Ep. 137: The Monthly Debrief – August Looking to September 2019

September 11, 2019

In this Monthly Debrief podcast, EdChoice’s Senior Director of State Relations Michael Chartier, Director of Policy Jason Bedrick and VP of Communications Jennifer Wagner discuss the latest school choice happenings in the states. They focus on public school choice and public-school district open enrollment policies.

Michael Chartier: Hello, and welcome to another EdChoice Chat. This is Michael Chartier Chartier, your senior director of state relations here in studio in Indianapolis. And joining us we have two very special guests, the first is our Vice President of Communications, Jennifer Wagner.

Jennifer Wagner: Thanks for having me on this podcast.

Michael Chartier: And from the land of cactuses, we have our Policy Director Jason Bedrick Bedrick.

Jason Bedrick: Cacti, Michael. But thank you.

Michael Chartier: Cacti. Oh, goodness gracious. Well, thank—

Jennifer Wagner: I was going to correct you but—

Michael Chartier: Well, thanks.

Jennifer Wagner: I figured Jason would jump in.

Michael Chartier: No, I appreciate that. Thank you very much. So, we’ll, we’ll have to get the attorney general next in studio to talk to those folks. But, hey, thank you guys very much for joining me. We’re going to do something a little interesting, a little different than what you guys might be used to hearing about our state updates. As most of you know, most states are not in session anymore, most have adjourned, sine die for the year. And some states will be coming back next session. So, we’re thinking of taking a little different track and talking about some new and interesting topics regarding school choice.

This one is something that you all might be familiar with but don’t necessarily know a lot about or about how large it is. We’re going to be talking about public school choice and public school district open enrollment policies. Again, our very own Jennifer Wagner wrote a piece on Medium about public-school district open enrollment. So, Jen, what did you find? What did you write about? What things did you talk about it in your Medium piece?

Jennifer Wagner: Sure. So, thank you ,Michael, for having me on today. And I think open enrollment for those of us in the school choice movement presents an enormous untapped opportunity to talk about choice in a different way. Obviously, we here at EdChoice support private school choice. We advocate for private school choice programs including vouchers, tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts. But the reality is that 83 percent of American students go to a public school. That comes from our annual Schooling in America survey. And we know from that survey that they would like to go to different schooling types, many of them would like to go to private schools but don’t have access. Many would like to go to charter schools, but again, the reality is that the population that we’re dealing with, within the public school system, is very large. And so I think it’s important as advocates that we continue to point out that in states like Indiana where we have a very robust voucher program and tax-credit scholarship program, that we actually have more kids using our open enrollment law to transfer out of a public school district and into another public school district or into a charter school than we have kids enrolled in our voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs.

And I know Jason’s going to talk about the situation in Arizona in a minute, which is equally robust, great school choice state, one that we hold up all the time as an example, but again, I think as advocates we can’t just talk about the programs that we are advocating for because we’re missing a huge audience. We’re talking about in Indiana, a total of almost a hundred thousand students who transferred out of a public school district and roughly 53,000 of them who transferred into another public school district, and then the other 44,000 or so chose to attend a charter school. Why is this significant? Well, because a lot of people practice school choice, what I like to call the old-fashioned way, they move to go to a better school district or what they perceive to be a better school district.

Open enrollment policies actually, and I use this analogy in the Medium post, which is an awkward one for a Democrat to use, but I use the Ronald Reagan, “Tear down this wall,” line. What if we had a system where you didn’t have to move? Where you were not required to buy or rent a house in a “good school district,” you could just apply to go there? And yes, there are obviously logistical issues of transportation and funding and whatnot, but that’s effectively what we have here in Indiana. And it’s worth noting that under our law, and I know Jason, you might want to talk about the situation in Ohio, which is much, much different, but under our law, if you are a student in the Indianapolis public schools district—and it’s the only district that is excerpted in the state from the policy that a school doesn’t necessarily have to take an incoming student—but if you are in IPS, wherever you want to go has to take you. And that’s reflective of, I think, some concerns about IPS and the quality of the schools there. But lawmakers here, where we are located, made that a priority to make sure that those kids had more options. And again, that’s something that is not to be taken lightly as we move forward, talking to people broadly about the issue of school choice.

Michael Chartier: That’s a good overall view of public school choice here in the Hoosier state. So, Jen, I have one question for you and then I have a question for Jason after this and hopefully we can spark some conversations. So, you said 100,000 kids roughly that have left the public school district that they’ve been in either to go to a charter school or another public school district. Why aren’t those parents marching with yellow scarves on National School Choice day at the state house? I mean, they’re clearly choosers; don’t they believe that they’ve chosen something different than their kids?

Jennifer Wagner: Well, I wish that they did. That’s a really good point. I realized that I’m an interloper in your regular monthly state team policy podcast, but over in my world of communications, we struggle to convince or even help understand, help them understand those parents who, again, practice school choice the old-fashioned way by moving or who are using enrollment or even sometimes parents who choose a charter school. They may not even realize that that school is a public school. And we struggle with the broader argument of … And honestly of framing it in a positive way that yeah, I want every single one of you to be able to choose your school. But if you move to a fancy suburb for the school, you’re a school chooser. If you choose via open enrollment, if you choose to home school, if you choose a magnet program within a public school district, you are a school chooser, and that’s really important. And you should be proud of that. But at the same time, you shouldn’t stand in the way of anybody else who is trying to make a similar choice or a choice that works for them.

Michael Chartier: Jason, along those lines of standing in the way of denying choice for others, Jen kind of teased the fact that you had looked at some data regarding public-school open enrollment in the state of Ohio. What kind of things did you find there in Ohio? I think that was based on a Fordham Institute blog post or study. And what things did you see about others maybe denying children the same opportunities they were giving themselves and others?

Jason Bedrick: Yes. So, this actually comes from a blog post recently that Matt Latiner had, our good friend up at redfinED, which is the blog that is run by Step Up for Students in Florida. He was contrasting some data that he got from the Fordham Institute in Ohio about their inter-district choice program relative to Arizona. So, in both states, the districts themselves get to choose whether they’re going be an open enrollment district or not. And he notes that there are these doughnuts around the urban areas, around Columbus and Dayton, and Cleveland and Cincinnati, and Canton and Akron where you have districts surrounding those urban districts that do not have open enrollment. But then the rest of the state is almost entirely either open enrollment or open enrollment from an adjacent district.

So, clearly you do have a situation where people are moving out to the suburbs, they’re happy to take people from other suburban, rural areas. They don’t want them, unfortunately, from the urban areas. And this is what people are voting for with their local school boards. Contrast that though with Arizona, where almost every district in Arizona is voluntarily an open enrollment district.

And so, he points out that there’s some important interactions between the various programs. So, for example, if you look at Ohio and their school choice share, on our website you can find the EdChoice share, and that’s the percentage of the population that participates in a private ed choice program. So, a voucher or a tax-credit scholarship or an ESA. We also have the private school share for those are going to a private school without using one of those programs. The public district school share and the charter school and home school share. So, if you look at Ohio, they’ve got 8.5 percent of the population in a private school on their own, 2.6 percent using a voucher, and 6 percent at a charter school. Contrast that with Arizona, they’ve got 5.4 percent using ed choice programs like the tax-credit scholarship or the ESA, but they have about 16 percent participating in a charter school. And so, what you find in the state of Arizona is a lot of competition, and that means there’s a lot of choices that parents have, not just in urban areas, but also in the suburbs. So, you have a lot of these suburban families that are exercising choice, either using a tax credit scholarship or especially going to a charter school. That opened up a whole bunch of seats in the district schools.

So, he points out, if you look at the enrollment rates in Arizona from 10 years ago to today, it’s actually dropped slightly in the district schools. So, it’s gone from … Even though Arizona, by the way, is one of the fastest growing states, Maricopa County where about 80 percent of the population lives, is increasing by about 200 people a day. You’ve got about 923,000 students K–12 a decade ago. Today you’ve got 880,000. So they actually lost about 24,000 students. They had plans for incredible growth, you have a bunch of these empty buildings, but they’ve actually declined. Meanwhile if you look at the charter schools over the same time period, they’ve about doubled. From just over a hundred thousand to just shy of 200,000 in the same time period. So real incredible growth in that sector.

Now, another thing that you see in Arizona is a lot of people moving across districts. So, you’ve got about twice as many students as there are charter school students, so about 400,000 students that are attending a public district school that is outside of their zoned district. And so, for example, you’ve got Scottsdale, Arizona. This is an area that’s considered “richy.” It’s much more expensive to live than some of the surrounding areas in the Phoenix metropolitan area, and they are known to have high quality schools, but those schools have a whole bunch of empty seats. And so, they are recruiting from all around Scottsdale, bringing students into Scottsdale that their families can’t afford to live in Scottsdale but they still have access to a Scottsdale education. And that is because of the interaction between the various educational choice programs in the state.

So, you can’t look at just any one of these in programs in isolation. What’s really important is looking at all of them together and how they interact in order to provide more options, which ultimately Latiner points out, leads to higher performance because there are more options, there’s more competition. We’re actually seeing that Arizona is first in the nation when it comes to improving its NAEP scores over the last decade. NAEP, of course, being the National Assessment and Educational Progress, what’s called the nation’s report card. And Arizona was the only state that had statistically significant improvements in all six tests, math, English language, arts, and science for both fourth grade and eighth grade. So, we really are seeing tremendous improvement because of the interaction of these ed choice programs.

Michael Chartier: Thank you, Jason. I can definitely see, as you point out, what can happen if you sort of tear down these barriers and tear down these walls.

So, Jen, I wanted to pose a question to you. So, obviously again, as part of the blog post, it leads with the scene of Ronald Reagan telling Mikhail Gorbachev, “Tear down this wall.” The wall that separates eastern and western Europe was built to keep people in, not to keep people out. Whereas some of these walls in Ohio were built to keep people out, it sounds. As Jason pointed out, that there’s donuts around some of these urban cores. What should we do? What would you have us tell these communities and parents and legislators in and around these areas? How would you tell them to tear down these walls? What would you tell them to help them to do those sorts of things?

Jennifer Wagner: Well, that’s actually your job, Michael, since you advocate for changing state policy and I just talk about it.
No, that’s a really good question. And I point out in the piece that I think obviously one of the biggest obstacles … Well, there are two obstacles. You don’t see a lot of districts advertising this, in part I think because those districts, like in Ohio, that don’t necessarily want kids from lower-income urban areas in their districts. They erect those barriers, whether they’re the school board voting at the local level or just not talking about the fact that this is a policy that parents can use.

And I think you’ve got another big problem and it’s, honestly, it’s the homeowners in those areas. I think the only plea that I could possibly make to those parents is the one that I made earlier, which is you got yours and you’re in the school that you wanted to be in and you’re in that school because you were able to locate in that community. Please don’t stand in the way of other people who are merely asking for the same opportunity. It’s a huge hurdle to overcome.

When I first started here about three years ago, I sat through some focus groups here in Indiana, that were also done in Arizona and I believe North Carolina and Florida. And I sat through the ones here in Indiana in person, and it just so happened that the panel discussing the issue of school choice and school opportunities, schooling opportunity was a bunch of suburban moms, and it was randomly assigned that way. It’s not like they went out and just recruited suburban moms. They happened to be all… There were no communities of color represented in that room. And it was really, really interesting to hear them talk on the one hand about how they absolutely fundamentally believed that school choice should be available to low-income kids, that there should be an evening of the playing field, if you will. But when you asked them about their own schools, the tone and the language dramatically shifted and it was far more of a, “No, I don’t want those kids in our school,” or “I’m worried about what that would do to our school culture or our school dynamic.”

And I think the only way to overcome that is truly to tear down the wall and to say, “Look, these are just kids. They just want to learn.” And it’s not about income level or skin color. It’s about what they’re trying to access and get out of the educational system.

And I use this example a lot. I have an 11-year-old daughter. She’s got a lot of anxiety. She likes to be in smaller groups. And I took her up to a suburban high school here a couple of years ago—she’s a swimmer—and I took her in and she was shocked because this particular high school has 5,000 students. And I could afford to move to this suburb, absolutely, and she could go to that high school when she’s old enough to, but it was terrifying for her to walk through those halls and realize there’d be so many kids there. And I use this example a lot to say that not fitting in to a particular school or a school not meeting a particular student’s needs has far less to do with income and practically nothing to do with skin color in a lot of instances. But it has everything to do with where that kid can find the right fit for that child. And that’s a hard thing to do.

We say a lot around here that we trust parents. I absolutely trust parents, I want to be trusted as a parent, but if we want to live that out, then we have to present all those options. And again, I have no silver bullet to the policy discussion, a discussion that would undoubtedly involve realtors and homeowners. I don’t have the answer other than to say you got yours, so let’s make sure everybody else can have the same opportunity.

Michael Chartier: Jason, I think I’m going to come back to you. I’ve got a quick question for you, I think. So, let’s say we do this. We get these families in suburban Ohio to tear down the wall as it were and let children go from school district to school district, as the former Friedman Foundation of Educational Choice, does that count for us? Is that something that we care about? Is that a win in our book? Should that be a win in our book?

Jason Bedrick: Absolutely. I mean, what was Friedman’s vision which still guides us? Is universal access to the school of a family’s choice. We want every child to have access to a school that’s the right for him or her.

Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s all or nothing for us. We want to take as many steps as we can in the right direction. So, is a choice among district schools the end goal? No, absolutely not. But is it superior to the status quo? Absolutely. And again, I would go back to the point that to the extent that a state adopts an open enrollment policy, if you have very limited choice options outside of the district system in that state, you’re going to find that it’s not going to do that much, as we’ve seen in Ohio and elsewhere. It’s not going to do that much to actually change the game. It’s not going to expand opportunity for that many students and you’re not going to have the sort of competitive effects from having lots of different choices.

But when parents do have those other choices, whether they’re charter schools, whether they’re access to private schools, or even through the ESA to homeschooling options and micro schools in a variety of new and different and innovative ways of educating children outside of a traditional classroom, then we’re going to see that the open enrollment policies are a lot more meaningful.
I think earlier Jen mentioned marketing. I heard people say, “Oh, in my area, in Arizona, the public schools do a lot of marketing.” I live in a school district where, it’s the Madison school district, it’s in Phoenix, but it’s an A-rated school district, and they’re sending me information saying that they’re an A-rated district. And some people think, “Oh, this is wasteful. If we were a normal state, school districts shouldn’t be wasting money on an advertising budget.” But I see that and I say, “No, this is great.” Because most parents aren’t aware of which schools in their area are high quality or not, outside of their district, especially those who don’t have many options. Families that have lots of choices because they’re higher income, they’re going to pay much more attention to school quality when they’re purchasing a home. But for those who don’t have lots of home-buying options, low income families, they’re going to select a home based on what they can afford and just pray that they have access to a good school.

Here, though, if you are in an area where you don’t have access to a high-quality school but you’re getting an advertising saying, “Hey, through this open enrollment policy, a few miles down the road, just over the train tracks, there’s a school that has a seat for your child. And by the way, it’s an A-rated school.” Well, this is a really expanding opportunity for those children whose parents can’t afford to live on the other side of the train tracks.

Another thing that you see is schools advertising particular offerings. So, there were some charter schools that moved into the area that started advertising, “Hey, we have the core knowledge program here.” It turns out parents really wanted the core knowledge program and some parents left the district school to go to a charter school that was offering that. Well, before long, the district schools figured out why parents were leaving, decided to adopt the core knowledge program themselves, and they started advertising that they also had it. So, this is ways that it creates a feedback loop: A) parents are getting the information they need to make choices and they have greater access to choices, and B) schools, as parents move, are getting information that they might not otherwise have gotten. They’re making changes to provide a higher quality service and making changes to better meet the needs of the families that they’re serving, and then making sure that that information gets back into the hands of parents.

So, when I see advertising, I say, “Oh, this is a system that has choice, it’s a system that has a feedback loop, and therefore, it’s going to be a system that’s going to have greater opportunity and greater quality.” And so I actually think that this idea of marketing is a healthy sign, not a waste of money.

Jennifer Wagner: Jason, I want to know if you are actually looking at my laptop because I just screenshotted several newspaper popup ads for local school districts here that have been coming through on our hometown newspaper. And I’m preparing to write another Medium post about that very topic because I 100 percent agree. That’s a good thing and schools should have to compete for those I’s. And I think we’re at a really good place in this movement where roughly… Well, the idea of school choice has obviously been around for a very long time and it has been in practice for a very long time in some states, but really the true effort that we’re talking about is around 30 years old. And we’re starting to just obviously see the results, almost all of which are positive from the private school choice programs that we’ve advocated for.

But to your point, we are seeing public school districts, whether it’s through magnet programs or just offering different curriculum opportunities and options, we are seeing them start to actually mirror a marketplace and advertise those things to different families. And that’s what Milton Friedman was after. That’s what we’re here for. Even though, and I know there are certain folks who probably would disagree with our assessment that this is a good thing because it’s still a choice within a limited system. It is still a choice within the public school system with all the rules and all the regulations that come with that and all the testing that comes with that. But we are now able to have this broader conversation because enough parents, because we’ve reached or are close to reaching, I believe, a tipping point in this movement where you’ve had enough time elapse where you’ve got generations who have been exposed to choice.

And I always say that choice, it’s the genie that you can’t put back in the bottle. You can’t take someone’s choice away from them once they’ve been given it because it is an incredibly empowering thing to be able to say, “Oh, I’m no longer limited by where I live. I can get my kid and maybe have multiple kids… I might get this kid into that school, this kid I’m going to homeschool, and this kid needs this kind of an opportunity.” And that’s an amazingly empowering thing. I mean, I know a lot of the times, especially in the line of work that you are both in, it can be disheartening because sometimes our policies and our ideas don’t become legislation. They don’t become enacted programs. But from my perspective, over in communications world, we are moving toward a place where the conversation is no longer about should you or shouldn’t you have choice. It’s about what kind of choices you have access to.

And I firmly believe that our kid’s generation and certainly the kids beyond their generation, so the next generation, will come to expect this. There will be no more conversations at the state house about whether or not people should have choice. We’ll just be arguing about the details.

Michael Chartier: Jen, thank you for wrapping that up. And I want to thank all of our listeners for tuning in. As Jen talked about and Jason talked about, the work here of EdChoice is to empower those families to go out and make the best choices for their children. And in that same vein, we want to go out and empower you guys, our listeners, to email us with ideas about what you guys want to hear about on these podcasts. I have not received yet a single email from people that want us to talk about a particular set of issues and whatnot, so I went to a challenge you guys to send us some ideas about things that you want us to talk about.

With that in mind, you can email us media@edchoice.org. Again, that’s media@edchoice.org. Subscribe to us or subscribe to this podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher. Again, that’s SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher. And please feel free to follow us on social media, @edchoice. Again, thank you very much for listening in and we will be signing off. Thank you everybody.