Ep. 114: The Monthly Debrief – April Looking to May 2019

May 14, 2019

In this Monthly Debrief podcast, EdChoice’s Senior Director of State Relations Michael Chartie, Director of Policy Jason Bedrick and Director of State Relations Lauren Hodge discuss the latest school choice happenings in the states. They talk about everything from raising the cap on available tax credits Indiana to a bill passed in North Carolina.

Michael Chartier: Hello, everybody, and welcome to another EdChoice Chat. I’m Michael Chartier, your senior director of state relations, here in studio in sort of rainy Indianapolis. During the month of May, though, so we’re all very excited about the upcoming Indy 500. Also in studio joins me, Lauren Hodge.

Lauren Hodge: Hi, there. Thanks for being here today.

Michael Chartier: And on the line we have Jason Bedrick.

Jason Bedrick: Yes. Coming in from sunny Arizona where it’s about to get even sunnier and hotter. So, we’re at the sort of end of the nice days of the year.

Michael Chartier: Approaching Hades level temperatures?

Jason Bedrick: I think actually in Greek mythology, Hades was cold. So, yes.

Michael Chartier: Oh, fooled me. There you go.

Jason Bedrick: Yes, very hot soon.

Michael Chartier: Well everybody, as you probably are well acquainted with, this is a podcast looking back on what happened in the month of April, the rainy month of April. We’re going to look forward and talk a little bit about what we think might happen in the month of May, other than the Indy 500. I will get right into this. I will start. For the vast majority of the states that I oversee, most of those states actually ended their legislative sessions, meaning that their budgets were passed. Just about every state passes their budget in the long session, so they go over their biannual budgets in the long session. Some states pass the budget every year, but that’s not the majority of states.

Most of my states ended their sessions with a big biannual budget. I will start with my home state of Indiana. In Indiana, the House Enrolled Act 1001 spent a lot of money, about I think $36 billion. Included in that biannual budget was two parts that oversaw school choice. One was our tax-credit scholarship program. Governor Holcomb signed in the law of that budget which increased the cap on the amount of available tax credits to $16.5 million over the biennium. So, they raised the caps and allowed more tax credits to be given out, and then those scholarships can be turned into tax-credit scholarships for children. So again, that went up to $16.5 million.

I think additionally, I think there was a couple of other things that I think people would find interesting. For families with income levels between 100 and 125 percent of the level of income needed for free and reduced priced lunch, families in that income range will receive a voucher for 70 percent of what the state would’ve spent on their education. Indiana was a two-tiered voucher system. One was 90 percent of what the state would have spent and the other was 50 percent. Now we have three different levels. So, again, that’s that 50 percent if you’re a higher income, 70 percent if you’re middle income in that range, and then 90 percent if you are below 100 percent of the level of income needed to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

Again, Indiana’s giving parents a little bit more of the money set aside for their tax dollars and that will help most Hoosiers afford private school. And again, 70 percent of what the state would’ve spent on them is roughly about $7000 statewide. Indiana spends about $10,000 per child statewide, so it’s going to be about $7000. And that brings the vast majority of private schools well into the range of most of those families.

A couple of other interesting things. Indiana added a second count date, which means they added a second date for applications for the voucher program. That just helps more people midway through the school year determine if they wanted to attend, parents wanted their children to attend a private school. There’s that second count date and they could then apply for a voucher to go to a private school. And then I think somewhat interestingly enough, for me and maybe some policy wonks, Indiana … This was not in the budget, but it was a separate piece of legislation. Indiana separately elects its superintendent of public instruction, and there was a large bipartisan consensus many years ago that that position should probably be appointed by the governor.

Just this past session, the legislature determined that 2020 would be the last year of the elected superintendent of public instruction, and in 2021, the governor would be able to appoint who he or she thinks would be the best person to lead the department of education here in Indiana. So, just as a little interesting fact, so we will be moving from an elected superintendent of public instruction to an appointed superintendent in 2021. So, that’s the state of Indiana, my home state of Indiana.

Secondly, the state of Iowa in House File 779, which is the state budget, they increased the amount of money that can go to their tax-credit scholarship by $2 million over the biennium. That’s not as much as the coalition would have wanted, but again, that’s moving in the right direction and $2 million will help a fair amount of kids in the state of Iowa. I think they’re up to about $16 million in their tax-credit scholarship as well.

Then lastly in my states, kind of rounding out my states, is the state of Tennessee, and there’s a lot to unpack about this. Technically, this bill was passed on May 1st, but Jason has determined that we will give it special dispensation to just briefly mention it, but we will cover it in more detail in that May podcast, because we’re actually still unpacking some of the things about the Tennessee Education Savings Account. But I think most importantly was that what ended up happening was this bill had gone through a variety of iterations over its path through the legislature. There were different testing provisions, different income requirements, and what ended up happening was that the state of Tennessee decided that there were two particular counties in the state where families were below a certain threshold of income could receive an education savings acct to get their kids into a different educational environment.

We’re looking through a whole host of things about the bill. There have been some discussions about constitutionality for a variety of things as well as eligibility for the program and some questions about eligibility. So, we’re going to kind of talk about that next month as we kind of unpack some of those things and take a look at them. I do know that Jason had some concerns that he wanted to talk about. For all of the other listeners out there, he is our policy expert, so I wanted to turn the floor over to him briefly and let him discuss Tennessee and some of the things that he was thinking and things that he noticed as he was going through that bill.

Jason Bedrick: Thanks, Michael. I should note from the start that there are some constitutional questions that I’m not going to address which we are going to set aside and let our “legal eagle,” Leslie Hiner, address more in depth in a later podcast. But as you noted, this bill started very expansive. It was very empowering. It was essentially a universal education savings account. It was really an exciting bill. And then over time, it was, with each iteration, more and more restrictive in terms of who could use it and how it would be used. And by the end, we’re talking about low income families in a couple different counties, and it’s not longer even really an ESA. It’s more of like voucher plus. The families can’t choose any education for their child. It’s quite restrictive in the sense that unlike let’s say the ESA programs in every other state, including their own state of Tennessee, where they have special needs ESA, families can use it outside of a brick and mortar classroom.

These students must be enrolled in a private school. There are other things they can do beyond private school, in addition to private school. They can tutor and they could have online instruction and a number of other things, educational therapy, etc. But they must be enrolled in a private school. This is really more of a voucher plus program.

Another concern that I have is that it imposes the state test. And the issue with this is that when you impose the state test, there’s a tendency to narrow the curriculum, and then there’s also a very strong incentive for private schools to bend their curriculum to match the state test. And then, because there is this strong incentive, a number of private schools won’t participate. And we’ve seen that the results of this are not particularly good. I look at, for example, Louisiana, and compare Louisiana with Florida. Florida, you’ve got a tax-credit scholarship program. You’ve got 100,000 students. They’re overwhelmingly low income. Average family income only about $25,000 a year. It truly is serving some of the poorest among the poor. And they require nationally norm reference tests.

The vast majority of schools in Florida participate in the program and accept these students. And these students are doing well. They’re performing at the national average on those tests, which means that they are outperforming their demographic peers. Look at Louisiana, by contrast. They impose the state test. Two-thirds of schools don’t actually participate in the program. And we saw that the one-third that does participate tends to be the lower performing schools.

We see, for example, that before the program started, the schools that chose not to participate had increasing enrollment, meaning that they were already able to attract students. Whereas those who chose to participate had declining enrollment, meaning that they were already losing students. Parents were choosing away from those schools. They were the ones that were more willing to jump through these regulatory hoops. And then Louisiana ends up being the first voucher program in the country to have a random assignment study find a negative effect, whereas all the previous studies had found positive effects.

So, I’m just concerned that we’re trying to expand access to as many options as possible for these families, and that when you impose these kinds of testing requirements, specifically imposing the state test, imposing the one particular test instead of allowing the schools to choose from a menu of different nationally norm reference tests, you force them into one test. A, you’re going to have a lot of the higher quality schools just say, “No, we’re not willing to participate,” which means that you have not done anything to actually expand parents’ ability to enroll their child in those schools. And B, of the schools that do participate, not only are they among the private schools, they’re not the strongest of the private schools, but again, there’s this very strong incentive to change your curriculum to the state test so that you’re not at a disadvantage vis a vis the public schools that are already in a position where their curriculum is aligned to the state test.

For example, if you’ve got a private school that’s K –12 and their students are learning algebra in eighth grade, but the state test tests algebra in ninth grade, well then, either they have to choose between having their students at a disadvantage doing a test on material that they haven’t covered in a year, or take time out of their class to go back over the material from a year ago so that they can perform well on the state test. Or they just switch around how they do things, not based on what they think is best for the students, but what they think is best for their students to do well on this particular test.

Jason Bedrick: I just think it’s highly problematic. It was, I think, a mistake that they made, and I hope that other states do not replicate Tennessee in this regard.

Michael Chartier: Thank you, Jason. I know you’re going to be doing a series of blog posts on EdChoice’s thoughts on a variety of policy proposals, and I believe that testing is one of those, and I think you’ll be going into even more depth about that moving forward. Is that correct?

Jason Bedrick: That’s right. Keep a look out for that. It’s probably going to be some time over the summer.

Michael Chartier: That makes sense. Thank you very much for that update, Jason, and giving us your thoughts on Tennessee, and sort of some of the reasons that why EdChoice believes the things that it does. I think next we want to move over to Lauren to cover some of her states. I know that you’ve got the south there—Mississippi, South Carolina and North Carolina updates to give us. I’ll let you pick which one of those states you want to lead off with.

Lauren Hodge: All right. Thank you so much. I appreciate it and I’m glad to be here with all of you today. As Michael Chartier said, let’s head on down to the south. There’s a lot going on. And as I am learning in my first full year with sessions here at EdChoice, the south has a unique way of doing things. I am learning it as we go, so thank you for your patience as you listen, and I look forward to learning this all with you. That all being said, let’s head first to North Carolina where we have a smorgasbord of school choice policies both for and against school choice. And I’ll highlight just a couple of things.

The first that comes to mind is Senate Bill 609. Senate Bill 609 was filed in April and it’s passed, let’s see, it passed its first chamber in … Let’s see here. It looks like in late April, early May. And what that program would do is kind of streamline some eligibility requirements for the choice programs in North Carolina. For the opportunity scholarship program, it would go ahead and change the eligibility for those how would be able to participate in the program from 133 percent to 150 percent of the free and reduced lunch rate. So, for those of you who remember, the opportunity scholarship is a low income program in North Carolina, and what it does is to be eligible, you have to be of such an income. So, the way they measure that is through their free and reduced lunch program. By opening up to a larger percent, a higher percentage of parents and families would be eligible for the program, which they can then use for a variety of educational expenses.

The Senate Bill 609 also touches on the eligibility requirements for the education disability scholarship. Notably as it’s currently drafted, it would potentially remove the requirement that a child be previously enrolled in public school. So, we’ll be keeping our eyes peeled on that, but that’s not to be said without looking at the governor’s budget and talk all around North Carolina about whether or not the opportunity scholarship should remain, should be sunsetted out, should receive funding that ends in one year, three years. It’s kind of, if you’ve watched North Carolina at all, it has been all over the place.

So, this is certainly a place that we will paying attention. Their budget battle is ongoing. So, we will be keeping our eyes peeled and we’ll let you know when we have some more news there. Then I guess to head on further south, we’ll go down to the neighbor to the south, South Carolina. And we went ahead and had two hearings in the past, let’s see, month or two. Forgive me, listeners. It’s been a minute since I’ve been on the podcast because I have been traveling. We had hearings on both House Bill 3681 and Senate Bill 556. And both of those, if you recall, or if you’ve read any of the blogs, are proposing an education savings account.

To be eligible for the education savings account, there’s a variety of pathways into the program. One would be if you are a child with disability. Another would be if you are a child that receives the poverty weighting from the South Carolina funding formula. Both of these had hearings in the house and the senate. I attended. South Carolina’s in the middle of a two-year legislative cycle, so we’ll be keeping our eyes on these bills to see if they have any movement or what happens next. And then I guess I’ll end with some good news and head a little further south. This one’s just a little bit older.

But like I said, it’s been a minute since I’ve been on the podcast with you all. Mississippi did succeed in putting a $2 million additional appropriation for its education savings account, and that’s a big win for the state. They had a campaign that was run in Mississippi for those parents who were wait listed. Those parents who have been wait listed, some of them for years from this program. That $2 million should be able to help clear that wait list and hopefully give some much needed and much sought after relief to parents and children in Mississippi. Now, that all being said, we’ll be paying close attention to Mississippi next year, because what hasn’t been said is whether or not the program will repeal its sunset provision, which is due in 2020.

So, next year, pay attention, because it’s going to be a big year in multiple states. So, that’s what I have.

Michael Chartier: Lauren, but that bill in Mississippi wasn’t without a little bit of controversy. What happened down there?

Lauren Hodge: Few things ever are without controversy. Especially, I am realizing, down in the south where memories are long and relationships are old. I will say it took some significant leadership to pass this and Tate Reeves really stood up and said that he was going to stand up for kids, and so this bill was passed in a construction appropriations act, which also had an appropriation for the education savings account. It did cause some controversy, some ruffled feathers. There were some outcries. Multiple attempts to try and stop that in the legislative process. And this could be the years of law school coming out in me, but that is why you read everything before you vote on it. That’s why you read everything before you sign it. And that’s kind of the message that was given.

I know that it will be an uphill battle as that progresses on. It ruffled some feathers, but I am hopeful that those families who have been waiting on that wait list are able to get some much sought after relief, and hopefully show Mississippi just how strong the program can be.

Michael Chartier: Always keeping things interesting and lively here in school choice world. I think Jason Bedrick, you’ll be rounding out our list of states today.

Jason Bedrick: All right. We’ll move even further south to Florida where the Florida House and Senate both passed SB 7070. This was an omnibus education bill that did a whole bunch of things, including increasing public school funding by about $800 million, to a total of about $22 billion. And it also included a new low-income voucher program for about 18,000 children. That’s sort of, I think, the biggest news coming out of Florida, although they also passed the budget, and that included an increase of $23 million for the Gardner scholarships, which is Florida’s education savings account program. Both of these bills are expected to be signed by Governor DeSantis.

Over in Oklahoma, their house budget and appropriation committee passed SB 407, and that would increase their tax-credit scholarship program from 3.5 million tax-credits to $10 million in tax credits. So, a very significant increase in that program. And then finally we have Pennsylvania where the Pennsylvania house passed HB 800. That’s also to expand their tax-credit scholarship program. It would expand by … It would increase the total of credits available by $100 million. And it would also allow the total to grow by 10 percent annually, so it actually adds what we call an escalator to the bill, so that it grows to meet demand over time without having to come back to the legislature every single year. And that passed with bipartisan support, actually unanimous support from the Republicans and it was sponsored by the speaker of the house, Speaker Turzai, and a number of Democrats supported it as well.

We are looking now to see what the senate does with that, and especially to see what the governor does, because the governor is not known as a supporter of the program. However, he has signed expansions to the program in the past. He’s keeping his cards right now very close to his vest. So, that could go either way. And in addition, there was a state representative, Andrew Lewis, who introduced a bill HB 1296 that would create an education savings account program for military families, although that has not yet passed any committees. But we’ll keep an eye on that as well.

Michael Chartier: Excellent, Jason. Thank you for that update. I think that closes out our podcast, our April podcast, and we’ll look forward to seeing you guys in May. Well, actually probably in June, talking about the May one. But I did want to thank our technical director here, Jacob Vinson. He put together a nice little fancy rig here where all wires are going into one central little box, and it’s even connected to the phone, so we’ve really upgraded our technical specifications here at EdChoice. So, Jacob, thank you for keeping this podcast rocking and rolling and moving forward.

With that, if you guys have any new ideas about things you’d like us to talk about here on the podcast, please email those to us at media@edchoice.org. Again, that’s media@edchoice.org. Subscribe to this podcast on Sound Cloud, iTunes and/or Stitcher. Follow us on our social media page @edchoice. Again, that’s @edchoice. And if you’d like to receive email updates from us here at EdChoice, please go to our website, www.edchoice.org. Thank you very much and everyone have a good month of May.