Ep. 98: The Monthly Debrief – January Looking to February 2019

February 12, 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 three-day hearing in West Virginia to making friends with sheep in New Hampshire.

Michael Chartier: Thank you everybody, and welcome to another EdChoice Chats. My name is Michael Chartier, and I’m the senior director of state relations here for EdChoice. Here in studio, we have Lauren Hodge, who just got back from a long week of travel across the country. Lauren, you want to say hi to everybody?

Lauren Hodge: Good afternoon. I was going to say good morning. It’s been that long week of travel. Glad to be here.

Michael Chartier: And on the phone from EdChoice west, where it’s probably much warmer than it is here in Indianapolis at about 20 degrees, Jason Bedrick. Jason, do you want to say hello to everybody?

Jason Bedrick: Well, no it’s only in the 70s here, so it’s not that warm.

Michael Chartier: I’m coming out there.

Lauren Hodge: Yep. Somebody has a good place to be.

Michael Chartier: That’s hilarious. Well, thank you. Enough about the weather, the polar vortex that probably moved through that we’re on the tail end of. We can get right into this. It’s been obviously a busy month back in January tracking legislation. Most states have gone into their legislative sessions, their long sessions, their budget years, as it were. So, we’ve been obviously busy tracking all the legislation. If you want to, everyone please go on our website, www.edchoice.org, and go to our blog page where we do a very in-depth listing of all the bills that have been moved, introduced, died, passed, all that fun stuff. So, we were going to highlight a few of those bills here on the podcast, just to kind of give you guys and listeners a little bit of a scoop, and we’re going to start in the warmest spot right now, as we just talked about with Jason in Arizona. So, Jason, do you want to tell us what you see when you look out your back window?

Jason Bedrick: Sure, and actually I should clarify. It’s a high of 67 today, so I was exaggerating slightly before.

Michael Chartier: We’re going edit you out of this podcast by the way.

Jason Bedrick: We’ve got some positive bills that are moving forward in Arizona that are trying to expand educational choice, so in particular we’ve got SB 1396 that would expand the eligibility for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts to children from low- and middle- income families. Listeners might know, that ESA in Arizona, which was originally for students with special needs, then expanded to a number of different categories of students. You know, children from military families, those who are assigned to low-performing district schools, those who are on Native American reservations, foster kids, etc. There was a move a couple of years ago to expand it basically to everybody in the state. Unfortunately, that was then reversed on the ballot. However, lawmakers are still very interested, and the general public is still very interested actually in supporting moved to expand the program. So, expanding it to low- and middle-income families, similar to the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, is a great step. We’ll be monitoring that closely.

There’s also another bill which was filed by a freshman legislator, Shawnna Bolick, and she is looking to follow the path that Florida’s Hope scholarships have paved in the sense that her bill would expand eligibility for ESA to children who have been bullied or harassed, and her own child experienced bullying and harassment. She has a very harrowing tale about that, and how the school that her child was in was not particularly responsive to her child’s needs, and they were able to find another school and exercise school choice, but she wants a system that would empower parents much more swiftly to move their child out of the situation like that when they’re in that sort of situation.

So, one, providing immediate escape hatch to children who are being tormented and two, creating a stronger incentive for schools to take the issue of bullying and harassment at school seriously, and if they know that those children can leave, their parents can enroll them somewhere else really quickly, and take their money with them, then that’s a very strong incentive for the schools to deal with it. So, those are the two bills that are looking to expand educational choice.

There’s also another bill, SB 1395, which would improve the administration of the ESA. I mean, there have been a number of issues where the Department of Education, due to some vagueness in the statute, has interpreted the law in such a way that really stymies parent’s abilities to access and then use the ESAs. So, for example, there were families, and children were six years old, and they wanted to enroll them in kindergarten, and they said, ” Oh no. You can only enroll them in kindergarten if they’re five years old and if they’re already six years old, then it’s too late. You’ve missed the cut off. You can never enter this program.” You know, unless you were to go to a public school and then switch out of it”. So, it would clarify that six year olds entering kindergarten would qualify. It also clarifies the rules of actually using the scholarships, using ESA funds.

So, for example, there have been a number of cases were parents purchased things like workbooks, flashcards, just regular reading books, manipulatives for children with disabilities, and in some cases, the department said this was acceptable. In some cases, the department denied the request, and then categorized it as misspending which then made a big splash in the media. Even though it was not really misspending, so this clarifies the types of spending that is actually allowed, and it does a number of other technical things that would actually really improve the administration of the program, the oversight of the program, the transparency, and just make it more user friendly for the parents. So, this is something that ESA families have really been pushing for, and we hope that legislators will take a close look at it and see that this is the right thing to do to improve the program.

On the other side of the coin however, though, there are a whole bunch of bills that were intended, basically are attacks on the state’s tax-credit scholarship programs. So, I’m not going to go through all of them here, so our listeners are encouraged to go to our website, edchoice.org, and they can look at our recent blog posts. We do them once a month. School Choice in the States for January 2019 where we detail not only all the bills in Arizona, but all across the country. So, they can go there and look at all of those.

Most of them are probably not going to get a hearing. However there is one in particular that might, given that it is sponsored by a Republican senator, and that is SB 1168, and it would do three things to the tax-credit scholarship program. First, it would reduce eligibility for the program down to 133 percent of the federal poverty line. So, right now, there is no income cap on one of the tax-credit programs. That’s the individual donor program. The corporate donor program is capped at 185 percent of the income guidelines for the free and reduced lunch program, which itself is 185 percent of the federal poverty line. So, in other words, what it does is it would take it down from about 340 percent of the federal poverty line to 133 percent of the federal poverty line. So, that would cut more than half of the students who are currently eligible for the program out. That would, of course, be a dramatic reduction in the ability to access the program.

We’ve heard that Senator Boyer is actually backing down on that, but we’ve yet to see an amendment proposed that would do that. Secondly, it would cut in half the administrative allowance for the tax-credit scholarship organizations that are administering the program. That could be really devastating because right now they’ve got 10 percent. It would cut them down to 5, but a lot of people are making donations with credit cards, and so that is already 2 to 3 percent of their administrative allowance right there.

So, this would make it a lot harder for them to maintain the staff that’s necessary to raise the funds, to administer the program, to disperse the scholarships, answer parent’s questions, help them with the application process. It could have a really negative effect on the program. And then finally, the tax-credit cap for the corporate program grows at 20 percent a year. Now, there are concerns, and for those who understand how compounding interests works, it can grow rather rapidly. That was the intent of the program. It started out very small. It was able to scale up to meet demand, but it has still not met demand, and it is still less than the equivalent of 1 percent of the total Arizona budget, even though about 5 percent of the kids are going to private schools in the state.

So, his bill would take it down from 20 percent to 2 percent or inflation. So, essentially what you would do is, you would freeze the program at the current levels including the current wait lists, and it would not allow the program to grow anymore, so that would be very unfortunate since there are so many children from needy families that are trying to access the program and can’t right now. We understand that eventually we are going to have to phase out the inflator, but in the meantime, the program really still needs to grow to keep up with demand.

So, that’s the update from Arizona, and Michael, why don’t you take it away. Let us know what the next state is.

Michael Chartier: Sure. Well Jason, I think we can handle a couple more of your states. We’ve got two, and I think we’ll just go from you, to me, to Lauren. You want to talk about Missouri as the next state. The ancestral home of one Michael McShane. Can you tell us what’s happening out in Missouri?

Jason Bedrick: Yes, ancestral and current home of Michael McShane. So, there are a bunch of bills in Missouri right now that would create different versions of an empowerment scholarship account program sort of similar to Arizona’s except that it would be a tax-credit funded ESA program, and—

Michael Chartier: And that’s the first of its kind, right? That would be, if that passed, that would be the first of its kind in the country.

Jason Bedrick: Yes, that’s correct. It would be the first of its kind, and it’s also the first of its kind in this regard as well. One of them moved this week, so SB 160 passed the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and it would be available to essentially all students in the state so long as they live in a town or city that has greater than 30,000 residents. So, it appears that what they’re trying to do is exclude very rural areas where some folks are concerned that because that towns are already so small, and that if a few students were to leave the district school, that it could really have a negative effect on the funding. We don’t necessarily buy that argument. It’s funny, they actually argue it both ways. They say, “Oh, there’s no other options for rural people and if they left, it would be devastating.” Well, the fact is there’s fluctuation in all of these communities all of the time that they’re already having to deal with, and especially with advances in communications technology and online learning. There are more options for rural communities than many people believe, but it seems that they’re trying to sidestep that entire political debate and say, “You know what, this is going to be for more suburban and rural areas.” We’ll certainly be keeping an eye on that.

Then over in Oklahoma there are several different bills that would increase the size of the tax-credit scholarship program, which is currently capped at 3.5 million, which is just a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the total state K–12 education budget. They’re trying to increase that to somewhere between 25 and 40 million dollars depending on the bill. There’s also another bill that would create a personal use tax credit of up to $2,500 for a variety of educational expenses. Think of it as like a personal ESA, because you can use it for school tuition, tutoring, online instruction, curricula, textbooks, workbooks, etc., but instead of having to apply to the state or to some nonprofit, you’re just deducting it straight from your tax. Really getting a credit directly on your taxes.

Then there’s some other interesting bills. They’re trying to expand … the SB 360 would expand eligibility for the Lindsay Nicole Henry scholarship program, which currently is for students with disabilities. It would expand them to students who have at least one parent who is incarcerated. Apparently there is a school in Oklahoma that caters specifically to these students. I mean, sometimes these kids get bullied and made fun of in a public school because they’ve got a parent who is in prison. This is a school … really big-hearted people that are trying to address the specific needs of children that are in that situation. Because it’s very popular, they have this bill going forward.

Then there’s another that would expand eligibility for the program to students who are homeless, and then finally there’s another bill that would try to create a Hope Scholarship Program, sort of like Florida, for the students who are bullied for any reason. We are seeing lots and lots of efforts to expand school choice, and I’m sure you’re going to fill us in with some more.

Michael Chartier: Sure. Jason, I do have one quick question for you, if you’d know the answer. That’s very interesting about the school that opened up for children whose one or more parents is incarcerated. Is that a private school, or is it a charter school? Do you know what kind of school that is and where it’s located?

Jason Bedrick: Yes, it is a private school. I do not know where it is located, but I was recently speaking to our good friend Brandon Dutcher from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, OCPA. He was telling us all about it. I don’t know where it is, but it’s something that has caught the eye of the legislators. They are looking to help more students get access to schools like that, and hopefully even, if this were to go through, sort of spark a supply side response to the increased demand and have other similar schools open up that address students in this situation.

Michael Chartier: Got it. Well, thank you. That’s a very interesting story. I hadn’t ever heard of that. We should try to do a podcast on that sometime, or talk a little bit about that more in the future. That’s just fascinating. I just love how you hear these stories across the country of these people getting together and creating a school or some sort of learning environment to fill a specific need or a specific niche for that community. Thank you for that, that’s fascinating.

I’ll cover the next couple of states. Nevada just started its legislative session. They’ve been in for a couple of days now. They had a couple snow days, so can’t really say if they’ve actually been in session, but they are somewhat officially gaveled in, but since they couldn’t make it work, not a whole lot has happened out of there. We’ll be hearing more about Nevada during the lookback on the February podcast.

I do want to, again, cover a couple of other states. The state of Iowa, Brad Zaun, Senator Zaun, has introduced two bills. One that’s an education savings account bill for special needs students. He’ll try to get that bill moving through the committee. It’s currently sitting in the finance subcommittee, so we’re waiting for that bill to receive a hearing. He also introduced a bill that would up the donations cap on their tax-credit scholarship program. That program currently gets maxed out every year and he’s trying to add an escalator clause to see if they can’t get that program up to meet the demand of the students. I think we’ll follow that more closely as it moves along the process. I could see something like that surviving in a different form in the Iowa budget, so we’ll definitely track that as it gets closer to the end of session. For right now, that bill is also waiting for a hearing in its particular subcommittee.

Now, my home state of Indiana, I guess most of the people on this podcast other than Jason … our home state of Indiana. We currently have two education savings accounts bills, both originating in the House. Representative [Jeanie] Lauer has introduced an educating savings account bill that actually has a whole bunch of different functions in it, including 529 stuff, tax-credit scholarship stuff, as well as education savings account. That bill has been introduced and is currently awaiting a hearing in the House Education Committee. We will track that if that does end up receiving a hearing. Then Representative Jim Lucas has also introduced an education savings account bill and likewise, that’s also awaiting a hearing in the education committee in the house. No word on when either of those bills might receive a hearing, so we will continue to track that, but just to let our listeners know that those bills have been introduced and those are currently biding their time in the education committee.

I think most importantly for my states that I cover, the most exciting one is West Virginia. West Virginia has SB 451. It’s an omnibus education bill, so there’s a whole bunch of stuff in there. For our purposes, we’ll kind of talk about a few different things. One, it includes a teacher raise. Additional funds for teacher raises. Last year there was a teacher strike and the governor and the legislature promised them teacher raises. They got some last year, but they wanted to shore that up a little bit more so they included a provision in this bill, SB 451, that includes teacher raises.

Secondly, I believe one of the more important things, is that they’ve established essentially a funding floor for school districts. Regardless of how many kids are in your school district, they will fund your school district at a level at which there are at least 1,440 students. If there’s 300 kids in the district, they’re going to fund you at a level in which there is 1,440 students in that school district. That will be a boon to some of school districts that are facing declining enrollment. It frees their hands up a little bit to find money and bring in good teachers, continue the programs that they needed to do to educate those kids. That’s one of the things the legislature has included in SB 451.

Again, for our purposes, we’ll talk about the education savings account. There is an education savings account as well as charter school authorizers. There are 44 states in the country that have charter schools. West Virginia is not one of them. This would bring charter schools to West Virginia. It would also create an education savings account program, which I believe would be the sixth if it were to pass and come to fruition. It would be the sixth program that would be up and operational. I think there’s five, plus Nevada. I think this would be six that would be operational.

That one’s kind of taken an interesting journey. SB 451 has taken somewhat of an interesting journey. It was introduced by the education committee in the Senate. It passed out of Senate as an education savings account. It was a universal education savings account for those currently in public schools. You had to be in public school for the year preceding and you would receive 75 percent of what the average state funding would be, which is roughly about 3200 bucks. Seventy-five percent would be roughly about 32,00 bucks in your education savings account. Those were kind of the two main factors in terms of its bill score, that I know Jason, that you look at. It was very light on regulations. It empowered parents and it did not have a lot of onerous regulations that would cause parents and students or private schools to not want to participate in the program. It was a relatively solid education savings account bill, as we believe in them.

From there it moved to, actually, a very parliamentary procedure. After it passed the house education committee, the Senate president called a … it was actually voted on, but called for a committee of the whole. Essentially what a committee of the whole is, is the entire body acts as if it were a legislative committee. In this case, the entire West Virginia Senate acted as if it were the finance committee. It did not go to finance, but it went to the committee of the whole, in which the finance chairman, Senator [Craig] Blair, presided over the entire body as if it were the finance committee. Yours truly went out and testified. I got my two minutes of citizen democracy to talk about what EdChoice thinks about education savings accounts and what we’ve learned about education savings accounts across the country to try to inform the committee members.

That hearing lasted for, I think it was about three days. Some portion of each of three days. It was passed out of the committee of the whole by an 18-16 vote, and then went to the floor in West Virginia. In West Virginia there’s a constitutional requirement that a bill be read on three consecutive days. Its first reading was when it was introduced, read to the education committee. The second reading was then after it passed out of the committee of the whole. There was a variety of amendments that were offered on the floor. A few of those passed. The education savings account was capped at 2,500 students, which is roughly 1 percent of the school-age population in West Virginia. The family income, there was a means test that was added. Only families that made under $150,000 in adjusted gross income would be eligible to participate in the program, which is somewhere in the 95 percent range, give or take a few percentage points here or there. It’s basically roughly 95 percent of the kids in West Virginia would fall under that family income and be eligible for the program.

A variety of other amendments were brought forth that were debated and rejected. That bill was passed out of second reading. On the third reading the next day, it was passed out on the third reading with an 18-16 vote. It’s made its way over to the House of Delegates. It is currently, at this day, from this morning, it is currently receiving its hearing in the House Education Committee. The House Education Committee introduced a substitute bill for SB 451. It includes a variety of the functions that we talked about, the teacher raises and all those sorts of things. The ESA portion has been amended to include only those children who are special needs. They’re known as gifted students. In West Virginia, that is the term in the bill, is “gift students education savings account.” The same provisions for the $150,000 also exist and those sorts of things. We will continue to monitor that. I’ll probably get off of this podcast and go see if they’re back in session, but that bill is currently debated in the House of Delegates Education Committee and we will continue to follow that as it moves through the process and gets out of there and move on to finance.
So, that is the short version of what’s been going on in West Virginia. It’s a beautiful state, by the way, and was actually warmer over in West Virginia than it was in Indiana, so it was fun times hanging out there during the polar vortex.

Waiting very patiently and very quietly, back from her long trips, Lauren is going to talk about a few of her states. Give us a quick update on what’s happening in South Carolina and then about her fun experience up in New Hampshire, where I think you saw a goat? Did you see some goats?

Lauren Hodge: I believe they were sheep.

Michael Chartier: Sheep, excuse me.

Lauren Hodge: Yes, I did indeed see some sheep and I will fill everybody in. But first, I’m going to go to South Carolina where we have HB 3681 and that is a proposed ESA program, an education savings account. That bill, we’re up to 61 sponsors the last time that I looked at it, so gaining some momentum, both Republican and Democratic support for it. This ESA would have a wide variety of educational fundings that it could be used for, including tuitioning at private and public schools, tutoring, curriculum, computer hardware, and nicely, a nice provision is the transportation cost, up to $750 annually to help defray some of that cost. We’ll see where that lands. It was introduced. We’ve got 61 sponsors on it and I’m watching to see when it’ll get its committee hearing and we’ll be watching that closely.

So then, onto the northeast, in New Hampshire, where I did indeed see my first set of sheep up there. In a little bit, I had some meetings with some wonderful, wonderful people in New Hampshire who invited me to their lovely home and they are farmers and so they had sheep. The sheep came to greet me at the door. It was a nice way to be welcomed into the house and I got to see what that very expensive wool looks like up close.

Michael Chartier: Is that what they use the sheep for? Do they harvest the wool?

Lauren Hodge: I was told that it was a gift, a birthday gift, for her husband and I don’t know what they’re going to use them for quite yet. But they are lovely sheep. There are three of them. We made friends. I fed it grain, and I’m pretty sure I’m a friend for life now.

Michael Chartier: There you go.

Lauren Hodge: But New Hampshire, unfortunately, is not as light and filled with brevity as that anecdote is. New Hampshire’s facing HB 362 and Senate Bill 318, which are … 632 is a direct attempt to repeal the tax-credit scholarship program, and then you have Senate Bill 318 which would drastically change the nature of the tax-credit scholarship program in New Hampshire.

I was up in New Hampshire for the hearing on 632. This is a bill that would just completely get rid of the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, and it really was something to be seen. I came in, the hearing was set for 11:00 a.m. I arrived early and a big shout-out here to Jason Patrick who showed me where to go in New Hampshire the very first time I ever came. I at least had some semblance, some idea of where I should be, and so I was able to get up the elevator and within a second of stepping outside of the elevator, I was just affronted with at least 100 parents, students, advocates for the tax-credit scholarships, all with their yellow scarfs, all standing there and waiting to sign in, waiting to testify, waiting to tell these committee members what this program means to them.

It was humbling to be a part of that, to listen to their stories as they stood in line and waited to sign in, and so I was at the committee hearing. Unfortunately, those parents and children didn’t get the full opportunity to testify, because there was not enough time, and so there will be a second hearing for this bill, but the children that did testify, it was truly from the mouth of babes. To sit there and listen to them describe what their schools mean to them and why this program has helped them find, what we talked about so often, the right fit, the right niche for them to go from being— We heard students who went from being failing students to straight A’s, and we heard students that were high achieving that just needed that one small step up to get to that next level. We heard from kids that were bullied. We heard from some kids that were immigrants from other countries and who had experienced racism and all about finding that right fit for them and what their schools meant to them and what their schools did for them.

It was truly democracy in action, and that is the wonderful part of this job is seeing those types of things happen, to see children not only taking the day off of school but to see so many parents taking the day off of work, so many mothers, so many fathers, who are standing there right alongside those kids saying, “No, this is important and we support you and we are hear for this,” so listening to them telling their stories and what this program means to them. We’ll be watching carefully. I think there will be another hearing set for March to continue this testimony is what they had initially described. It’s not been posted yet, so we’ll be watching for that second hearing and seeing what happens with it and following the progress closely. But there’s no doubt about it. People turned out in New Hampshire to make sure that the committee members knew this matters.

Michael Chartier: That’s awesome. Will thank you, Lauren, for painting that picture for us. My heart goes out to those family members, knowing that those options that they believe in and that their children need might not be there at the end of the day, so we will continue to watch that and provide updates.
Does anyone have anything happy to end on? Jason, do you have anything happy for us to end on?

Jason Bedrick: Actually, I think that is quite happy, in the sense that yes, it’s terrible that there is a real live chance that they could end up seeing the program repealed in the legislature, although we know that Governor Sununu has been a very strong champion, really, when it comes to school choice, and so everybody expects that it’s going to be vetoed. I don’t think that there is a veto-proof majority. I don’t think they’ll be able to override a veto, so I think the program will continue.

But it’s incredibly heartening to me to see that all these families are getting really active. I’ve never seen, on a school choice bill, the room was packed, as the pictures showed, from supporters of the program. When we were originally pushing for the bill and at the time it was enacted, I was no longer in the legislature, but I was working for the Josiah Bartlett Center in New Hampshire at the time. It was a small group of activists. There were some parents and the grass-roots types, but it was a smaller number of us that were pushing it at the time, because it’s really hard to mobilize parents around a dream of what might be, especially when they’re just not very familiar with school choice.

I mean, at the time, there was in all of New England, there was only one tax-credit scholarship program and it was in Rhode Island and it was very, very small. New Hampshire really didn’t have a nearby example to follow. But now that the families have tasted choice and they know what it means to their kids, and they see that people are coming to try to take that choice away, I think that they have really awakened a sleeping giant. I think not only are they going to be successful at beating back this program this year, but now they are giving all of these families a crash course in civics 101. They are now teaching all of these families this is how the legislative process works. You may not have had an interest in politics before, but politics had an interest in you.

I think a lot of these families are not just going to show up to defend the scholarships that they are benefiting from, but when the political winds shift and there’s another opportunity to advance the program, to enact, let’s say, an education savings account like they were trying to last year and the year before, I think a lot of these families who had been on the sidelines that now have a close and personal experience with the legislative process, are going to come back and going to push for other families to have access to the same sort of opportunities that they have. We’ve seen this happen in Florida, we’ve seen this happen in Arizona. I think that we’re seeing it now happen in New Hampshire. So, I think that what Lauren witnessed this past week is, for me, very heartening and a very positive development.

Michael Chartier: That is very positive and uplifting now. Thank you for that, Jason. I guess with that we can close it out. If you guys have any ideas for things to cover in our future podcasts, please email us at media@edchoice.org. Please subscribe to our podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher. Follow us on social media @edchoice, and please sign up for our emails and check out our website at www.edchoice.org. Again, that’s www.edchoice.org. Well thank you very much for our listeners for listening to us. We look forward to talking to you at the beginning of March and updating you about what happened in February. So, thank you very much and have a good rest of the day.