Ep. 105: The Monthly Debrief – February Looking to March 2019

March 14, 2019

In this Monthly Debrief podcast, EdChoice’s Senior Director of State Relations Michael Chartier, 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 a new, special needs ESA bill in Iowa, to ‘democracy in action’ in New Hampshire.

Michael Chartier: Hi everybody and welcome to another EdChoice Chat. This is Michael Chartier here, your senior director of state relations here at EdChoice. We’re going to be looking at what happened back in the month of February and maybe a little bit about what we expect to happen in the month of March. So, thank you very much for joining us. Here in studio we have Lauren Hodge.

Lauren Hodge: Hi there.

Michael Church: And on the phone all the way from warm, sunny Arizona we have Jason Bedrick.

Jason Bedrick: Hello everyone.

Michael Chartier: Now I’m in studio here again with Jacob who’s running sound who is still a bit sick. Everyone wish Jacob a speedy recovery from whatever ails him. But he’s not going to give to us though. He’s not going to give any of that illness to us. So, we will keep safe here.

So, I think we’re going to start off with a few states. We’re going to start with Lauren’s states first and move to mine and then on to Jason’s. So I think Lauren was going to talk a little bit about New Hampshire. She was just up there in New Hampshire talking to some parents and getting some parent stories, talking about their experiences with educational choice up in New Hampshire. So, Lauren, you want to tell us a little bit about what’s going on up there and we can cover the rest of your states?

Lauren Hodge: Sounds great. So, unfortunately because of flight delays I did not make it up to you in New Hampshire but EdChoice was there and we were talking to parents and getting stories. So, those that listened to last month, you remember that we talked a little bit about 632 and 318. There’s two bills in New Hampshire going on, those are the two numbers that I just mentioned, that could potentially have an impact on the tax-credit scholarship program. For those of you that remembered 632 is the one that I attended last month for the hearing on. That’s the direct repeal effort to just get rid of the program entirely. This is a tax-credit scholarship program where individuals and businesses can provide scholarships to children to attend schools of choice. I believe right now the current number of children in the program is, I think, right at like 413, I believe, students who have attended this program. And so they had a hearing on this last month and a continuation of that hearing this month.

Once again, all of those parents turning out, all of those students turning out, advocates and opponents of the programs, truly democracy in action, which if you know New Hampshire, that is, it’s live for your die. So, it is a wonderful thing to be able to see the democratic process in action.

But we did have an opportunity to be there and to hear parents stories and they’re such compelling stories. Stories about children who have, for lack of a better term, just didn’t have the right fit. Not anything against the public school system, not anything against where they were at. It just wasn’t working for them. And so to hear these children’s stories, to hear the parents’ stories about the turnarounds, the ability to find the right fit, the ability to find the right environment by which not only to academically excel, but to personally begin to thrive. It really hammered in why we do the work that we do and what’s going on. So, it was a great opportunity.

So, 632 had that second hearing last week and so we’ll see what happens with that. The subcommittee needs to vote and then we’ll see where this goes from there. So, 318 for those of you that remember listening last month, that’s the Senate Bill 318, is what I would call an indirect repeal attempt into the tax-credit scholarship program in New Hampshire. If passed, it could significantly change the nature of the tax-credit scholarship program in New Hampshire by creating a public school grant program. Essentially it would divert the money that’s to be used for children’s scholarships to programs so that for the already publicly funded public schools. And so that has actually recently gone through and was recommended that it ought to pass. It looks like it’s going to go through its third reading on March 13. So, that one’s moving along. So we’ll be carefully keeping our eyes peeled on it.

So that’s what’s going on in New Hampshire. They’re in a very defensive posture over the programs and parents are talking and democracy in action. So, that’s New Hampshire.
I guess I’ll flip over if you don’t mind briefly to go on down south to Mississippi.

Michael Chartier: Let’s do it.

Lauren Hodge: So, Mississippi had a whole host, those of you have read the blog, you know there’s been a ton of updates. They had a whole host and slew of bills that were filed. Everything from education savings scholarships to tax-credit scholarship programs. Truly a myriad and I won’t go through all of them. You can read them on the blog if you want to. My update for listeners here is that sadly they have all died. And so for those of you who know Mississippi, for those of you who don’t, most of these died by not making the crossover date. And so this is essentially what has happened this past session in Mississippi.

What’s important for listeners to know is that the repealer is still in a place for the education savings account that they do have in Mississippi. This is set to sunset, as they would call it in Mississippi, in 2020, in July of 2020. So, absent there being some sort of progress on the repealer, this program, the education savings account, could go away by July of 2020 if action is not taken.

Michael Chartier: That would be a horrible turn of events for the children that utilize that program down in Mississippi. Is there still movement to take that up the next session and continue that program?

Lauren Hodge: I think that the parents, especially, that have children, the people who are part of these programs certainly want to see that stay. I had the opportunity to be in Mississippi during National School Choice Week. I saw those parents go to the state Capitol. I saw them be a part of this process. Like I said, democracy in action. So, I do think that it won’t go down without a fight.

Michael Chartier: Got it. That is good to hear for those parents, that they’re standing up for what they believe in. I think I’ll tackle my states next. Before we move on to Jason. I’m going to cover two states here. I think one more briefly than the other. My first state I’ll cover is Iowa.

Iowa has to education savings account bills in differing scopes. The Senate actually just introduced, about a week ago, a special needs education savings account that actually moved out of its sub subcommittee and moved out of its full education committee, which is a big step in the state of Iowa. They have a funnel there and bills that don’t make it through the funnel process are basically dead. So, it’s a big first step for them to get this bill out of committee so that it moves to the finance committee next where it can receive a hearing and it’s exempt from that funnel process. So, that’s a positive development in the state of Iowa and we’d be watching that special needs ESA bill as it moves forward.

It’s still very early in the session. There are still a lot of stuff to happen, but there’s obviously a positive benefit in that that bill, sponsored by Senator Jerry Bain, has moved out of the education committee and it’s now under the finance committee. We’re hopefully it will see a hearing here shortly.

I think I’ll give everyone an update about what happened in West Virginia. I’ll spend a little bit more time on that state since it’s somewhat the most interesting state that I cover. In West Virginia there was an omnibus education bill, Senate Bill 451, and that had a whole host of stuff in it. There was a funding formula fix for small school districts. There was a 5 percent state personnel and teacher pay raise bill in there. There was the allowance of charter schools to come into the state. They had a universal education savings account that got amended down to special needs education savings account, public school, open district enrollment for public schools. In this bill, there’s just a whole host of stuff that happened that was contained in this bill as it moved through the process.

The bill started in the Senate Education Committee where it was passed by the Senate Education Committee. From there it moved actually to a committee of the whole. And the committee of the whole is basically when the entire Senate body acts as a committee. They entire body can act as a committee to approve or deny legislation in the committee process. So, they actually went to a committee of the whole, instead of going through the Finance Committee and the finance chair, Senator Blair, served as the committee chairperson for this committee of the whole. The committee of the whole met of a couple of days and passed Senate Bill 451 out of the committee of the whole and then onto the floor.

The floor vote then happened the next day on second reading and that bill was passed out of second reading. There were a fair amount of amendments to that bill. One of them added a means test component to the ESA. I think it was a straight $150,000 a year. Under that family income, you’d be eligible to receive an education savings account if you’re a child with special needs. It passed its second reading. Then moved to third reading the next day and it was passed on third reading and sent over to the House. The House then took up the bill, sent it to the education committee in the House and that ESA portion was stripped out of the Education Committee where the rest of the bill, the pay raise and a few other things were changed, but the education savings account was stripped out of that in the education committee and then moved on to the finance committee.

There was some interesting procedural Robert’s Rules of Order discussions going on in the Finance Committee. A few shenanigans happened that I paid attention to. I’ll bore you the details of that kind of stuff, unless you’re a parliamentary geek, in which case, send us an email at media@edchoice.org and we can go into the parliamentary procedures that happened at the House Finance Committee. But in the finance committee, they did move to the omnibus education bill out of the committee and to the floor for second reading. In second reading it was continually amended. They added a number of millions of dollars, I think it was $47 million for school security. They were going to pay police officers to be in every single school in the state of West Virginia. Had a large fiscal note, but that was added to the bill.

It was passed on second reading onto third reading. A few other things happened. Education savings accounts were not included in that, but the overall bill ended up being tabled. So, Senate Bill 451 was indefinitely tabled and the bill died at that point, on third reading.

The school choice supporters were obviously very distraught by that. That means there was going to be no charter schools, no teacher pay raise, no ESAs, no public school open enrollment. So, the loss of Senate Bill 451 was a tragic blow to school choice supporters. But also like I said, the teacher pay raise was killed. It was gutted. So, that left the teachers in a lurch basically. The governor, Governor Jim Justice, promised a 5 percent pay raise to the teachers and the state personnel and he was going to keep good in that promise. So he decided that he would take the West Virginia legislature into a special session, which was actually convened two days ago and the enactment of that took place yesterday.

That special session was entered into… The governor gets to control of what happens to that special session. And the school choice supporters were very worried that education reform would not take place, that it would only focus on pay raises. The governor, through a series of negotiations, has allowed for both education reform and for the pay raises to take place in that special session. This gave new life to school choice supporters who believe that there could be some education reform and some school choice taking place in this special session along with the pay raises, which everyone has dedicated themselves to.

So, we’re going to see what’s going to happen here in the month of March and the month of April when it comes to education reform, school choice, ESAs and the teacher pay raises. So, that’s where we are right now. We’re going to enter a special session here and we will see what comes out of the state of West Virginia.

Lauren Hodge: Fascinating turn of events there.

Michael Chartier: It was an up and down rollercoaster. I could probably do its own podcast on ESAs in West Virginia, but a lot of stuff has happened there. A lot of work… [Senate] President Mitch Carmichael and the Senate Speaker Roger Hanshaw and Governor Jim Justice all working together to ensure that education reform and teacher pay raises happened in the special session. So, we look forward to watching what happens out there.

Now for probably the most states, Jason Bedrick, our policy director, is going to cover those. So, Jason, do you want to start with your home state out into the west and then maybe move towards the east? Go across the country that way?

Jason Bedrick: Sure. Lauren already covered my home state of New Hampshire, but my adopted home state of Arizona, there are some bills moving forward. Not the same kind of fireworks we saw in West Virginia, but the Senate Finance Committee did pass SB 1395. This is not a major school choice bill. It’s more of a technical fix bill. It clarifies the eligibility of students, for example, whether they live within an attendance boundary of a low-performing school or if they’re actually assigned to a school that is low performing. Some things like whether students who are entering kindergarten for the first time are eligible if they’re older than age five. So there were some students with special needs who they weren’t entering kindergarten until they are age 6 or 7 and then the department was denying them because they were not age 5. And so this bill says as long as you are entering kindergarten for the first time, then you are still eligible.

And it also clarifies eligible categories of expenditures. So, there had been a lot of confusion with the Department of Education granting permission to purchase certain things like workbooks and textbooks and flashcards and manipulatives. And then in some cases denying those very same products and services for other families, and some cases even the same family. There were even some cases when they initially approved something and then later rescinded their approval and ask the family to pay back the hundreds or even thousands of dollars they had spent on that particular product or service in the interim.

So, a lot of families were upset just about the uncertainty from the department. And so this bill has the department put together a hand, which they already have. They have a handbook, but they’re going to clarify what goes into the handbook and just make it a lot easier for families to understand whether they are eligible and whether the items that they’re trying to purchase are eligible.

So, that did pass Senate Finance with a surprising amount of opposition by groups that are just 100 percent against empowering families to choose an education that works best for them. Talking specifically about Save our Schools Arizona and Red for Ed, both movements decided that they see any alternative to the district system as a threat to that system. They do not want people to be able to choose anything other than their preferred system. And so anything that would make it easier to operate the program or that would make it easier for parents to be eligible to have their child participate in the program they said no, no, we’re, we’re going to oppose it 100 percent. So, it did pass over their objections, but it is a more controversial than a technical fix bill usually is.
There were a number of bills that were threatening school choice in Arizona. All of those fortunately have been defeated because they were not given a hearing. There is only one bill that will have a, I don’t want to call it necessarily a negative effect. This is something that we’ve seen for a while, but it’s going to slow the growth of the low-income tax-credit scholarship program.

So, for two decades now, this program was enacted in the late 90s and it had an escalator of 20 percent. So, that means anytime that at least 90 percent of the total tax credits available were claimed, then in the following year, the total number of tax credits increased by 20 percent over the previous year. Now, people understand how compound interest works. Over time that scales up dramatically, but if it were to keep going, eventually it would be taking all of the taxes potentially from that particular tax on businesses. So, we knew we had to eventually slow it down. The way it’s slowing down now it’s going to go down from 20 percent a year to 15 percent, 10, 5 and then the greater of either 2 percent or inflation. So, this is still going to allow the program to continue to expand, but now that it’s reaching scale, the growth of the program is going to slow down.

Another state, we have Florida where they’ve introduced legislation. SB 1410 is going to expand Florida’s Hope Scholarship Program and they have another bill SPV 7070. That’s their omnibus education bill. So, that does a whole bunch of things. But as far as our podcast listeners are most concerned, what it does is creates a new family empowerment scholarship program. Now this is, it’s sort of bittersweet. I’ll say that because I think this is probably the most likely bill this year to pass and actually make it all the way to the governor’s desk. We just wish it were bigger and bolder.

So, Governor DeSanctis was a very outspoken proponent of expanding educational choice options. Florida has or more than 100,000 students that are participating in their tax-credit scholarship and education savings account programs. We really were hoping that they were going to expand the ESA or create a parallel ESA program with very broad access.

In the end, they decided to go with a voucher for low-income students that’s going to essentially serve the students that are on the waitlist for the tax-credit scholarship program. And this is almost certainly going to draw a lawsuit given that a voucher program was struck down in a very highly convoluted case, a Bush v. Holmes, more than a decade ago. And so it’s certainly going to draw a lawsuit. However, the state Supreme Court has changed in its composition significantly since then. And in their last decision, the way it was written—and Leslie [Hiner] can talk more about this over on her constitutional podcast—but the way it was written led people to believe that actually there is a majority of the state Supreme Court that no longer believes that Bush v. Holmes was decided accurately.

So, I think there is a very good chance it will pass. There will be a lawsuit, it will go up to the state Supreme Court and it will ultimately be upheld, Bush v. Holmes will be overturned. And then hopefully at that point they’re are going to be willing to be a little more bold, help more students get access to educational choice and do it in the form of an education savings account instead of a voucher. Especially since Florida is one of the six states… Not only is Florida one of the six states that has an ESA program, I think it is actually the best run of the ESA programs and it serves the most students more than any of the other ESA programs. I think actually more than all of the others combined. So really hoping to see bolder reform out of Florida.

Now, in Missouri we have SB 160. This would create the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program. So, that’s an ESA. What would make it different from all the other ESAs is that this is a tax-credit funded ESA program—sort of combining the two, the ESA and the tax credit scholarship model. And that has passed the Missouri Senate Ways and Means Committee. So, we’ll see where that goes. There’s also a companion bill in the House which passed the Missouri House Education Committee and also the administrative oversight committee. So, that passed two committees and those should be going to the floor.

Moving on to Virginia, the Virginia Senate passed two bills that would advance educational choice. One of them is SB 1015. That would expand eligibility for the education improvement scholarship tax credits program. That would include children who are enrolled in or attending a non-public kindergarten pre-k program. Those students are currently not eligible. So, that would make those students eligible as well.

The second bill is SB 1365 and that would increase the size of the tax credit scholarships that are available for low- and middle-income students from 100 percent to 300 percent of the states per pupil expenditure. So, that would help families get access to more funds to help their children. So those are the two bills that are moving forward in Virginia.
And also in Utah, the Senate passed SB 177, which is a tax-credit scholarship for students with special needs. That’s all four states that have actually passed school choice out of a committee or one chamber.

Georgia, they did pass the education savings account program, a very bold, practically universal ESA program, but unfortunately this past week it died on the floor. So, they thought they had 31 votes. They needed 29 to pass. In the end they only had 25 in favor and 28 opposed, so unfortunately that bill is dead. But lots of support from the governor and hopefully that’s something that can come back in future years.

We’ll also keep an eye out on bills in Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska and Minnesota and North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. All of those states have introduced school choice bills either to create new educational choice programs or to expand existing programs. So, tune in next month and we will have updates about the progress of those bills and all the other legislation that we discussed previously.

Michael Chartier: Awesome. Thank you for that update, Jason. Obviously, as usual, extremely thorough and well-researched. So, thank you very much for that update.

With that, I think I’ll close out this look back on February podcast. Please subscribe to this on SoundCloud, Stitcher, and iTunes. Please subscribe to this podcast on any one of those three areas. If you would please follow us @edchoice on Twitter. Again, that’s at @edchoice. And if you would go to our website, you can sign up for our emails at www.edchoice.org.

With that, I want to thank you all very much for listening. If you do have anything you’d like us to cover or anything you’d want to talk about or any complaints about the host, please send those to media@edchoice.org. Again, anything you guys want us to cover or anything that you want us to talk about, please reach out.

So, with that I’ll let everyone get back to their normal, business lives and I look forward to having a podcast shortly in April to discuss the things that happened in March. So, thank you very much and everyone, you have a good day.