Danielsen from North Carolina State University talked about creating economic improvement zones for folks, and folks in economic improvement zones would be eligible to receive an ESA.

I kind of wanted to kick it over to Jason and maybe we could have a little bit of a conversation about what these economic … So basically what the model policy is what we think is good, what we think could be improved upon, what is the ideal in terms of EdChoice and our mission. So, Jason, would you want to give our listeners a little bit about this model bill and maybe what our thoughts were and ways that it could be improved and ways that we have supported it?

Jason Bedrick: Sure. So the economic improvement zone: There are different names in different states, but essentially they usually are looking at a distressed area, high levels of unemployment, high levels of poverty, and in this area policymakers will enact a number of policies in order to spur job growth and development in the area.

In some cases, it could be reducing tax rates or easing up on particular regulations. What Bart Danielsen is proposing, and he’s involved with a group that is advancing school choice for environmental reasons, because his research has shown that in areas with school choice you’re less likely to have basically white flight, people moving to the suburbs to get away from bad school systems. They have school choice and they’re able to choose a school that meets the needs of their children. They’re more likely to stay in the community, and from an environmentalist’s perspective that’s a good thing, having people in denser urban areas rather than having suburban sprawl. So that’s, I believe where his primary interest is.

EdChoice doesn’t take a position on economic development zones or anything of the sort. The question for us is whether we would support having EdChoice, education savings accounts in particular, as one of the tools in the economic development zone toolbox, and in that sense yes, we do support that.

Obviously our broad mission is to advance educational opportunity for all students, so our model bill, which we helped work, the [inaudible 00:11:14] model bill, we like what they have. Our model bill would have access to all students, just like the public schools do in a particular zone, right? If Bill Gates moves into a community and wants to send his child to a public school they don’t charge him an additional cent. The public schools are supposed to, at least in a geographic area, be open to all students. Education savings accounts, likewise, should be open to all students. It puts everybody in one basket, as opposed to, you know, dividing people up, which can be divisive politically as well.

That essentially came … That section … The question that people were debating as well, sometimes you have a means-tested program, and it’s opposed by some people because they don’t qualify, and what about this? If you live outside of the economic development zone, then you wouldn’t qualify. To that, we say we are in favor incremental reforms, especially incremental reforms that prioritize first those who are the most disadvantaged and don’t have access to choice currently, so that fits with our vision of incrementalism toward universal access to educational choice.

Also I believe that … And this is an empirical question, but I believe it’s more likely that we will be able to expand the geographic boundaries of an educational choice program that is otherwise available to everybody living within those boundaries than it would be when some politicians will advocate for a program only for a specific class of student, special needs student or low-income student, and later they come back to expand the program and the opposition says well, wait a second. You originally told us it was for this type of student, now you’re telling us it’s for that type of student.

It’s I think a lot easier to just say well, we want to move these geographic boundaries, we want to expand it to people who live outside of these boundaries. So this is not ideal. Again, it’s a step in the right direction. It’s an incremental reform, but as policymakers I don’t think … And policy advocates, I don’t think that we should have an all-or-nothing approach. As long as the policy is otherwise a good policy, as long as it’s not doing anything that is going to interfere with the freedom of schools to teach and the freedom of parents to select the schools and learning environments that they think are best for their children, if it’s a step in the right direction, I think we should be taking it.

Michael Chartier: Well thank you, Jason, for that. You know, as you kind of talked about these programs expanding outside geographical boundaries, I think one of the elements of the program that Bart talked about was the fact that sort of once in, always in, right? Once an area is deemed an economic improvement zone, that people in that vicinity would always be able to utilize and say … What sort of effect do you think that would have on sort of the expansion, as it were, as you talked about? If a place is always in there, how do you think that affects … How that would affect the surrounding areas over time?

Jason Bedrick: That’s an interesting question. I think just one point first, the zone designation could change. The important thing is that once you have access to the ESA, you would continue to have access to the ESA. Because you don’t want a situation where people have access to it one year and then not the next, and then they’re in a very, very difficult situation.

But I think if people see that those living in this zone have access to educational choice and are exercising it and like it, they’re going to want it in their own area as well. So even if they’re not going to expand the economic improvement zone, I think that it will create political pressure to expand access to education savings accounts and other edchoice options.

Michael Chartier: I completely agree with that. I think our survey did and our plan did. The data seems to indicate that when people find out and learn more about these options, that they want to, themselves, take part in those options and expand the program so that they’re eligible and they’re also included in these sorts of programs.

Well, I think we’ve come up to the end of our time here. We can have our listeners get back to their lives. Any other last thoughts from any of our coworkers here or anybody on the phone?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. I just want to make one point about policy as well while we’re on the subject. It’s crucial to get the legislation right. That’s why organizations like ALEC and NCSL are so important. They serve as exchanges for ideas, where legislators around the country can come together and meet with experts in different fields and work on trying to improve legislation.

There are real world outcomes that can be positive or negative as a result, and right now I have on mind Illinois. So the Department of Revenue in Illinois recently came out with its interpretation of Illinois’ tax credit. They have a $75 million tax credit program. It’s relatively small for the size of the state. It’s going to serve only a fraction of 1 percent of the students, so it’s going to be oversubscribed.

In the case that it’s oversubscribed, scholarship organizations are supposed to prioritize four categories of students. Otherwise they’re holding a lottery, even among those categories of students, if it’s oversubscribed within that category. Those four categories are returning students, low-income students, students that are in focus district, which are these districts that have lower-performing schools, and also qualified siblings of current scholarship students.

Now the legislators who wrote the law put No. 1 as No. 1 for a reason. No. 1 is the students who are returning, but the way that the Department has interpreted the rules, all four categories have equal priority. Now this is really deep in the weeds, but it has major consequences when it comes to implementing this program, because let’s say that you’ve got 10,000 students that apply and only 1,000 students can receive a scholarship, and of those 1,000 students 500 of them are students who received the scholarship in the previous year.

What happens under the ideal system is that those 500 students are given scholarships first, and then the 950 students are put in a lottery to get those other 500 scholarships. What happens under this system is … And, again, we’re assuming that all these 10,000 students are in one of these four priority categories.

What happens here is that all of the students are put into a lottery, so only a fraction of those returning students are actually going to get a scholarship. Most of them are not going to get a scholarship, based on how the lottery comes out. That is going to cause havoc. You’re going to have lots of … Again, to qualify initially you have to be a low-income family. You’re going to have lots of low-income families that sent their student to school only because they had a scholarship, otherwise they couldn’t afford it.

Then the next year that scholarship is ripped away. That student may now have to leave that school, go to a different school. It causes a lot of chaos in the program. So these little details that may seem to be in the weeds can have major consequences.

I think Illinois law could have been written a little clearer, but the way it was written should have been interpreted appropriately by the Department. I think the Department is at best making a grave mistake, and at worst actively trying to undermine the effectiveness of the program.

Michael Chartier: Thank you for walking through that Jason. I mean I know that that’s … As you pointed out, that’s very, very in the weeds. But I think, you know, if listeners followed along they understood how those different interpretations have massive impacts on students. What makes sense on paper and what makes sense in a negotiation might not be the best in terms of an impact for children and what works best for them.

Lauren Hodge: Michael, just to piggyback off of that, I mean … And to harp on Jason’s point a little bit, legislative intent is important and it’s certainly something that the law looks to, and it looks to its deliberative process, but if you get it written right the first time you don’t have to turn to legislative intent.

I think Jason’s example is a powerful one, where it really matters … Everything that we do with NCSL, with ALEC, it matters that we get the policy written in the right way so that you don’t have to have these questions later on down the road.

Michael Chartier:  That’s perfect. I could not have said that better myself. Thank you Lauren. And I wanted to apologize to Jason, by the way. He said that we were going to talk about Illinois and I completely forgot to ask that question, so that’s on me, listeners. So thank you very much, Jason, for catching my mistake, and Lauren for offering great advice there about just making sure we get these programs right and written correctly.

With that, I’ll end our EdChoice Chat. Look forward to hearing from us again in one month’s time, when we can talk about what happened in the month of August and maybe look forward about what happened … What will happen in the month of September. As always, feel free to subscribe to this podcast either on iTunes or anywhere else we are posted. Visit our blog for our newest and most updated information on what we’re thinking, what we’re writing about, and what we’re feeling, and visit our website for more information at www.edchoice.org.

Thank you very much listeners for your time, and we look forward to giving you our updates here again in one month.