Ep. 94: Our 2019 School Choice Yearbook Superlatives

January 25, 2019

There’s no better time to reflect on recent school choice happenings and look forward to a new year than during National School Choice Week.

As we do every year, the EdChoice team got together to vote on yearbook superlative categories, such as Most Inspiring, Biggest Setback and Most Likely to Succeed in 2019.

To see how the EdChoice team voted last year, visit The 2018 EdChoice Yearbook Superlatives.

Jennifer Wagner: All right. Welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, our VP of Communications, Jennifer Wagner. I have an all-star team with me today to talk about our 2019 EdChoice ABCs Superlatives.

I’m joined today by Mike Shaw, one of our key researchers; Leslie Hiner, our VP of Legal Affairs; and our CEO, Robert Enlow. We’re going to go through the best, the worst, the ups, the downs, the highs, the lows, the past, the present, and the future of school choice in America in about, I don’t know, 40 or 45 minutes
Let’s get started. Our superlatives is what we do every year to look at all of those programs that have been enacted and sometimes been repealed. This year we’re going to start with our Most Empowering Program, which goes to Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Robert, talk about that, would you?

Robert Enlow: Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, which have been in the first ESA passed in America. They were attempting to expand it next year, this last year, which we will talk more about. But the goal here was to say, which program offers more funding? Which funding is secured and guaranteed? Which allows parents the most flexibility? And which basically gives parents more purchasing power?

We looked at all these criteria. We had lots of debate in our team about this. We came up with Arizona because ultimately the current form of Arizona’s ESA program, its funding stream was stronger than any other program that we can see. Its funding stream was secured and guaranteed. It’s not subject to the whims of budgetary needs and annual requirements and repayments, right? Or rebudgeting. It’s a preloaded debit card that gives families a lot more flexibility in purchasing power, unlike some of the other programs.

The reality is Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Programs, even before it lost the referendum, was considered to be the best and most empowering program to us. Again, there was debate about other similar style programs in Indiana and with Florida and Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee. All of those were on the discussion block, but Arizona still held out its number one spot.

Jennifer Wagner: Lives up to its name—empowering empowerment scholarships.

Robert Enlow: That’s right.

Jennifer Wagner: But you mentioned, Robert, we did have some back and forth on Indiana being obviously a very choice-friendly state, and came down to Indiana and Arizona for our next category, which was the Most Well-Rounded. So, Mike, talk a little bit about that debate and why Indiana came out on top.

Mike Shaw: Yeah. Our Most Well-Rounded Policy category is one that, like the previous category, is built on a way to help empower families and is built around good program design. The key difference, though, is the eligibility and security of funding carrying the weight in this program, maybe a little bit more so than the flexibility component.

Indiana’s voucher, because of that, did kind of take the cake because at least 46 percent of Hoosier families in the state are eligible for this voucher program. Arizona’s ESA, right now, because the referendum did not go into effect, it didn’t pass, it’s a little over 22 percent. About a fifth of students in Arizona are eligible for that program.

And, Robert, I know you’ve mentioned this before. It may actually be higher than we say, because there are multiple pathways other than just the income eligibility pathway that we use to calculate how many families can use it. Like Arizona’s ESA, though, it does have a guaranteed level of funding and it can’t be put to referendum unlike the Arizona ESA. All in all, a very close vote, but we saw the Choice Scholarship Program, Indiana’s voucher, as being the Most Well-Rounded Policy this year.

Robert Enlow: It was interesting. We took a vote on this in our office, right? And I, just so we’re clear about this, was not the deciding vote or the last vote.

Jennifer Wagner: There is no deciding vote.

Robert Enlow: There was no deciding vote. But Indiana won, literally, in our office, by one vote, so that can tell you how close it is. I think one of the key points of this is if you’re a family in Indiana that qualifies for a scholarship and there is a space available at a private school that’ll take you, the money is going with you. There’s no discussion about it. There’s no worry about it. You’re just going to get the money.

And while we don’t think it’s enough money, that ability of just like, if there’s a space and there is an opportunity and there is a family, then there are dollars, that makes a huge deal and a big difference for families in Indiana.

Arizona’s program has been capped a little along the way. It’s been growing but it’s been growing slowly. Indiana’s program was the fastest growing. And our program can’t be put to a referendum. That’s a big deal, being in a state like ours. The only way for us to continue on is to get bigger and bigger and the money then is pegged to the amount of public school funding, so it’s always going to increase.

Jennifer Wagner: It is good to be in Indiana and be the home to that program, as we are a national nonprofit, but we are based here. Before we get to our next category, Robert, I do want to make a quick note. Why were no tax-credit scholarships even considered for Well-Rounded Policy?

Robert Enlow: That’s a really great question because you look at places like Florida and Florida’s Tax-Credit Scholarship Program. The folks there are people like John Kirtley and Doug Tuthill of Step Up For Students. They’ve done an amazing job on getting so many kids an opportunity.

But, ultimately, the problem with tax-credit programs comes down to the simple fact of it depends entirely on two things. One, the amount of the cap that the state will allow in terms of total tax credits. And, two, the willingness to donors to give. Even though Florida is at, I think, $800 million or something like that now, Mike. I can’t remember.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, a little over.

Robert Enlow: A little over $800 million. You have to raise that every single year, and that’s still only like 4 percent or less of what the state spends on students already. It can’t get higher. It can’t eat into dollars following kids because it’s always charitable contributions.

For us, while that’s an amazing program, and truly amazing, it’s charitable choice. It’s not truly educational choice. We don’t want to say that they’re terrible that they’re helping 100,000 kids, almost. In fact, it’s awesome. But it’s just limiting in the fact that the tax credits are always going to have a cap on them.

Mike Shaw: And to provide some data to contextualize what Robert just said … Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is the largest school choice program in the country, they ended up having funding issues last year, 2018, that didn’t allow them to sustain their 100,000-scholarship count in the state. They fell a little bit based off the last reports to 99,000 and a half or so.

Yeah. It’s just an issue that’s inherent with these programs and the way they’re designed. Yeah, Jen, to answer your question, that’s why they weren’t considered for our policy category. It’s also why we ended up demoting, in a way, the credits and deductions from our ABCs this year.

Jennifer Wagner: Thank you for mentioning that. I know. I promise, Leslie, we’ll get to you in a second. We got all kinds of legal stuff coming up. But, Mike, I want to stay with you for our next category which is Most Popular. I feel like we should maybe have a theme song in here or something. It should be walking down the runway. But this year, our Most Popular was Wisconsin’s Special Needs Scholarship Program. Talk about that, if you could.

Mike Shaw: Yeah. This is a pretty simple category. It’s purely numbers-based. Which program grew by the most as a percent of its enrollment or its participation from year-over-year? Our years for this year were 2017-18 school year to ’18-19.

The Wisconsin Special Needs Voucher grew by a whopping 181 percent. That works out to an increase of 446 students. It is the newest, or one of the newest, of Wisconsin’s many voucher programs. The oldest, of course, Milwaukee, going back to the early ’90s. But it seems to be taking root and helping out families that don’t have the same options in traditional public schools for their students with special needs. That was good to see.

I think Pennsylvania’s EITC tax-credit program deserves honorable mention, though, because it grew by a lot as far as sheer numbers. Almost 4,000 students of a year-over-year increase from ’15-16 to ’16-17. It now has 34,000 students participating. That was really good to see, too, because there were some budget impasse issues with funding that program and its companion tax-credit scholarship program. But, luckily, politics subsided and it’s kind of returned to a growth model in Pennsylvania.

Robert Enlow: I want to take a quick note here about special needs programs in general. Wisconsin’s is obviously our most popular because it grew. But this is something we’re seeing across the country. Many, many programs in America, school choice programs, are specifically designed to make sure kids that have exceptional needs are getting access to the kind of services they want. In a way, it’s fulfilling in the terms of what IDEA is supposed to be about, making sure you get a free and appropriate education regardless of where it is, whether it’s in a traditional public, charter, or private.

If you look at Wisconsin’s program, even Indiana’s voucher program has a pathway for special needs. A lot of the growth is in this sort of category for special needs families or private schools being able to handle that and handle kids that have exceptional needs. I think it’s really important to put any myth to rest that somehow private schools aren’t willing to take kids with special and exceptional needs. That’s just not true.

Leslie Hiner: We’re also seeing some of the most interesting innovation in education in these voucher programs for children with special needs. For example, in the state of Oklahoma, in Tulsa, they have a school there for kids with special needs that’s just … It’s exceptional. It’s one of the best in the country. But that’s in Tulsa. So, if you live two hours away in Oklahoma City, you don’t necessarily have access to that school.

As a result, after the voucher was passed, then the parents of children with special needs who lived in Oklahoma City, they reached out to their local healthcare providers at hospitals. They reached out to a local university. They, together, collaboratively came up with a program design for a new school that they opened. The model that they have created for this school in Oklahoma City is one that can be mirrored across the country. It’s an exceptional program.

But, again, it’s because of the sustainability of the funding that Robert mentioned earlier. That’s really important that it enables this kind of creativity and real innovation and education to happen.

Jennifer Wagner: Fantastic. Thanks for that, Leslie. Robert, we’re going to go back to you one more time here on our Most Improved category, which is Ohio’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program. This is, again, a numbers category, but this is a pretty important and pretty big growth area for this past year.

Robert Enlow: Sometimes, an oldie is a goodie, right? Ohio is definitely an oldie. It’s been a program. Ohio was the—Cleveland in particular—was the second modern voucher program to be enacted in 1995 and ’96, and then they passed a program in the early 2000s. The Ohio Educational Choice program became our winner this year because it has seen the biggest student eligibility expansion this year. We saw it with a 21 percent increase, from 8 percent eligibility to 29 percent in eligibility from last year to this year.

The reason for this is the result, most likely, of changes the Ohio Department of Education made to how it determines which schools in the state are low-performing. One of the challenges with low-performing voucher programs is that the Departments of Education just game the system, or can game the system. Local public schools can game the system by changing which is an eligible school and which is not.

As a former board member of the School Choice of Ohio, we actually had to sue various public schools, particularly ones in Cincinnati, just to get the names and lists of folks who were eligible to receive a scholarship. But the Ohio Department of Education has strengthened that, and therefore more kids are eligible. You’ve seen Dayton, for example, it’s going to doubling of its students that are eligible.

We’re really excited to see Ohio jumping back into the fray, and we think that there’s going to be more choice in Ohio and it’s going to grow even further. Obviously, we saw some growth in Iowa with its tax-credit program, growth in Wisconsin with its statewide program, and Mississippi’s special needs program, and Louisiana’s program. But Ohio, an oldie but a goodie, takes the cake.

Mike Shaw: Just to add a little more context, Robert, to what you just said, for Ohio in particular. The reason we found out from our friends at School Choice Ohio of this increase is primarily that the safe harbor provision within the state was removed or slowly stripped away for this coming school year. And so, because of that, these schools by every category would have met the “failing” or low-performing schools criteria in years past. But because of the safe harbor provision, the students assigned to the schools weren’t able to use the EdChoice program. They now are able to. That was huge for this program and students in Ohio.

An interesting parallel to that is the income portion of the EdChoice program, which we count as a special voucher. But that’s purely income based as opposed to low-performing schools. That’s a program that’s usually high on our list because it adds a grade level every year. It’s still relatively young. But it’s interesting to see that it didn’t make our top five, because you saw income eligibility expansions in places like Ohio, for instance, went from 300-400 percent FRL. Wisconsin, they add a percent of the local school district eligibility population each year, so that helps their eligibility as well. Overall, many commented that this wasn’t a particularly busy year legislatively for school choice, but the eligibility expansions seem to indicate otherwise.

Jennifer Wagner: Well, I think it’s worth probably jumping in here, for those who are new to EdChoice or maybe haven’t listened to us or know our mission. The reasons that Robert and Mike just laid out are why we are for universal and unencumbered school choice, which sets us apart from some of the other folks in the school choice movement who maybe only focus on low-income or special needs. We want to make sure that all families have access to the school that works best for their student.

When you have, as Robert said, state boards of education or state departments of education or local schools that are able to, quote, unquote, “game the system,” then that is putting the ability for families to access educational choice out of their hands and into the hands, quite oftentimes, of bureaucrats or folks who are not on the ground helping those families day-to-day.

Again, that’s kind of a reminder of what our mission is and why we’re here. I guess, also, that’s my positive, and then we lead into a slightly more negative category, which is our Biggest Setback. And, Leslie, I know how much you love the Montana Supreme Court for their decision late last year on their tax-credit scholarship program. Tell us why you’re such a huge fan of the Montana Supreme Court.

Leslie Hiner: Well, what a great setup. Yes, I am not fond of this decision from the Montana Supreme Court, and let me tell you why. Since the 1990s, there has been some considerable litigation over school choice programs, both vouchers and tax-credit scholarship programs. However, it’s been easy for us to say, recently, especially, that these tax-credit scholarship programs have been immune to negative decisions from courts.

All the courts have ruled in a couple different ways. First, primarily, that there’s not much standing to sue on a tax-credit scholarship case because the money involved is not money from the state, but rather it’s money that comes from private donations that goes to private nonprofits that distributes the money directly to families, and then families make their decisions on how to use that money for the educational needs of their children.

However, Montana is a true outlier. Montana is the first state in the nation to rule against tax-credit scholarship programs. Now, the court ruled in two significant ways. First of all, the question on the table was related to religious liberty and whether a tax-credit scholarship program that allowed children to attend religious schools, whether that conformed to their constitution and their constitutional limitations on the interplay between the state and religious entities.

The court said no, that it goes too far, that religious schools cannot participate in any publicly funded program. OK, now notice my choice of words, “publicly funded.” They also then went on to rule that a tax-credit scholarship program actually is an indirect public funding of scholarships.

Now, as we see it, the court was wrong on both points. The result of this is two things. First, a motion has been filed to stay the ruling of the court, put it on hold, pending a request up to the U.S. Supreme Court to please take this case. The reason why it’s necessary for the U.S. Supreme Court to take this case is because if you agree with the Montana Supreme Court’s analysis of their own constitution as it relates to religious liberty, then the consequence is that it is in conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court provisions on religious liberty. That cannot stand.

Furthermore, there was a decision by the US Supreme Court, Trinity Lutheran v. Comer. If you’ve listened to some of our earlier podcasts, you’ve heard a lot about that landmark case where the U.S. Supreme Court said, just simply, that any widely available public benefit program, in such program you can’t say that a church or religious entity or religious school can’t participate just because they’re religious. That’s discriminatory under the U.S. Constitution and apparently under every state constitution that we’ve seen, except in Montana.

We hope that will change. It’s very significant for the families in Montana who have embraced this program. This needs to be taken up by the US Supreme Court so they can have any hope of ever having school choice in Montana. It’s pretty serious for the families there in Montana as well.

Now, that wasn’t the only issue. We had this last year in Arizona. There was a public vote about the expansion of the Education Savings Accounts. Sadly, that became a wildly political vote. It seemed to have very little to do with education or how kids were doing or what parents wanted. But the expansion of that program was voted down. The program itself survives, however, and certainly future opportunities exist in Arizona. So, even though it was a defeat, it wasn’t a fatal defeat for school choice in Arizona.

And then finally there’s, still currently pending, a proposed rule by the Department of Treasury regarding IRS rules on the federal deductibility of contributions for which a donor receives a state tax credit, which is how tax- credit scholarship programs are structured in virtually all the states that have these programs.

The proposed rule, at this point, is confusing. It’s pretty tough for donors when they’re not sure. Is there tax benefit if I give a contribution to a nonprofit? Is there not? We’re waiting for clarification on this rule. The downside of this is that it’s having a negative impact on the scholarship granting organizations in states that have these tax-credit scholarship programs, because donors are just waiting to hear something decisive out of the Department of Treasury and have been waiting since August of last year. We’ll see how it turns out, but stay tuned to this channel to find out the latest on that IRS ruling.

Jennifer Wagner: I think that IRS ruling obviously involved you. I know, Mike, you got involved in that. Robert, you got involved in that. I think that’s, again, probably worth saying. Earlier, we did not include tax-credit scholarships in some of our other categories for consideration.

This issue, as presented and as it moves forward, as you say, Leslie, gives donors pause and could potentially threaten these programs and the families that use them, and may, in fact, present an opportunity for us and for other school choice advocates to say, “You know? This is obviously an effective way in certain states that have Blaine Amendments or prohibitions on vouchers or ESAs.” But this is probably not the school choice program that we would be the most supportive of moving forward, because it is limited by, A) contributions, but also by folks in Washington who, honestly, I’m not sure really even realize what they were doing when they passed these rules in the first place.

Leslie Hiner: I would agree with that, totally.

Robert Enlow: You’re asking me to say something positive about Washington? No way. I think Milton Friedman and all of us would say, “Look, the fact is this is a states issue.” One of our key pillars at EdChoice is that anything coming out of D.C. cannot harm existing state programs and it has to be voluntary.”

This is an example of that. Again, while we love tax-credit programs and the way they help kids, it’s just not our preferred policy model right now because of those limitations, because so many things can go wrong that can dramatically change the outcome of those programs, which then leads me to a quick comment about Arizona and the expansion on the legal side.

There was a raging debate in our office about whether Arizona’s expansion defeat in the referendum was a bad or good thing, or good or bad thing. Was it good that it went down in referendum, because it was a universal program? But then if you look at the actual text of the referendum and what the bill was passed, originally, it actually would’ve been slower growth than the existing program now, potentially. You’ve got pros and cons, right?

That’s what Arizona did. It looks like Arizona’s going to come back and try and expand their program regardless, which is really interesting. I think what it tells us is that the more you can get direct to parents, right? Direct to the parents to get the money in their hands and let them do what they need to do, the more you’re going to continue to grow programs.

Jennifer Wagner: Well, and as you wrote, Robert, in your op-ed in The Arizona Republic about that referendum outcome, is that it does present us with an opportunity to go back in and, as you say, talk directly to parents and families, which is something that I think we do exceptionally well. And hear them and train them and make sure they understand that the future of their students’ educational opportunity does depend on legislation and litigation. But it also depends on boots on the ground and making sure that their voices are heard over what can, to other folk’s points here, be very political and very overwhelming.

Yeah. Those are our setbacks this year, but let’s turn to Most Inspiring. Let’s be a little more upbeat. I think this was an interesting … It is a tax credit scholarship program, but it’s an interesting program that came out of Florida and dealt specifically with bullied students. Robert, talk a little bit about how that program works and why it is our Most Inspiring nominee this year.

Robert Enlow: This is one of those cases where all of a sudden you see a new program in Florida. It was based on kids who identified as bullied, right? So, first of its kind program. Basically, any family who’s reported an incident of bullying to their school principal, they can get a scholarship to attend another private school or a public school of their choice. This is incredible. They’re calling it, rightfully so, Hope Scholarships. Now, other legislatures are taking this up across the country, in Arizona and, I think, in Colorado, and other places. We’re seeing this incredible growth.

Now, let’s humanize this for a second. My son was bullied for once. It’s challenging. He was in a non-public school. I was able to deal with that because I was able to go to the school and sort that out. A lot of families don’t have that ability.

This is particularly true if you look at surveys and studies about children who identify themselves as homosexual or lesbian or gay. A lot of our traditional schools, these kids are getting bullied. It’s just not acceptable that the bullying is allowed. This Hope Scholarship allows families to do what’s right for their kids and take them to an environment that they want for their kid.

Jennifer Wagner: I think, Robert, building on that, and not to give away too much of our upcoming research or things that we’ve researched outside of the ABCs in the past, but what we find—and, Mike, you can talk a little bit about this—when we talk to parents about what they’re looking for in a school environment, shockingly, is not an A to F grade or a star rating of the school. But one of the top things that they report is they want to make sure that the school that their child is in is safe and secure.

Robert, to your point, a lot of times in a public school, you mentioned the LGBTQ kids, they report a higher instance of bullying in public schools. For many kids, a private school scholarship or a lifeline out of the school where they are not being treated the way that they should be, is truly that. It’s truly a lifeline. Mike, I know some of your research is focused on that. Not to take us too far off course, but I think that’s really interesting.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, it definitely is. And then, Robert, to echo your sentiments about the uniqueness of this program and how it may be cloned in other states. The Hope Scholarship Program, as inspiring as it is, and it’s the reason it won this category for us, there are some limitations that should be noted, too, that may limit, Jen, the ability of parents to get the safety or the environment their children need at the most opportune time.

It didn’t have a huge take up, at least on this private school side, its first semester, which was just this past fall. There have been some reports or some murmurings that the schools, which are, by law, supposed to inform parents when there is a reported incident that their children have these options, that they may not be doing so or they may not be doing so clearly. That’s something to watch. Implementation with new programs is always something that’s tricky, but we definitely want to see that grow in Florida with this program.

The other thing about this program is its funding mechanism. We talked about tax-credit scholarships and how everything from IRS regulations to donor apathy can loosen them. This has one of the most unique, if not the most unique, funding mechanisms in that it is funded by sales tax for new car purchases. If I’m recalling the Florida law correctly, it’s not motorcycles, it’s not used cars, just new automobiles, four wheels.

Yeah. Maybe these other states that are proposing similar programs can think about funding and roll out as they do so, and we’ll have a new and better, possibly, Most Inspiring Program next year.

I should say, though, it’s worth mentioning also Pennsylvania in this category as well. We mentioned them previously with their EITC tax-credit program and their large increase because of a funding release. Well, this past summer they actually passed an additional funding increase. Funding the program, which also helps out with after-school activities, to $110 million.

I mean, that was cool to see, frankly, in today’s kind of contentious political climate. Pennsylvania is more of a purple state. It had a Democratic governor. They still did this. It’s going to help out a lot more kids for one of the largest states with school choice and one of the most popular school choice programs.

Robert Enlow: Let me just add to what you’re saying, Mike. I really appreciate hearing that. But on the downside of the Most Inspiring Program, the bullying program. You don’t really want a child who’s been bullied to be beholden to the number of new cars you sell, right? That’s the downside.

On the upside, what I think is unique about this Florida program, is it’s starting to reorient the whole conversation about what a family wants. It’s not about what a system wants. It’s based in letting the family determine the course of their child’s education. If it’s based on bullying or special needs. You’re beginning to see this sort of almost return to consumer power. I mean, I hate to use the word “consumer.” Really, return to parent power.

It’s not just having to move houses, like you do in suburbia or you move the urban core or whatever. It’s not just being able to get into a magnet school and utilizing your social capita. It’s actually able to do what’s right for your kid where you live, and I think that’s a real reorientation around the power dynamic. I think that’s a really important thing to mention. Again, don’t want it based on the number of cars we sell, but it’s heading in the right direction.

Jennifer Wagner: You know what’s interesting, though? I mean, we can sit here … The sale of new cars and check off form on that piece of paper is an odd way to fund a school choice program. But one of the cool things that oftentimes we forget … We’ve been doing this for more than 20 years. Robert, you’ve been here the whole time, and you were there when we started putting together programs. I think you said before, it was you and a few other people sitting around a dining room table coming up with the best ideas and the best way to fund them.

It’s easy to forget that, yes, while that may not be the most ideal funding mechanism, it is a way to get those parents of students who have been bullied in the state of Florida access to a different school, which brings us to the New Program category, because it is inspiring to work here and to see new programs coming out of nothing, coming out of, oftentimes, a true parent revolution where you’ve just got some people who are not getting what they need, and they go to the state house, and it works for them.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a little idealistic, but it’s kind of fun to get to these next few categories, including Best New Program in Puerto Rico, which has not had the best of luck with its K–12 system. And now, because of some, obviously, unfortunate natural disaster, but also some political changes and some litigation that Leslie and Mike can talk about, has a new school choice program that has been deemed constitutional.

I’ll throw it to the two of you to fight over which one wants to talk about Best New Program and also our Biggest Legal Challenge, but also, I think, success.

Mike Shaw: Sure. So, maybe, just to tee up the legal challenge first that Jen alluded to. Puerto Rico passed last year, but they are in the process of launching a pretty expansive voucher program. I say pretty expansive. It can be quite expansive, but because it is still so new and hasn’t officially launched. The Puerto Rican Department of Education is still working out a fair amount of the regulations and funding mechanisms and prioritizations.

But all in all, the real door to the program is you have be in public school two years prior to using it. That’s basically the main eligibility pathway. It has the potential to serve a lot of Puerto Rican children, as does a lot of the education reform law that went into effect last year with the island getting charter schools for the first time, with them kind of breaking up their monochrome system. It’s kind of like Hawaii, a single-district system. They kind of quasi broke it up into seven, I believe, different districts and systems to give schools and parents and educators more local control.

Yeah. This was inspiring to see. Just because of the sheer eligibility pathway, it definitely was the Best New Program we saw this year. It’s also the first program I can think of that has a specific prioritization for gifted students and ways to get them into universities and to take dual enrollments. It’s really cool to see that the Puerto Rican Department of Education is thinking in a future forward model of education and student-oriented education. But it didn’t get there automatically, as I’m sure Leslie will fill us in, because there were those who wanted to stop it from happening.

Leslie Hiner: There’s always someone who wants to be the fly in the ointment. That, in fact, happened in Puerto Rico as well. I think it’s notable, and people should know this about Puerto Rico, that there’s been a lot of talk that, well, the voucher program, school choice, that sort of thing, it’s enacted because there were hurricanes. They were in trouble. They needed some help.

But actually, in Puerto Rico, they’ve had population losses on a real consistent basis and large population losses for 10 years or more that have been very, very significant. As a result, they’ve been closing public schools every year in big numbers simply because there were no kids there to educate. The families left.
When litigation came along, first thing I did was to do a little research. That’s when I found out about the population statistics and that this was not just related to the hurricane situation. But I also learned something else that was just devastating.

There is a test called NAEP. The NAEP tests are given across the country and states. As a test, per se, you don’t just look at one year and say, “Oh, that’s the result,” but it’s better for looking at trends over time of educational quality in states. So, I decided to look up fourth grade math for Puerto Rico. That’s one of the standards that we look at in any state. I couldn’t understand what I read because it said “nil.” Well, wait. Did they not take the test that year?

Well, no. They took the test. They’ve been taking it for some time. But they could not actually register any percentage of children who scored at any kind of level of educational obtainment in fourth grade math. The results were similar in other grades, other subject matters. It was real clear that they’d been in a crisis situation in education for quite some time and, again, before the hurricanes came along. This was something that’s been building over time.

So, they enacted the voucher program and charter schools program. They were really in a hurry to do that and they kept saying, “We have to do this now. We’re going to stop this detrimental situation. We’re going to fix it now.”

And they did. So, of course, the American Federation of Teachers, the AFT, both the U.S. national organization and the local Puerto Rico organization, they sued to stop the program, and for the same kind of garden variety reasons that we might typically see in the States. “Oh, takes money away from public schools. It’ll be harmful. Blah, blah, blah.”

All the reasons that are wrong, but we nonetheless keep hearing those reasons in litigation we did in Puerto Rico. I have to give the Puerto Rico Supreme Court a lot of credit because they also mirrored the same language of the legislature. And the governor of Puerto Rico had said, “That’s it. We can’t wait. We’re acting on this right now. We have a lot of kids and a lot of families who are in a lot of distress.”

And also a big commitment in Puerto Rico to really turn things around there. People are doing some pretty hard work around the clock to turn things around in Puerto Rico. And the Supreme Court said, “We’re not going to let this litigation stop that kind of progress. We’re considering this case right away.”

Well, they did. When it got to the Supreme Court, which was just in a couple months time, we had five days to file briefs in the case. And the Supreme Court said that they were going to act before the school year began because it was so critical that the new Secretary of Education knew what she had to work with so that they could go forward and not miss a beat for their kids.

We found that in the ruling, the ruling was very diverse. Judges ruled that the program was constitutional for a variety of different ways, which is a little bit unusual. For those of you who are court watchers and actually read these decisions, the Puerto Rico case is pretty interesting because you’ll find a whole variety of reasons why vouchers are constitutional in Puerto Rico. Some of that mirrors some of our own language in the upper 48 states.

But they were very clear that this had to happen, this would be good for families and children in Puerto Rico. They stayed true to their focus, true to the mission of their constitution, and they got it done in a hurry. So, good for them.

Robert Enlow: And they reversed a previous decision, right?

Leslie Hiner: They did.

Robert Enlow: I mean, ostensibly, they got rid of precedent.

Leslie Hiner: Yes, Robert, thank you for adding that. There was a case in 1994 ruling the vouchers were unconstitutional. But the same court stepped up and said, “No. We’ve reconsidered that. We see it more clearly now.”

And they did. Their legal reasoning was very solid. And now they have vouchers in Puerto Rico. So, God bless them. Godspeed. I hope everything continues to develop favorably for them.

Jennifer Wagner: And we’ll definitely keep our eye on Puerto Rico in years to come. Perhaps we’ll see them in another category in the superlative’s future.
Our last big category here is Most Likely to Succeed in 2019. I should note at this point, obviously, everyone knows last year was an election year. We don’t make our decisions on which states to go into and work in based on elections. However, elections have consequences, as the old saying goes. And sometimes those consequences are that governors, governors-elect, are strong school choice supporters. That obviously is something that we are very happy about here.

I should note, if you want to see how last year’s election broke down on the governors, you can visit our website, edchoice.org. We actually broke all of them down based on their public stances on school choice, whether they are for, against, or uncertain.

But our Most Likely to Succeed in 2019, I think, probably does hinge a bit on the election of a new governor in the state of Tennessee who is a strong school choice supporter by his own words. Robert, talk a little bit about what the landscape there looks like.

Robert Enlow: The drum roll is for Most Likely to Succeed is Tennessee. Look, this is an art, not a science. Elections matter. But based on what Governor-elect, or now Governor, Bill Lee said, and what we’re hearing from leadership in the House and Senate, there’s a real strong possibility to have a much further progression of school choice in the state of Tennessee.

Does that mean it’s a done deal? Of course not. But the reality is based on those public comments, and based on what’s been going on in the state for a number of years, and the amount of effort that’s gone into continue to educate the public, it looks like Tennessee is going to be one of the hotbeds for school choice. And, certainly, Bill Lee is a strong school choice supporter.

But, look, there are lots of places. You talked about Pennsylvania where, while we don’t see it a huge expansion, you saw a Democratic governor sign an expansion to the bill. But if you’re looking at, from the elections, what do we know from the elections? If elections were the only thing we cared about. You saw Alaska, all of the sudden. Let’s go in alphabetical order here. Alaska, with the election of a governor who’s a strong school choice supporter.

You’ve seen Florida, not only with a governor who’s now supportive, and in fact, it made a difference in the race, we understand. But also the Secretary of Education who’s incredibly supportive of the idea of more school choice. Florida has a ton of school choice now. Now they’ve gotten some great court decisions, and so maybe you could see that momentum building to having a real big, huge statewide ESA program and get rid of the idea of always having to rely on tax credit contributions.
You look at Georgia, the governor-elect there, the governor there, is strongly supportive. In fact, we know a lot of people who are saying that in a year to a couple years, this is another state that could grow. Iowa still has a chance based on its recent election. Missouri is open. Little West Virginia still has a chance, right? So, let’s not count out—

One of my favorite things that we have done over the years … There are a lot of states that have had a lot of school choice. Wisconsin has had a lot of effort. Ohio has had a lot of effort. Florida’s had a lot of effort, and Arizona, Indiana, and Pennsylvania now. These are the states that form the core of the school choice movement in some ways.

But you see these new states come onboard, like Nevada a few years ago, even though we’ve got to get the darn thing funded, or New Hampshire. Struggling a little in New Hampshire to get a program on. But I think West Virginia’s a really unique place. I mean, if you could get something like that in West Virginia, you could show that it could really work in a rural state.

There’s a lot of opportunity. Again, our EdChoice team was not always saying this was going to be the number one state, but based on what you see publicly, you think Tennessee’s got a lot of opportunities. But again, don’t count out places like Arizona to keep going at it, or don’t count out places like Colorado to try something new. There’s all sorts of opportunities out there.

That’s because I think what you’re seeing over and over again based on our polling, based on all the data you see, more and more families want more and more choice. If 40 percent, as you just said in your Medium post, Jen, of Americans are already selecting a school of choice, that was 10-year-old data. You know it’s more, right? You know people want more opportunity, and particularly those who have a little bit of means.

So, you’re going to see a lot of states, I think, come to forefront this year, again, now that it’s not an election year. I think that always happens. If you look at the trend, it always spikes up and down a little bit during elections, election years and non-election years. So, we’ll see.

But, again, where I think we got to be careful, the kind of school choice we’re talking about are real systemic changes. We’re not just talking about any more nibbling at the edges of a small tax-credit scholarship program or an ESA just for a small number. We’re talking big systemic changes, and sometimes those things take a few years to get passed.

Jennifer Wagner: Or a few decades, as it may turn out.

Robert Enlow: Or a few decades, as it may turn out.

Jennifer Wagner: Leslie, Mike, any last thoughts on Likely to Succeed, or anything else on the superlatives this year?

Leslie Hiner: Yes. I’d like to add, as we’re talking about other states to watch for new programs. Robert, you and I have been part of this movement for more years than we should probably say, but we may remember the early years when we were still looking at a whole country that was first considering a school choice. But today we have 29 states, plus D.C., plus Puerto Rico, that have school choice programs. Whereas in the earlier days, we’d get really excited. We’d want two, three, four different states to sign on with new school choice programs. OK, well, now we’re running out of states, which is kind of a nice thing to say.

But I think it’s important for people to understand that what we’ve seen happen consistently is that states that have adopted school choice programs expand those programs year after year after year. They expand those programs because they work. They work for families, parents want them, children are succeeding. So, for any state that currently has a school choice program, I would say that’s also a state to watch.

Robert Enlow: I couldn’t agree with you more on that level of choice begets choice, right? And that’s really important. In the early days of EdChoice, née Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, one of our goals was to be the Johnny Appleseed, to go out and get any state we could to sort of educate them and get them onboard. But we also then have to start talking about the reality of what good policy is, right?

Leslie Hiner: Certainly.

Robert Enlow: We don’t want just any choice anymore. We’re mature as a movement. I always frame it this way. We’re now into our 20s after our first job. We’re in our second job. We’ve made the promotion level. It’s time to get serious with our career and our life, right? One of those things means we have to be honest about where this movement is and where we want to go.

States like Indiana that are getting the policy right. States like Florida, in some ways, are getting the policy right, or starting to. States like Arizona, where we’re really talking about full school choice. I mean, if you count the number of kids … Mike, you know this off the top of your head. I used to know everything. We’re now over a half a million kids, roughly, in school choice programs. Roughly, 1 percent of the school-age population are now using public funds to go to private schools. We’re making these changes in growth.

But that’s concentrated in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Florida and Arizona and Pennsylvania, basically. Right? That’s great and we have a lot of states with a lot of programs. The goal here now is to get policies that get everyone in.

Mike Shaw: Yeah. I would just add to that, as kind of a closing thought on my end. Something that struck me about our list of superlatives is the programs, the way they’re designed, or the way the bills and the education reform went into play for these programs, it took an “and” and not an “or” approach when it comes to education. And I mean that in we saw, and we’ve seen for the past couple of years, that private school choice in particular has been a politically contentious issue. People just don’t like the idea, certain sectors of people, at least, that children are going to private schools in some way of public funding.

That’s been heard at least loudly, if not always necessarily reflected in polling data. But I find it nice to see. I think our founder, Milton Friedman, may have as well, that a fair amount of these programs that are on our superlatives list do take that “and” approach.

You have the Hope Scholarship Program, for instance, even though it doesn’t have a large private school participation uptake right now, there are students who are using the scholarship to transfer to a different public school that may work for them.

The same can be said for Puerto Rico’s voucher program. While there are no current participants, it is a public-private voucher program as well. And then, there are the ESAs we highlighted, including Arizona’s ESA, that you still see a large percentage of users using the program primarily for private school tuition. But they’re also using it in other ways, for tutoring services, for extracurriculars. They’re taking this holistic view of education. I don’t think this was something we intended to do when we set out this year’s superlatives, but it is the results of current education reform.

Robert Enlow: I think that’s a huge point to make. What’s happening in these programs is that we’re shifting from this idea of let’s fight the system—which is important, we got to fight the system—to what families need to have opportunities so that their children can be successful, they can be self-actualized, they can go to the level they need to get to, and we can actually create a society where everyone benefits.

It’s this sense we’re shifting from public versus private to, hey, families need opportunities to make sure their children can get the best possible chance in life to succeed and fulfill their needs, because when you do that, we’re going to have a better society as a whole.

That leads us to our mission statement, which I will end on, with EdChoice, which is advancing universal school choice for all so that children can have successful lives and we can have a stronger society. That’s ultimately what we think school choice is going to lead to. The more we do that, the better it’s going to be.

Jennifer Wagner: Well, I don’t think there’s anything else we could possibly say. And on that note, I’m your host, Jennifer Wagner, our VP of communications. I want to thank Mike, Leslie, and Robert for being here today, talking you through this. We’ll be right back here next year at this time to see what’s changed and what new programs have come on board.

In the interim, please visit our website, www.edchoice.org. You can check out our other podcasts there, our blog, and, of course, our real-time updates throughout the year on programs, new programs, changes in enrollment and eligibility. So, please, please, please check out edchoice.org. Thanks, as always, for listening.