Ep. 126: The Monthly Debrief – July Looking to August 2019

August 6, 2019

Legislative sessions are winding down, so what is our state team doing now? 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 everything from program expansions in Ohio to winning bets.

Lauren Hodge: Good afternoon, everybody. This is Lauren Hodge with EdChoice here for another monthly state debrief about what’s going on across the states in the nation. I am your host today as we have Jason out of office and joining us from, I think, what? Georgia?

Jason Bedrick: Not yet. Still in Phoenix today.

Lauren Hodge: OK, so we’ll be in Georgia soon and then we have Michael Chartier, our senior state director, who is out in West Virginia right now. So, hi, everybody. Thanks so much for joining us.

Michael Chartier: Hi Lauren. Thanks for having us and thanks for covering us in studio.

Lauren Hodge: Glad to be here in sunny Indiana. The weather, the heat wave broke. It is a nice time to be back outside. So I’m glad to be back in Indianapolis.

Jason Bedrick: You had a large portion of travel all over. You’ve been in South Carolina and numerous other places, so you’re probably enjoying your time back home.

Lauren Hodge: I am. You know, there is nothing quite like distance that makes the heart grow fonder for not only your amazing family, but your own bed. I think when we talked about this as a team, we were looking at the end of, really, the legislative sessions for this year. As most of you know, if you’ve listened to this podcast before, I am the newest member on this EdChoice team, and so this is actually my first full cycle of legislative sessions across the country. So, with that all, we thought this would be a really good time to recap what happened across the nation and to give some broad strokes and talk a little bit more about what it is that we do now that sessions are winding down and over in the majority of our states.

Michael Chartier: Yes, no, thank you for that introduction, Lauren. I’m going to serve a little bit as the moderator here for that discussion. I kind of realized as I’m sitting in my car in West Virginia that it’s kind of hard to do this remotely because I’m staring at literally a black cat walking in front of me. So, it’s hard to do this without the energy of the people in the studio. So, we will certainly do our best to try to make this interesting. So, I want to start off with Jason. Now, Jason, you authored a blog post, maybe a couple of weeks ago, on Jay Greene’s blog, that talks about how he has a bet of some kind and he’s been absolutely crushing it on this bet. Can you talk about what that bet is and lead into what’s happened this year, school choice wise, and whether he may have won or lost his bet?

Jason Bedrick: Sure. So, actually the bet is between Greg Forster, Friedman fellow back in the day when we were once called the Milton and Rose Freedom Foundation for Educational Choice. In 2001, he challenged Jay Mathews of the Washington Post to a bet. What had happened is that Jay Mathews had made the claim that the school choice in 2011 was petering out, that it had had a few good wins, hit a number of states, but that this was basically the end of the line and he didn’t expect to see any further growth. So, Greg Forster, who, like myself, is also a blogger on the Jay P. Greene blog, which you can find jaypgreene.com. Greene is G-R-E-E-N-E. Don’t forget the extra E at the end.

So, Greg reached out to Jay Mathews and said, “I’d like to make you a bet. You say,” and I’ll quote directly, “You say there won’t be a wave of pro-voucher votes across the country. We’ll set a mutually agreed upon bar for the number of voucher bills passing the chambers this year. If we hit the bar, you have to buy me dinner. And if I hit the bar, I have to buy you dinner.” So, what they agreed on was that Greg would win if at least 10 legislative chambers passed bills in 2011 that either create a new school choice program or expand an existing program. If they didn’t hit that bar, that Greg would win. Greg has won the bet every single year since. In most years, Greg actually wins, not only in terms of the number of legislative chambers, but actually bills passed. So, he’s actually very close this year with the recent addition of Ohio, which we’ll get to in a few minutes.

We can talk a little bit more about these later, but we’ve had actual bills passing, creating new, or in most cases, expanding existing choice programs in Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. So, that’s eight states right there that have actually passed new or expanded school choice programs. Then in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah and West Virginia, you had at least one legislative chamber, and in some cases two, that passed legislation that would expand or create a new school choice program. So, once again, Greg is the winner and we have seen a growth of school choice.

I know that some school choice advocates, myself included, were disappointed in a number of states where we thought they would go bigger and bolder and they didn’t, but we have to step back and look at the whole context. At any point before, say, 2010, this would be considered a banner year. The very fact that many school choice advocates look at this year as just an OK year and not a great year shows how far, as a movement, we’ve actually come.

Michael Chartier: So, Jason, do you think that we are victims of our own success in a certain way? That we’ve changed the narrative so much that we think that this is a down or off year? How do you think that we begin to push back and say that, “Look, you know, even though this isn’t 2011, we still helped you know, thousands of children?” How do you think you will begin to try to do that?

Jason Bedrick: Well, I think we have to look at that in terms of perspective. We have to look at it historically and see that the trends are improving, but I’m also happy not to be satisfied, in that I don’t think that we should rest on our laurels. There is still so much work to do. So, we should be proud of our accomplishments, but at the same time, we know that there is a lot of work out there. Robert Enlow, CEO of EdChoice, likes to point at two different charts. One chart is what parents say they want, in terms of education, and then the other chart is what they actually get. As long as there is a gap between those two charts—and there is a major, major gap in terms of how many families say that they want to access private education and how few actually are able to because of the school system that we currently have. There is a major gap there. We need to do as much as possible to close that gap to make sure that every child has access to a quality education that’s the right fit for him or her.

So, again, we should be very proud of the progress we’ve made and we should recognize that it is tremendous compared to where we were a decade ago, but obviously there’s still a long way to go. But we had … Ohio this month made a tremendous leap forward. Ohio has five different school choice programs. Two of them are for students with special needs. One of them is for students assigned to failing schools statewide. One is for low-income students statewide and one is for students who live in Cleveland. They made a number of different technical changes to all of the programs, so I’m not going to get into everything here, but some of the major changes relate to expanded eligibility. So, for example, the main income-based EdChoice program—this is for families making up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line—was only available to students in K–5 and it was adding on another year each year.

So, next year it’ll be K through six, the following year, K through seven. What the legislature did, and the governor signed, was to expand immediately all the way K–12 and to appropriate an additional $50 million to address all of those. So, Ohio was already in a position where they were expanding school choice each year. They have greatly accelerated that and dramatically increased the number of students who are … really more than doubled the number of students who would be able to access educational choice there, at least in terms of eligibility.

They also allowed all high school students for the original failing schools program. All high school students. By the way, I should clarify. What I mean by failing schools is students were assigned to a district school that is receiving a failing grade by the state would have access to one of these vouchers. Now, all high school students are going to be eligible to receive one of these vouchers as well, not just students that are switching into ninth grade. It also increased the cap on the number of scholarships by 5 percent and it included what’s called an escalator or an inflator. So, if the number of applicants is greater than 90 percent of the allowable scholarships, which had been about 60,000 students, then in the following year, it’s going to increase by 5 percent. So, that’s going to be a way that Ohio is going to allow their program to expand over time to meet rising demand for the scholarships.

Another interesting thing that they did is that currently all students who are participating in the program are required to take the state test. We’ve talked on this podcast a number of times already about why that’s problematic, about how it can distort the curriculum in the private schools that these students are trying to access or could even induce private schools to say that they, because they did not want to change their curriculum and don’t want their students to be disadvantaged vis-a-vis students who are attending schools that have a curriculum that’s aligned to the state test, would just opt not to participate in the voucher program at all. Therefore, students would have fewer options available if they were using a voucher to access private education.

What they did in Ohio is they have now allowed private schools to use alternative assessments. So we’ve yet to see how this is going to play out, but according to the new law, the Department of Education is going to come up with a list of alternative assessments. So, basically these are nationally norm referenced tests that private schools can choose from, so then, now, they can pick one of the national norm referenced tests that is closer aligned to the curriculum that they’ve already adopted, rather than feeling pressure to change their curriculum to match the state test. So, this is, I think, not only a major step in the right direction in terms of the eligibility and the number of students who are able to access the program, but also this reduces a really burdensome and unnecessary regulation on the private schools, so this will further expand the number of options that are available to low-income students and students who are assigned to low-performing schools in Ohio. So, major step forward for school choice in Ohio this year.

Michael Chartier: I want to throw out a big kudos to Yitz Frank, from Agudath, Israel. I just saw him on Monday and he was singing the praises of the work that they’ve done in Ohio, so I just wanted to give them a little shout out on that good victory.

Jason, thank you so much for that update. That’s nice to know that Greg Forster is winning his bets and there are a lot of school choice victories that are happening across the country. I think one of the things that I think is most important to talk about as well, maybe even more so than the legislative victories, is the education work that’s going on, that we are doing and I know others are doing. They’ll educate citizens, legislatures, other nonprofits, community leaders, schools, and teachers about what educational choice is. We can’t just, as an organization and a movement, live and die by legislative successes. That’s not what we were designed to do and I don’t think that’s what we should be spending the vast majority of our time worried about and working on. It’s about that education and going out there and building coalitions around this issue.

So, in that vein, I’d like to turn this over to Lauren to be able to talk a little bit more about what we, as the state team, will be doing in the off season. Again, this is the off season for legislative session, but this is really our on season. What we’re going to be doing in the vast majority and the bulk of our work will be taking place in this time after the legislative sessions. So, Lauren, would you want to go through, I guess, some of the services that we have here at EdChoice and some of the work that we do on the FSI team, the focus state investment team?

Lauren Hodge: Absolutely. So, I will start by saying that I got this question from my own husband, who was really excited when legislative sessions were wrapping up. He was like, “Oh, so you know, this’ll be it for a minute, right? You’ll be back home. It’ll be nice and easy.” I looked at him and I said, “Now the work actually begins,” because here at EdChoice, that is what we do. We believe in educating everybody around these issues and from a variety of factors. So, as Michael has said, as Jason knows, this is really where we get going. This is the beginning of the hard work that we believe in.

In that vein, I think that EdChoice has been designed to really promote some services and really be a leader in, not only the conversations, but also in how we train others. So, we do things like legislator trainings, making sure that legislators understand what school choice is, what it is not, how it can be done, if it can be done, and help them understand the means around this reform. We educate parents, whether it is how to advocate, how to organize, or just on the issue itself of school choice. We have trainings that educate our parents. We have trainers that train the trainer. We have trainings that go through and help people understand how they actually organize and how they actually do work in their states, so that they can make sure that they’re having fruitful conversations with people. Then we do things from our research and thought leadership team, which is really one of the best pieces here with EdChoice, where we have fiscal notes that go out that analyze these programs. We have research that’s done in states and done nationwide, and then the trainings that accompany those and making sure that the Ivy Tower research is broken down in a way so that everybody can access that.

So, we actually just put out something called The 123s of School Choice, which is a composite study of all of the gold standard research studies around the issue of school choice, and what does that mean? And then accompanying that 123s, which is research heavy, is something called The EdChoice Study Guide. That study guide is broken down for people like me who perhaps are not nearly as smart as our wonderful researchers here and who don’t really get into the weeds and statistics and analyzing those gold standards and research. So, it helps break those things down for me, and so that is something else that we bring into these states. So, really from this point moving forward, we work really hard to make sure that we are educating and equipping parents, partners, organizations.

Jason was just a part of a training that we did where we actually helped scholarship granting organizations, SGOs, walk through how to do this in the best way possible and help equipping them with knowledge and skills and tools to be, really, purveyors of services to these children that they are serving and these families that they’re serving. So, now it’s time to really hit the ground running. We will be out there in the states, so we are here and I encourage listeners to reach out and let us know if you need something. We will try to do what we can do. So, that all being said, I know that we’re nearing the end of our podcast.

Thank you so much for being kind as I host in studio alone over here, but I’d be remiss if I did not mention that today [July 31] is Milton Friedman’s birthday. So prior to becoming EdChoice, we were the Friedman Foundation. So, Milton Friedman has a huge place in all of our hearts here at EdChoice. As I reflected on his birthday today, I was struck by the way that he not only influenced me, but also inspired me and continues to inspire me today. Even though, tragically, we’ve lost him, his ideas and his spirit have continued on, especially through this organization, and so I would like to say thank you to Milton and his family. Because of him, we have the idea that every child is different and that one size fits all isn’t the only method and isn’t the only way to do things. I think that that is transformative into the education sphere. It is the thing I am most grateful for. As somebody who learned differently, it was critical in my educational upbringing. I am always grateful that he was able to recognize that the system as a whole is important, but it can be done differently and better.

I would also ask, for Jason and Michael, what are you guys most inspired by from Milton? As we close up our podcast, it’s a happy way to say happy birthday to the legacy that is Milton Friedman. So, I’ll kick it over to you, Jason. What do you think?

Jason Bedrick: Well, Milton Friedman was the one who actually inspired me to get involved in this movement. I first learned about school choice when I was in college writing a paper for a political science class on how I would improve the education system. During my research, that’s where I came across Milton Friedman and his work, Capitalism and Freedom, and the discussion of school vouchers. I fell in love with the idea because I was fortunate enough that my parents could afford to live in a public-school district that had a really high quality public school, at least K–8. There was no high school. It was a very small town. Then, they were able to afford to send me to a good private high school, but I always believed that the promise of America is equality of opportunity and we don’t really have equality of opportunity unless everybody has access to quality education and that education… Your access to a quality education shouldn’t depend on the arbitrary circumstances of your birth, like we say a zip code. So…

Milton was always the happy warrior. He was incredibly smart, very well researched, very knowledgeable, but always treated his interlocutors with patience and charity, grace, and so that inspires me. I hope to live up to his example as a happy warrior for educational opportunity.

Lauren Hodge: And what about you, Michael?

Michael Chartier: Well, I did want to start off at Jason. I don’t think you give yourself enough credit though. You did an excellent job picking your parents, so I can give you … You should give yourself more credit for that. You make that joke all the time. I stole it from you.

You know, Lauren, I think, I guess I would take this in a two-fold path. I didn’t grow up reading Milton Friedman and I didn’t actually find him until much later in my life. As you know, my parents sent me to Catholic school, Marian High School in Mishawaka, Indiana. I was fortunate to receive a great education that put me on a career path to where I am today. I knew that … I appreciated the education that I received and I knew that there was something sort of missing. I knew that not everyone had that opportunity. I knew that I was fortunate enough to have that.

It wasn’t until much later, until actually after college that I spent a little bit more time reading the works of Milton Friedman. What I would say is that I knew from my own personal experiences that this was something that needed to have happened, but it wasn’t until I found Milton Friedman and his intellectual arguments for this that the whole picture really came together for me to know that, not only is this something that felt good for me and felt right, but also that there is an intellectual side behind this. There is evidence behind this. There are facts behind this, and that there is a whole movement behind this. So, I would really credit him with that for, maybe not bringing me on this journey, but really completing a whole journey for me to move forward and help advocate for educational freedom and educational choice.

Lauren Hodge: Absolutely. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that those of us working in the EdChoice office aren’t profoundly grateful for the legacy and the impact that the Milton Friedman left. I consider it one of the greatest honors to be able to work for an organization that furthers that legacy. With that happy note, and that grateful note, I guess that we will end our podcast by saying thank you and happy birthday to Milton, to his family. He is so adored and honored here. I would ask all of you to stay in touch, learn more, and thank you for listening in on the podcast. If you have new ideas or things you want us to talk about, make sure you email us at media@edchoice.org. You can subscribe on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher. Follow us on social media @edchoice and, if you just want the good old-fashioned email, like me, feel free to go to our website, www.edchoice.org and subscribe to our mailing list. Thanks so much for listening. Have a wonderful day.