Here is my opinion piece as it appeared in the Portsmouth Herald yesterday.
Starting next September, New Hampshire’s new voucher program would provide scholarships worth an average of $2,500 per year to students going to private and religious schools and up to $625 for home schooling costs. Businesses could fund these scholarships in lieu of paying their state taxes. The state would off-set the lost business taxes by reducing state funding to school districts.
(I call this a “voucher” program because there is no meaningful policy distinction between the older voucher programs, funded by direct expenditures from the state budget, and this program funded by tax expenditures.)
The voucher program starts small but grows quickly. In the first 10 years, the state could spend as much as $130 million moving our children out of the public schools into private, religious and home schools. At that point, we would be spending $30 million per year to send 13,000 students to private schools. Former speaker Bill O’Brien says he wants to expand the program even faster.
Gov. Maggie Hassan supports repeal of the voucher program. And the new House will soon vote on HB 370, a bill that would repeal the voucher program before it can devour millions of dollars of state education funding.
But Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, is campaigning against repeal. This is important because her opposition makes the vote 12-12 in the Senate, meaning that repeal could fail. Sen. Stiles’ vote, for or against, will carry the day. Sen. Stiles argues that, on principle, a Legislature should not reverse a previous Legislature’s work and that “repeal without data is irresponsible.”
I disagree with Sen. Stiles on both points.
Revisiting previous policy is what legislatures do, especially when voters have spoken as clearly as we did last November. Democrats won many more seats than expected — especially in the face of Republican redistricting — because Republican leadership had used its veto-proof majority to undo the work of the previous legislatures and push through policies that voters do not support.
For example, the last Legislature cut state aid to school districts by $140 million. They made a mess of charter school funding. They rejected Sen. Stiles’ own bill to advance competency-based education. Those bad decisions and many more will probably be reversed this year. The voucher program should be repealed as well before the damage to New Hampshire public education becomes irreversible. The law was passed by a rogue Legislature over voter opposition and a gubernatorial veto. What better candidate for repeal?
Sen. Stiles says that shutting the voucher program down now, before it has had a chance to work, would be irresponsible. But waiting to shut it down would be even worse. If the program started operating, some number of families would be taking their children out of the public schools and sending them to alternative schools. The number could be 100, 1,000 or thousands. Whatever the number was, would shutting the program down after these children were depending on it be a better option?
But no one depends on the voucher program today. Far from being a bad time, now is clearly the best time to repeal this program.
Sen. Stiles says that we do not have the data to justify shutting the voucher program down. However, the reasons to repeal the program now are the same as the reasons to vote against it last year. Vouchers would take scarce state funding from our high performing New Hampshire public schools and put it into private schools that will probably not provide a better education.
I say “probably” because, while national data shows that private schools do not outperform public schools, the sponsors of New Hampshire’s voucher law have shielded their program from that kind of analysis. The Legislature rejected any form of accountability to New Hampshire taxpayers, so our legislators will have learned no more about the voucher program’s educational results four years from now than they know now.
The data Sen. Stiles is looking for will not be there. But we do know that the voucher program will hurt public education while providing no accountability for the millions of dollars spent.
The Legislature we elected last November will correct many of the excesses of that last unpopular Legislature. Sen. Stiles will surely be part of that constructive effort. Sen. Stiles should reverse her position, support New Hampshire public education and vote to repeal the voucher program as well.
Bill Duncan is a New Castle resident and founder of the advocacy group Defending N.H. Public Education.