Ep. 68: The Monthly Debrief – September Looking to October 2018

October 23, 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 September and look forward to what’s still to come as we close out the month.

Lauren: Welcome listeners, this is Lauren Hodge at joining you in studio with Jason Bedrick joining you in phone for another EdChoice chat, a monthly debrief where we are going to look at what is going on in states around the nation regarding school choice. It’s my pleasure to be here today, and I’m very excited to have Jason with us joining us from Arizona. How you doing, Jason?

Jason: Great, Lauren, how are you?

Lauren: Doing wonderful. Doing wonderful. And we were just talking about before we actually jumped onto this podcast, it’s a little bit of a slow time here for us on the state team as we aren’t really in session. So I think the big news for us, as we move forward, is what’s going on in Arizona, and we definitely want to talk about that. And a little bit about what EdChoice has recently attended, which was the recent SPN or State Policy Network annual meeting. So with that let’s, let’s turn to Arizona. That’s where you’re at right now, isn’t it?

Jason: It is. I’ve lived here in Arizona for about six years.

Lauren: Okay. So talk to me a little bit. I hear there’s a proposition that’s on the ballot.

Jason: That’s right. The big education news here, which in some sense it’s actually big education news nationally is Prop 305. Proposition 305 is a referral, which means this, Arizona has an interesting legal system whereby if the legislature passes a bill and the governor signs it into law, it does not actually become law right away. There is a certain waiting period, and citizens have the opportunity to file petitions. And if they get enough signatures then they can refer the law to the ballot. And so that’s what happened here.

In 2017, the legislature passed an expansion of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts law, ESAs, known in most places as education savings accounts. That expanded the eligibility for the students participating in the ESA program.

Originally, this ESA was enacted in 2011 and the only eligible students were students with special needs. Since then the program has expanded, several times. Students who are assigned to a district school that receives a D or F on the state accountability system are eligible. Students are also eligible if they’re living on a Native American reservation, if they were adopted through the state foster care system, if they were children of active duty members in the military or military police killed in the line of duty and so on.

And what they can do with these accounts, they get 90% of the state funding, per-pupil funding, put into their account. For the typical non-special needs child that’s about $5,600. And those families can use it for a variety of purposes. That includes private school tuition but also tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online learning, and they can roll over unused funds from year to year.

What the legislature did last year is expand the eligibility to all students who are either switching out of a public district or charter school, or who are entering kindergarten for the first time. So this was a dramatic expansion of the program. There was a cap on the program that was going up every year. That cap was set to expire this year, but they extended the cap for several years and made the cap permanent in 2022 at 30,000 students. There’re currently about 5,000 students participating. So this was a good-size growth in both the eligibility pool and the number of students that could be served.

What happened next, though, was that a group called Save Our Schools, SOS Arizona, got enough signatures to put it on the ballot. And so the program was supposed to go into effect last fall—or the expansion rather was supposed to go into effect last fall—and instead it was put on hold pending the outcome of Prop 305.

Lauren: Okay. So, Jason, that’s really, really helpful. So there’s a lot of information there and I want to unpack it all so that the listeners really get a good deep dive into this. You mentioned that there had to be signatures in order to put this onto the ballot, and do you know how many signatures that required?

Jason: Yeah, it required around 75,000 signatures and they were able to turn in just over 111,000 signatures. A bunch of them ended up being not counted because people were ineligible to vote, or in a number of cases there were actually some incidents of fraud. There was several pages in one case that were turned in that all were written in the exact same handwriting, and it has to be actually filled out by the voter. So there were a lot of let’s say shady things with regard to the signature gathering process.

But in the end, the secretary of state did certify that they had met the requirement. There were some lawsuits over that. Ultimately, the state supreme court allowed it to go through. And so it will be on the ballot next month.

Lauren: So, Jason, just so we’re being clear when you say they turned in signatures, is this the Save Our Schools?

Jason: Yes, the group Save Our Schools turned the signatures, correct.

Lauren: Okay. So if I’m understanding kind of that the etymology of this program, it started out with a simple choice program in Arizona. Is that correct?

Jason: Yes. The ESA program that was enacted in 2011.

Lauren: All right and over time this program was expanded?

Jason: Yes.

Lauren: Okay. So this most recent expansion, which legislative session did you say that had the switchers that we’re going to lead to that the greatest expansion?

Jason: Right. So this was the 2017 legislative session and it would have made Arizona the largest, most expansive ESA program in the country with the possible exception of Nevada. But we’ve covered that on this program before.

Nevada has the most expansive ESA on the books. It just has $0 attached to it so nobody can actually benefit from it. That’s a whole long story for another day.

But this would actually have gone into effect. And if voters do vote yes for 305 on the ballot next month, or really right now because Arizona has early voting. A lot of people in the state, actually the majority of the state votes early, so they’re already filling out ballots and sending them in. If 305 were to pass, then the expansion will go forward. If 305 does not pass, the expansion will be dead, but the program that already exists will remain in effect except that it will have no cap on the number of participants. And that actually is an issue that is divided some in the school choice community over whether to support it or not.

I know there were other groups as well that recommended remaining neutral because there’s another court of Arizona election law and that’s called the Voter Protection Act. So anything that the voters enact on the ballot becomes a referendum or a citizens’ initiative becomes a voter protected, which means that the legislature cannot make any changes to the law unless they have a three-fourths majority of the legislature voting in favor.

Now, they’re actually, it’s quite complicated and there are some lawyers who disagree over whether this actually is going to be voter protected or not. Most think it will be at least of the experts that I’ve spoken to, but even they can see that it’s really still an open question because the state supreme court has not ruled on this issue so we won’t really know until it goes to the state supreme court.

If it were enacted and there were some changes made, it would have to go to the state supreme court to see if it required a three-fourths majority or not. But the sticking point there is that it would make that 30,000 cap potentially permanent. I mean everybody knows how difficult it is to get even a majority, never mind a super-majority of two-thirds let alone three-fourths. For practical purposes, it would require, it would be permanent unless they were another citizen initiative to overturn it with a simple majority of all voters in the state.

That’s been an open question. And with legislation generally you enact a program, it seems to be working fine, but there are a few areas that there were some unforeseen unintended consequences of the way the law was drafted or new issues arose.

And so legislatures periodically go back and make tiny tweaks to the program. This would make it very difficult to go back and make those sorts of tweaks. Those on the other side of the issue say, “It’s worth doing. It’s worth voting yes,” because if this were to go down than supporters of school choice are not going to have the political capital to expand the existing program.

It’s going to be frozen in place legislatively anyway. And if we were to win on 305 they would have the political capital perhaps to create a parallel program that would be able to expand over time or perhaps even go back to the voters if they voted for at once. Perhaps the voters would be willing, in a few years from now, to revisit the question and expand it to keep up with growing demand for the program.

There are school choice advocates on both sides of the question and certainly many citizens on both sides of the question. We will see in early November how Arizona voters decide.

Lauren: Jason, just a question as to the effects of this vote when it is decided when the votes are cast and we have the results if the program is expanded or if the program is not expanded, what is the effective date onto that program? How does that work?

Jason: So that is also an interesting question—when the effective date is because in the law the effective date was going to be about a year ago. So it seems that the law would go into effect right away. Although practically speaking, given that it would take some time for the Department of Ed to adjust, likely the first people receiving ESAs under this law would be in the next quarter. That would be beginning in January.

Lauren: Okay. Do we have any polling data? Do we know what any of this looks like?

Jason: So it’s interesting. A few months ago there was a poll that showed almost a three-way split between yes, no and not sure. And then that was toward the beginning of the summer. And then toward the middle of the summer, there was another poll that showed about 40% opposed and about 30% in favor and the rest undecided. But more recently the Arizona Republic conducted a poll with Suffolk University, and they found the reverse. They found that about 41% were in favor of Prop 305, about 32% were opposed to it. So there’s between an eight and nine-point spread in favor. And then the remainder, fewer than a third, about to about 27% I believe, were undecided.

Depending on how those undecideds vote, this could go either way. Undecideds in the state, no matter what the ballot prop is, tend to vote no, because no is the safer bet. If you don’t really know what this thing does, no preserves the status quo. Ballot initiatives, you’ve got this huge block of text. These are voters who by and large aren’t spending their days reading legislative legalese and so sometimes it can be a bit unclear, but right now things are looking pretty good for Prop 305 but again, it still could go either way.

Lauren: Interesting. Interesting. Well, we’ll all have our eyes towards that Arizona as the couple last couple of weeks approach, and we’ll have to see what shakes out in that program. And hopefully have an opportunity to catch back up with you in the coming weeks and debrief what this does mean for Arizona and to the school choice movement moving forward.

Jason: Yeah, certainly. I’m here. There are signs all over the place. Yes on 305. No on 305. Certainly interesting, right. And actually the latest spending figures are out, as well. So one interesting fact is that the No side is outspending the Yes side more than 10 to one. That’s been quite interesting. If Yes were to win, despite the national groups not getting involved and despite being outspent 10 to one, think that would send a very clear message that in a state like Arizona where you’ve got a robust school choice environment that school choice programs are popular once people are exposed to them. And one thing that’s worth noting is the context. The school choice movement has never won on the ballot.

Every single ballot initiative so far has gone down. It’s been very successful in state legislatures, but it’s very easy to scaremonger when something is on the ballot and say, “This is going to hurt public schools.” If you’re in a legislature, you can show them all the research that actually shows that public schools benefit when there is increased choice in competition public schools improve their performance. This has been the consistent finding of more than two dozen studies. And so when you’re in a state legislature, advocates have the opportunity to sit down with legislators, to show them the research literature and show them why expanding educational choice not only benefits those who use the program, but actually improves the education system writ large.

It’s a lot harder to do that when you’re being outspent 10 to one, and the other side is saying, “This is going to take money out of your school.” So if those arguments, the scaremongering tactics don’t work here, I think that’s going to send a huge message nationwide that once you have a … A school choice program might be very controversial at first, but once you have it in place and people have the opportunity to have that freedom and flexibility to customize their child’s education and choose the right learning environment that best fits their child’s individual needs, that’s going to send a huge message.

Lauren: That’s a good point, Jason. So it’s going to be one that we definitely need to keep our eyes on, and I know we had at EdChoice and you, especially living in Arizona, we’re going to have our eyes kept on that, and be watching with some great anticipation.

Jason: Certainly. Now, we were just last week at the State Policy Network event in Salt Lake City. This was your first time going to an SPN convention. What’d you think about it?

Lauren: It applies. I thought it was a great opportunity to meet some new groups. For those listeners who are maybe tuning in for the first time, I’m one of our newer hires here at EdChoice onto the state team. I come into this whole movement, not with a large policy background or anything like that. I was previously a litigator. And so SPN was a great opportunity for me to meet a wider variety of people nationwide who are working on just some really cool issues. Everything from certainly school choice but also including environmental issues and pension issues and funding issues.

Lauren: And just, these really kind of unique think tanks across the nation. And to hear them speak and have the opportunity to talk to them kind of on these one-on-one meetings. It was a great opportunity. I really enjoyed myself and I thought the think tanks that were there though, the participants, the people around us were a lot of fun and I had a good time just meeting what I feel like is an endless cast of new people in this job.

Jason: Yeah, it’s certainly interesting. So just some context for our listeners. The State Policy Network is, it’s a loose network of think tanks, have a sort of free-market orientation nationwide. So think of organizations like the Goldwater Institute in Arizona or the James Madison Institute in Florida, or the Heartland Institute in Illinois.

These are state policy think tanks. Some of them actually like Goldwater in Heartland are national in their reach, but these are think tanks that are looking at state-level policy and offering suggestions for how to improve those policies in a manner that will lead to greater freedom and prosperity. So that these think tanks cover everything from taxation issues, healthcare, transportation, you name it. So that these seminars that they hold, will have policy experts from just an incredibly wide diversity of different subjects. And even within those subjects, right, there’re hundreds of different areas, thousands that they can explore.

So education, obviously, is a huge issue every year at SPN. Education usually is the biggest single budget item in a state budget. Sometimes actually, in some states, it’s number two now next to healthcare. But for most states, it’s usually number one. Some state budgets it’s even half the budget. Education, obviously, for that reason is very prominent. And among these free-market think tanks, I would say they’re universally in favor of school choice. I don’t know that I’ve met anybody belongs to an SPN think tank that isn’t in favor of school choice. The only question is what flavor of school choice you prefer.

There’re disagreements over what sort of regulations are or are not appropriate, that sort of thing. You often have very huge fruitful discussions about that. And this year there were EdChoice, we had our own pre-conference seminar where we brought in a bunch of different speakers to talk about a wide variety of issues, the fiscal effects, research literature, plenty of pluralism, so looking at it from a wide variety of different viewpoints.

And there were a number of other panels that discussed school choice as well, so it was good to see that once again, this is an issue that is exciting, the movements and a lot of them are looking forward to the next year to adding new school choice policies or expanding existing ones in their states.

Lauren: And I think, Jason, just to go off of that point a little bit as someone who’s new to this and new to these meetings in general, the ability to get together with counterparts in other states and have a genuine opportunity to sit down, spend meaningful time with one another and exchange ideas even though they may not work in every single state that we’re talking about, or even though there might be intricacies in states that you’re working in, that exchange of ideas is so beneficial and so meaningful.

I personally, we’re busy, right? Everybody’s working, everybody’s running around, everybody has 15 different places to be. I think sometimes when I look at my calendar at one point in time, but just to be able to carve out that specific period of time for a couple of days. I always think it is just such a beneficial thing. And if my memory serves correctly, you’ve previously worked for a think tank that was part of SPN, correct?

Jason: That’s right. Back in 2012, I was part of the Josiah Bartlett Center in New Hampshire, which is not named for the fake president on the West Wing but named for his real ancestor, Josiah Bartlett, who was a signer of the declaration of independence. Actually, if you look on the row all the way on the right, the very top name is Josiah Bartlett. He was president of New Hampshire. They later changed the title from president to governor because if President Washington was going to come visit, it would sort of be awkward for the president of the United States to be meeting with the president of New Hampshire. So they changed it to governor, but yeah, he’s a big figure in New Hampshire history and I worked for the think tank that bears his name.

Lauren: As somebody who’s attended both as part of a think tank and then also as the director of ed policy here with EdChoice, is your experience any different when you attend these types of events or is it largely a similar experience? I see you and Michael and all of these events and really so much of our EdChoice counterparts, you guys know everybody in the room. I feel like everybody’s old friends and like I said, I’m still meeting the never-ending cast of characters in this movement. What is that experience like compared to what you’ve had previously?

Jason: Well, my role has sort of changed. Back in 2012 when I would attend something like SPN, I was going to learn what states other states were doing so that I could import it to New Hampshire. And at the time we were working on a tax-credit scholarship bill, which we did ultimately get passed, which was very gratifying. Now, I’m in a different role, which is many years later, I spent a lot more time not only researching school choice programs but actually traveling all across the country, visiting with policymakers in probably two dozen different states and seeing how these programs are working in a different state. So my role has switched more to a provider of information.

State policy think tanks are coming to EdChoice to learn about what’s going on nationally and what I mean when I say nationally, I don’t mean at the federal level, but I mean in these other states, because EdChoice, and I found this back when EdChoice was the Friedman Foundation and I was in New Hampshire, EdChoices is the go-to place if you want to learn about how school choice programs are operating, what you could do to improve the school choice program that’s in your estate, that sort of thing.

But I also still learn a great deal from our state policy partners about the context of what’s going on in their state and the things that we learned from our state partners we’re able to pass on to our other state partners. Things that they should look out for and why they should phrase a certain provision this way as opposed to that way. As with all of public policy, it’s constantly a learning process. And so SPN and EdChoice are both great facilitators for this knowledge sharing and learning.

Lauren: I couldn’t agree more and it’s been a great way to spend what is perhaps not the busiest legislative session right, with nothing in session at the moment. It’s certainly a wonderful, meaningful way to spend some time.

Jason: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more.

Lauren: With that, I think that’s going to wrap up our podcast. Any last thoughts, Jason?

Jason: I think we’ve covered it all for now. I very much look forward to our next podcast, which will be after the elections and we’ll have an opportunity to look at what happened on Prop 305 in Arizona and also which state legislatures might be primed for new or improved school choice programs next year.

Lauren: Well, I look forward to that, continuing our discussion and thank you, listeners, for tuning in. As we look back at September and look towards the October tune in next month for another EdChoice chat, please feel free to contact us and reach out to us. We’re always looking for new ideas. You can reach us@mediaatedchoice.org. Make sure to subscribe on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher. You can also follow us on social media @edchoice. Thanks for listening. I hope you all have a wonderful day. Thanks so much.