Ep. 71: The Monthly Debrief – October Looking to November 2018

November 20, 2018

In this Monthly Debrief podcast, EdChoice’s Director of State Relations Lauren Hodge and Director of Policy Jason Bedrick discuss the latest school choice happenings in the states in October and look forward to what’s still to come as we close out the month.

Michael Chartier: All right everybody. Thank you for listening to another EdChoice Chat. We’re going to do a little bit of a time warp for this one and listen to our Director of Policy, Jason Bedrick, who is now in studio for this podcast. So a real … not only time warp but a location warp as well. Then we’ll do a little bit of updates on what happened in the election because we got some new results that we saw. So Jason, would you mind taking it away?

Jason Bedrick: Absolutely, so we originally recorded a podcast the day after the election, and we believed that at that time that we actually had results in a number of races that have now been called into question or have changed. So in a few minutes, we’re going to have a time warp, and you will hear our original take on those races. And the implications may or may not be the same in terms of, “We just don’t know,” for example.

Today, as we are speaking, it is Thursday afternoon. It is 3:45 PM. I tell you that because the poll—or really the recount in Florida—was supposed to be concluded 45 minutes ago. And from what we understand, 66 of the 67 counties, including Broward County, turned in their updated results. It doesn’t look at this point that much has changed. But one of the larger counties, Palm Beach County, did not get their results in on time, and a judge has declined a move by the democratic party to extend the deadline.

It appears at this point that the original results from Palm Beach County will stand, but there are likely to be appeals. There still may be some changes. Nobody has been officially declared the winner of the race between Gillum and DeSantis. So there’s an asterisk to the analysis that you’re going to hear in a few minutes where we’re talking about DeSantis winning and what that means for school choice. All of that could be the exact opposite if the race is flipped. Although as it stands right now, Thursday afternoon, it may be the case—it’s likely the case, anyway, that the results will stand.

Likewise, in Georgia, there is a race that we will discuss or actually already did discuss, and you’ll hear shortly between Stacey Abrams and Kemp. Kemp was … He has declared victory. Abrams has not yet conceded defeat. Those results are likely to stand but may change.
The third update is that on election night, Frank Riggs was declared the victor of the Arizona superintendent of schools race. There has since been additional ballots that were found in Maricopa County.

When they finally finished counting all of those, it turns out that his opponent Kathy Hoffman is actually going to be the next superintendent of public instruction in Arizona, so those results have flipped. Otherwise, we have no further updates. But given the oddness of this election, who knows? Maybe we’ll come back next week and flip a few more states. But now we’re going to have a time warp, and you’re going to hear our thoughts on the morning after elections.

Michael Chartier: Welcome back to another EdChoice Chat. Today is November the 7th. We had a bit of an election yesterday across the country, so I think we’re going to be covering what happened in that election and discussing obviously most specifically and importantly how that election may have impacted folks that believe in educational choice and school choice like we do. On the phone we have our national policy director, Jason Bedrick, who’s going to be covering a handful of states, and I’ll be covering the rest of those states.
So Jason, I mean, you live in Arizona, and we’re going to be covering that soon. But I know that you wanted to start with the positive things that happened out there where people that believe in educational choice were elected. So do you want to start with a couple of your states, and we’ll maybe have a little chat about how that went down?

Jason Bedrick: Absolutely. Arizona was a bit of a mixed bag. So we’ll get to that at the end, although Doug Ducey, the governor, was reelected. He has been a strong proponent of school choice. But I think the biggest win of the night went to Florida. Florida was a place where you had a very stark contrast between the two gubernatorial candidates. Andrew Gillum had said that he wanted to bring the tax-credit scholarship program in Florida, quote, “to a conclusion.” Which he later clarified that he believed that public funds should only be going to public schools.

He believes that even though the US Supreme Court and many state supreme courts have ruled that tax-credit scholarship programs use private funds that any tax incentive makes it public, and therefore, he opposed it. Ron DeSantis by contrast was a very strong proponent of school choice on the campaign trail, consistently bringing it up in speeches talking about how he wanted to expand school choice programs. I know that there are advocates on the ground there who are looking forward in particular to expanding the education savings account program that they have.

So again, it was a very clear contrast between those two candidates, and Ron DeSantis won. So school choice won in Florida, not just in the governor’s mansion, but also in the state legislature. A number of school choice champions have returned, and a number of new legislators including some Democrats that were pro-school choice are now joining the legislature. It’s becoming a more bipartisan issue, which I think is a great thing. We don’t-

Michael Chartier: Jason.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah?

Michael Chartier: Why do you think that it’s becoming more bipartisan? I mean, what’s your theory on that?

Jason Bedrick: My view is that as school choice becomes more widespread, parents enjoy the choices that they have available to them through these types of programs and therefore become very protective of them. Over time their legislators … And the legislatures are usually lagging indicators. So as the public moves in a more pro-school-choice direction, eventually so does the legislature. I do think, by the way, it’s worth noting that the margin of victory in the governor’s race was only about 55,000 votes out of over eight million votes cast.

There’s more than 140,000 students participating in the school choice programs in the state. By the way, those are, generally speaking, low-income minorities who are traditionally Democrats. So I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that a number of generally traditionally Democrat voters decided to vote for the candidate who was in favor of the programs that they’re benefiting from instead of the one who was threatening to get rid of them. So I do think it is quite plausible that school choice was a deciding issue in this election.

Michael Chartier: I think that’s very interesting, and I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of post-mortem analysis to see what happened there in that race, especially since it was so hotly contested and such a well-focused-on race in the national sphere. So other than Florida, Jason, what other bright spots did you see across the country?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, so Florida definitely I think is number one, but there were two very close runners up. First Georgia, where again, just north of Florida and had, again, a very stark contrast between the candidates. Stacey Abrams said that one of her first acts would be to get rid of the tax-credit scholarship program, and Brian Kemp by contrast said that he was in favor of doubling the program and also was in favor of enacting an ESA for military families.

So Kemp won, and I think that’s very positive for the school choice movement, and we are likely to see action in a favorable direction in the coming year. Also, Tennessee where Bill Lee has been on the campaign trail, very outspoken advocate of school choice, including enacting an education savings account program. He won his election handedly. I think there’s a good chance, also has a lot of legislative support. So I think that there’s a good chance that we’ll see an ESA in the coming legislative session in Tennessee, as well.

But you, I believe, also had a couple of states that you wanted to highlight.
Michael Chartier: I did. Thank you for that, Jason. It sounds like we’ll definitely be watching and seeing what happens in those states, especially Tennessee, as they maybe continue on their school choice journey. So that’ll be a fun sort of experience to watch. The two states that I wanted to cover quickly are the state of Iowa and then maybe a bit of a dark horse that people aren’t looking at. I want to talk about the last frontier—Alaska.

So in Iowa, it was a very contentious gubernatorial race. The current incumbent Kim Reynolds, a school choice supporter, had a really tough election. There was a lot of talking heads, a lot of pundits that didn’t think that she would be able to pull out a victory there, and she ended up winning her election. Like I said, not a lot of people saw that happening, but she is a school choice supporter. So that’s going to be one more ally that the school choice community has in the Iowa state house.

I don’t believe that school choice played any substantive role in that election. I think there was a lot of other factors out there that perhaps played that role. It’s definitely helpful to have a school choice supporter there.

Additionally, in the Iowa Senate, I know that there were four folks that believed in school choice that won their elections that were not previous incumbents. So it looks like there will be more school choice supporters in the Iowa senate.

That’s a little bit contrasted with the Iowa House where three school choice champions lost their elections, including one of the individuals, Walt Rogers, who sponsored an ESA bill in his education committee. He was the chairman of the education committee. He was not successful in his reelection effort. So the Iowa school choice community is going to have one fewer ally in the Iowa House of Representatives.

There’s also two other champions that did not win their elections, so I know there’s probably going to be a little less soul-searching, trying to figure out exactly what’s going to happen in the Iowa house when it comes to school choice. So again, we’ll have to sit back and watch, and watch those machinations play out, and I know that we’ll definitely be watching those things, and I’m sure you’ll hear from us on another podcast about Iowa.

But real quickly, like I said, I wanted to just briefly touch on Alaska. I’ve done some work up there. I’ve traveled up there. I met with the local coalition and helped educate them on school choice and what’s happening in the rest of the country. One of the legislators I ran into that I’ve had some conversations with is a guy by the name of Mike Dunleavy, and Mike Dunleavy just beat his opponent Mark Begich who was a former senator in Alaska, and he is now the, I believe, 12th governor of the state of Alaska. He’s an outspoken school choice supporter.

He’s actually got a cool story. He was a former teacher in the rural areas in Alaska. He lived with Native Alaskans and very rural parts of the state, was an educator for 19 years and later a principal. The superintendent of the Mat-Su School District, ran for the state senate, won his election there and then ran for governor. So he has a very deep educational background, and he has supported school choice legislation in the past. So I’m definitely interested to see what if anything he might propose when it comes to school choice in the state of Alaska.

And again, we’ll definitely be sitting back, having a close eye on that state as we see what school choice journey may continue in the Last Frontier.

So those are the positives of school choice, and obviously, as we led into this election, it may have been a mixed bag for school choice and school choice supporters. So maybe, Jason, did you want to lead off with what you saw that may give some school choice supporters some heartburn?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, so I think first and foremost, biggest disappointment of the night in terms of candidates was Scott Walker. So, in Wisconsin. Scott Walker as governor has survived repeal attempts, has won reelection, consistently wins his elections, and has been a prominent supporter of school choice, expanding the state’s voucher program. Unfortunately, he lost last night to Tony Evers who had been the superintendent of public instruction and a very loud critic of school choice. Somebody who really would like to get rid of the programs, it looks like, but at the very least would like to regulate them in ways that would reduce the effectiveness of the program and limit their scope.

So that’s very unfortunate. On the plus side there, the legislature remains strongly pro-school choice, so I don’t expect that we are going to see any damage done to the existing school choice programs in the coming years. But neither are we going to see the sorts of expansions that school choice proponents had been hoping to see. Sort of a similar except reverse situation in New Hampshire where the governor, Sununu, was reelected handily. He has been a very strong proponent of school choice. He worked tirelessly last year to pass an education savings account program.

Listeners to this podcast know that the ESA in New Hampshire easily cleared the State Senate. It was a universal program. I ran into some opposition in the house. In the house, they scaled it down several times, and so it was really only going to benefit a small number of low-income students but still would have been a program worth supporting a huge step in the right direction even if it wasn’t everything that school choice proponents had been hoping for.

One of the—perhaps the most prominent opponent—of school choice in the New Hampshire House was the finance committee chairman, Neal Kurk who lost his primary, and you can never say what exactly the reason was. But certainly, he was a very outspoken critic of school choice. He was often the foil for the school choice community in the media, and therefore people who were pro-school choice were very animated in the primaries, in opposition to him. So it is plausible that that is one of the reasons that voters in his district chose not to support him in the primary.

Even though he had been in the state legislature for decades, he is one of the longest-serving state reps currently. So school choice proponents were looking forward to … with strong support of the governor and without the major stumbling block in the State House. We were looking forward to a very productive year. Unfortunately, school choice supporters lost a number of our champions, did not win on election day, and both chambers appears has switched hands.

There are a number of close races and they’re still in the process of counting ballots. As we record this podcast, that may have changed by the time people listen to it. But it looks like, at this point, there is not going to be a pro-school choice majority in either chamber. And that means that although the existing tax-credit scholarship is not in any danger, because the governor would certainly veto any attempt at a repeal, neither are we going to see the progress that we were making last year continue for the next two years.

We’ll have to wait until after the 2020 election to see any progress there. But what about you? Did you have a couple of states that you thought where there were some losses before we get into Arizona?

Michael Chartier: Sure, yeah, I did. But actually, I did want to ask you a question. I mean, you were a former state rep there. I mean, explain to our listeners why do you think the voters in New Hampshire may have voted for a governor who’s pro-educational choice but yet elected people in the state legislature that don’t believe in school choice. What’s your take on that?

Jason Bedrick: Well, I don’t think that school choice was the main issue in the general election this year. There were a whole bunch of other issues that voters in New Hampshire are looking at, many of them quite local. The thing about the New Hampshire state house is that it is very susceptible to massive swings in the party representation, even with very small percentage changes in the electorate because you have such small districts.

So if you have statewide, if it goes in one year 52-48, and then two years later it switches to 48-52 in terms of the percentage of the voters, which way they’re going. That can be a 100-seat change in the state legislature because you’ve got a bunch of small districts in a purple state, so they’re all fairly close. You could have just massive swings in the state legislature. That’s very common. You see that all the time because the New Hampshire house has 400 members. So, a 100-vote swing, one direction or the other is not particularly unusual.

Even in the senate, where you’ve got 24 seats, that kind of change is a large change in the legislature. It can happen because each of their districts are so small compared to what you see in other states. So you don’t have the same sort of gerrymandering issue that you have in other places where you’ve got lots of solidly red and lots of solidly blue districts and then only a few that are swing. You have just a massive number of swing districts.

Michael Chartier: Got it. Well, thank you for that analysis. It’s always great to hear some of the analysis from on the ground, especially from you as your time as a New Hampshire resident and as a New Hampshire elected official, so thank you for providing that. I think the biggest state that I wanted to cover in terms of perhaps disappointment for folks that believe in educational choice is the Silver State, the state of Nevada. The top of the state races was the gubernatorial race there, the current Attorney General of Nevada, Adam Laxalt was running against a Clark County commissioner by the name of Steve Sisolak.

Adam Laxalt is a school choice supporter. He defended the ESA program there, and the courts in both of the cases and his office put up a vigorous defense of that program in both of those cases. He stated multiple times of his campaign trail that he would support school choice efforts and would fight any sort of efforts to undermine the programs that are currently on the books in Nevada. Steve Sisolak, from what I had seen, had taken a slightly different approach as well.

It sounds like while he is definitely not a fan of school choice, he’s going to be focusing his efforts on public school reform, and that is an extremely worthwhile endeavor. He seems to take some issue with the programs that they currently operate. So we’ll definitely see how that’s going to work. He’s definitely not a fan of educational choice as I can see. But we’ll definitely keep an eye on how the current governor-elect, and when he becomes the governor, impacts the school choice world.

Additionally, the Nevada legislative races there didn’t seem to come across positively for educational choice supporters. There’s potentially a talk of repeal of the program. We’ll see if that materializes. Nothing yet. Just idle talk now, but we’ll definitely see that. There was not a repeal of the program back in the 2017 session due to the Governor Sandoval being in office. He would have vetoed any legislation. He stated he would veto any legislation that tried to repeal the program.

But now there is no such threat to veto the program, so we’ll see if there is a repeal effort there. Perhaps a dark day for school choice supporters is in Nevada, but I do know that there are hundreds if not thousands of kids in the tax-credit scholarship program out there, the Opportunity Scholarship Program. I know that they will make their voices heard. They’ve indicated they will make their voices heard should anything try to come after that program, any individual or policy try to come after that program.

So I do know that there are parents that are being actively mobilized out there. We will see what happens in the Silver State, but it’s a perhaps dark spot in the school choice movement across the country. So now, Jason, and I think perhaps the biggest mixed bag and probably the most interesting school choice area to watch is the state of Arizona. What did you witness out there as a Arizona resident?

Jason Bedrick: So first the bright spot. I mean, education was probably the biggest issue in the campaign out here. Doug Ducey has been a prominent supporter of school choice, expanded the education savings program, largest expansion of any program in the country. Even though it was limited, the number of students that would participate, but the eligibility criteria was the most expansive. So very strong proponent on one side. David Garcia who just a few years ago had lost the race for super instruction. He’s a college professor, expert in education policy and a fierce critic of the school choice programs.

This wasn’t an environment where you had head movement, massive protests at the State Capitol over teacher pay. Governor Ducey eventually decided that instead of a 2% increase, he would give a … in teacher pay over two years. It was just a huge issue. You had signs all over the place from Red for Ed, and also from a group called Save Our Schools, which put Prop 305 on the ballot. So they delayed the expansion of the program for more than a year. Then if it were to be enacted, Prop 305, the expansion would go into place but it would be voter protected.

What that means is that it would take a three-fourths majority to make any changes to the program. Now, the thing is, as it was originally enacted, it would expand the number of students who could participate by about half of 1% of the public school student population each year, which the Joint Legislative Budget Committee determined would be about 30,000 students by the time the program had a hard cap in 2022.

Because of the delay and implementation, that cap probably only works for about 22,000 students. Then the program could not be expanded without a three-fourths majority of the legislature, which … I mean, I’ve been in the state legislature as noted. I followed state legislatures all across the country. It’s very hard to do anything and get a three-fourths majority even in states that are overwhelmingly one party or the other. And how much more so in a state like Arizona, which has … It’s closer. Arizona’s more of a purple state.

It’s known as a red state, but locally, it’s more of a purple state. The Republicans control both chambers but with very thin margins. The school choice supporters, also very thin margins. The program passed. You need 31 votes in the house and 16 votes in the Senate, and that’s the exact margin that the expansion passed by. So it would be very difficult to expand the program going forward. If this 305 were to win, plus anytime you enact a bill, it becomes law, and then you’re implementing the program. You’re going to run into unforeseen issues, and the legislature comes back periodically, reviews how the program’s being implemented and makes necessary changes.

It would make it very difficult to make any of those necessary changes, if 305 were to pass and it were to be voter protected. So for those reasons, ed choice remains neutral. A number of the other prominent national school choice organizations remain neutral, or in one case even advised voters to vote against 305. So while there are some in the media, especially at the national level who are trying to portray this as a huge loss for school choice, the reality is that school choice is not what was on the ballot. And that’s why, again, a number of school choice organizations didn’t support it.

Even the prominent groups like Save Our Schools that put it on the ballot said, “Hey, we don’t oppose the ESA program that currently exists,” and they stressed this over and over. “We only oppose the expansion.” So again, school choice is not what was on the ballot. It did lose by two to one. The no side outspent the yes side by about 15 to one, so it’s disappointing on the one hand. But on the other, the original program stays as it was. The only difference is that now the cap on the original program has expired, so it is now officially an uncapped program.

Any eligible student can apply and receive an ESA, and that ESA by statute must be funded by the state. So there were positives and negatives both to a win or to a loss. Prop 305 did go down, so it’s back to the drawing board in Arizona.

Michael Chartier: Well, thank you for that update, Jason. I think that was a pretty positive one. I think that pretty much covers everything. Do you have anything else to add?

Jason Bedrick: I think that’s it for now. We obviously will be following some of the other election results as they come in. There’s still a few states where the election hasn’t yet been decided at the state legislative level. But we will come back next month with more updates for you about the happenings around the country related to school choice.

Michael Chartier: Well, everybody, thank you for listening to that time-warped podcast. If you have any ideas for us on things you want to hear us talk about, please email us at media@edchoice.org. Again, that’s media@edchoice.org. Please subscribe to this podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher, available at all three of those places. Follow us on social media at EdChoice, and sign up for our emails from our website at www.edchoice.org. And most importantly, follow our blog posts. We have an updated blog post on the 36 gubernatorial races in the 2018 cycle, and we’ll have another blog post that comes out about some of the more in-depth analysis of those races.

You can read those posts on our blog at www.edchoice.org/blog. So thank you very much everybody for taking the time to listen in, and hopefully, taking the time to read our thoughts and analysis, and have a good Thursday.