Ep. 35: The Monthly Debrief – February Looking to March 2018

February 22, 2018

Do you want a behind-the-scenes look at the legislation updates we feature in our monthly state brief blog post? You’ll find that in today’s EdChoice Chat. In this episode, Michael Chartier talks with Jason Bedrick about the details of educational choice legislation in several states.

Michael Chartier: Hello, I’m Michael Chartier, our senior director of state relations, and welcome to another EdChoice chat. On the phone with us is Jason Bedrick, who is our director of policy here at EdChoice, and we’re gonna be talking a little bit about what’s been going on in the states across the country. Specifically, it’s gonna be a look back what happened in January and a little bit of what we look forward to in February.

Alright. Well, Jason, you being the director of policy, you have obviously a lot on your plate, not only overseeing the foundation’s views on the policy landscape out there in the country, but also, you have a handful of states that you cover for us. So, would you want to jump in and tell us a little bit about maybe what’s going on in the states in … What had gone on in the states in January, and maybe some things you think might happen in February? And I think the best place to start is a state where you actually got the push, the buttons, in terms of voting for legislation. So, would you like to start with New Hampshire, and tell us a little bit about what you think is going on out there?

Jason Bedrick: Well, New Hampshire is moving forward right now with an education savings account bill. Back in 2012, New Hampshire adopted an education tax credit that’s been modified a few times. It’s now the most versatile of all the tax credit bills because it almost functions like a tax credit-funded ESA except that the funds can’t be rolled over from year to year. But you can use the scholarship funds for tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curriculum, so on, so forth, in addition to private school tuition. But right now, they’re actually looking to implement an ESA that’s publicly-funded. The Senate passed the bill, SB193, last year. In the Senate version, it was universal, but the House Education Committee sort of scaled down the bill over the break. It’s now for students whose families earn up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line, for students that were assigned to low-performing schools, students who have special needs, like those with an IEP as well as those that have applied to a scholarship organization and didn’t get a scholarship or applied to charter school and didn’t get a charter.

So, probably more than half of the students would be eligible to participate in ESA. In January, the full house passed the bill, 184 to 162, but it still has to go to a second committee. So, right now it is in the financial committee. There has been a series of hearings and work sessions and we’re hoping to hear soon what the committee intends to do with the bill, but no matter what they recommend, in New Hampshire it’s interesting. Committees don’t have the power to kill bills. All they can do is recommend passage, or recommend that it’s amended, or recommend that the house kill it, and ultimately, every bill gets an up or down vote from the house. So, I’m expecting that within the next month or so, we’ll be back in front of the full house for another vote for hopefully, getting it through terms with the Senate, and moving on to the governor’s desk.

Michael Chartier: Thanks, Jason. That was actually a really good update there. I have a couple questions. Obviously, New Hampshire’s an interesting place. You said the vote was 184 to 162. Those are some big numbers. Can you talk a little bit about how large the New Hampshire house is and how difficult it is to understand and count votes in that chamber?

Jason Bedrick: Yes, Michael. Actually, the New Hampshire legislature is the largest state legislature in the country. To give a sense of perspective, there are 400 members of the New Hampshire house, and the second largest legislative chamber is the Pennsylvania house, with 200 members. So, of course, it is quite difficult to accomplish anything in a chamber of that size. So, it truly is like herding cats. But there was a great deal of support for the bill of the house. The 20 vote margin, or 22 vote margin is pretty healthy, and I’m confident that the house is going to pass something and get it to the governor’s desk.

Michael Chartier: I like hearing that optimism. You said a couple other things that some of us … Obviously, you being a former legislator, and some of us that have worked in government before, we understand a little bit about the dark arts as I think some people have called it. So, you’ve said something about a concurrence vote. Would you tell listeners what a concurrence vote is, and what that means, and how that process works?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, that would be the easiest process. If one chamber passes a bill in a different form than the other chamber, then the originating chamber has the option either to concur with the second chamber or to ask for a committee of conference, in which case the two chambers would send representatives and try to hammer out some sort of compromise.

Michael Chartier: Thanks very much for that discussion. I know that sometimes we throw around some of these terms of art, and sometimes I think it’s hard for people to understand what those things are, so thank you for that wonderful explanation and obviously, in the context of what’s happening out there.

I guess to move onto another state, Mississippi was looking at a broad-based education savings account bill there, and I saw recently that that was not brought up for a vote. Could you tell the listeners here essentially what that means, and how far it might’ve made it through the process, and what happens now that it didn’t receive a vote?

Jason Bedrick: This year just wasn’t the year for Mississippi. They appear to have had the votes in the Senate, but the president of the Senate, which is the lieutenant governor, decided not to bring it up for a vote before time expired because it appeared that they did not have the votes to pass it in the house. This year was just a very difficult year in terms of timing. They were already trying to modify their public education funding formula, which is a very heavy list. It’s a very, very complicated process. And so, I guess some members of the house thought that they don’t want to do too much in terms of reform in one year and that they were gonna go with the funding formula reforms and not adopt the ESA reforms.

But I will say the interesting thing in the press after the fact was that the leaders of both chambers were sort of pointing fingers at each other and saying, “No, it wasn’t me. It was you. No, it wasn’t me. It was you.” So, that seems to indicate at least that they felt that not supporting school choice would have … You would have to pay a political price for opposing school choice, and I think that in itself is a very encouraging sign. I know that the activists on the ground said that they’re not giving up for a moment, that there are still some opportunities to expand an existing education savings account, which right now only serves students with special needs. But it has a wait list. It doesn’t even serve all the students who want to participate in it, so there might be some opportunities to increase the funding that’s available for the existing program and at least get some of those students off the wait list and into the schools that work best for them. Disappointing, but they made a lot of progress, and I would say that the long-term outlook is very good.

Michael Chartier: So, Jason, you mentioned that the bill was dead, and then you mentioned that there’s still some opportunities. How could a bill be dead, and how could you have a chance to change some things if the legislation is dead? Could you walk our listeners through how that generally might happen?

Jason Bedrick: Well, the ESA bill is dead, and that can’t be brought back cause time has expired, but there are still some other bills that are live, particularly the funding reform bill, the education funding reform bill that could be modified to clarify the funding for the ESA program and to fully fund all of the students that want to participate in it.

Michael Chartier: So, basically what you’re saying is even though the ESA bill is dead, there are gonna be other bills that aren’t dead yet that can be amended. Is that correct?

Jason Bedrick: Yes.

Michael Chartier: And you said that time has expired. Could you talk a little bit about why they have timelines in the legislatures? Why not just get rid of that if this is causing such consternation for people?

Jason Bedrick: Well, that’s the case in every legislature that I’m aware of. You’ve got a … The session will only last so long. You have to make sure that bills go from one chamber to the other chamber before a certain deadline so that you can make sure the legislature functions properly, so every legislature has some sort of deadline, and the deadline has passed in Mississippi.

Michael Chartier: So, just to keep things moving along, I guess is what you’re kind of saying, just so that we don’t bog down the legislature with every single bill that isn’t moving?

Jason Bedrick: Right. I mean, usually you’ve got two-year terms, and you’ve got … Often, depending on the legislature … Some legislatures meet every year, some meet every other year, but you’ve only got a limited amount of time to make something happen, so unless a bill has the votes to pass, they often just let bills die without coming to a vote, depending on the legislature.

Michael Chartier: Got it. That makes perfect sense. Well, I’ll take the lead here then on some of my states that I cover. I know based off of that, Mississippi ran out of time to pass their legislation, but just this very week, Iowa has introduced their version of an education savings account bill, and that currently it sits inside an education sub-committee in the house. And what that means is that it is obviously a sub-section of the education committee. There’s five members on this particular sub-committee, and this sub-committee will look through various pieces of legislation and determine which ones will make it in front of the fill committee and which ones won’t. It’s sort of a weeding out process. So, kind of to Jason’s point, each one of these states is just a little bit different, and it’s funny that Mississippi’s already running into their time clock, but Iowa’s still introducing the ESA bill, so it’s kind of fun for us to be able to sit back and watch these different states and how the legislature interacts with one another.

And also, I think I guess the other big state that I’m watching is West Virginia. They likewise introduced an ESA bill into the House Education Committee there. We’re waiting on committee action in West Virginia. They likewise have a time clock like Mississippi does, and that was gonna expire in a little over a week now. We’ll have a little over a week to see if West Virginia can get their ESA bill out of their first chamber to see if they can pass that over. So, it’s gotta get out of the education committee right now, before it continues on its process. That’s another state for us to watch.

I guess kicking it back to you, Jason, since I’m the moderator and I have the easy job, I don’t have to talk as much. I’m gonna kick it back to you with one follow-up question. Obviously, you oversee a wide variety of states. Which state do you think you’re following closest, and which one is most interesting for you in whatever way you wanna decide that?

Jason Bedrick: You know, that’s hard to pick. I could say that I think of the remaining states, the one that I think is most likely to see action is Florida. Florida is trying to expand all of its existing programs, tax credit scholarship program, education savings account … And they’re also trying to introduce a new tax credit scholarship for student who were victims of bullying or abuse, so that would be really the first of its kind in the country that specifically makes students who are victims of bullying or abuse eligible although obviously, bullying victims around the country have benefited tremendously from being able to escape an environment where the school is either unable or unwilling to address a bullying problem and students have really … It’s an escape hatch for them to find a school that protects their safety and provides a loving and more nurturing environment. So, Florida I think is … That’s likely to pass. That’s already been moving quickly through both chambers.

Also, in Missouri, there is a tax credit-funded education savings account bill that has already passed out of the government reform committee, and is headed to the full house. That’s something that certainly, I’ll be keeping an eye on.

And then, Wisconsin has an education savings account that would be the first in the nation for low-income students who are gifted, or I believe they define that as being in the top five or ten percent on statewide tests, and there’s a few other ways to qualify for that. But that would be the first program in the country that is trying to provide opportunities, again, to low-income students that are ahead of their peers, on average, academically. That’s interesting to watch.

And then, just a few other states as well where you have some dark horses that might surprise us, but Nebraska is looking at a tax-credit scholarship, as is Kentucky. And then, in Pennsylvania and Virginia, both states … Again, probably not likely, but both states are looking at education savings account bills. So, lots of states to cover, and there are many, many other states out there that have introduced some sort of school choice bill. Those are the ones identified as dark horses that might have a chance of … If not necessarily being signed into law, but passing one or both chambers and moving along. So, certainly a lot of action this year when it comes to educational choice.

Michael Chartier: Well, Jason, I think that was a great update, and we wouldn’t wanna give away too many of our secrets because people wouldn’t wanna come back and listen to these follow-up podcasts. So, obviously we’re pretty early into these sessions, so I think we’ll have more and exciting stuff to talk about as we move along. So, thank you for that quick update, and we will hopefully tease people to come back next month as we do our look back into February, and our look forward into March.

So, I do want to say thank you to our listeners for joining us for another EdChoice Chat. Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast for more of our coverage, school choice and educational choice research, policy discussions, and anything else we happen to talk about. So, until next time, everybody out there, take care and please visit us on our website at edchoice.org. Thank you very much, and enjoy the rest of your week.