It is well known that the New Hampshire voucher tax credit has gained little business support, but new information shows that the program has little support among public school parents either.
The court hearing on our constitutional challenge will be held tomorrow, Friday, April 26, at the Strafford County courthouse. One of many important court documents is the latest tabulation of voucher applicants provided by the scholarship organization, the Network for Educational Opportunity. Our attorneys have summarized this data in another spreadsheet here. I have added information and tabulated it here. (This last one is not a court document. Any errors are my own.)
Based on this data alone, legislators can reach the conclusion that the voucher program is failing.
“School choice” or a gift to religious and home schools?
Voucher advocates have asserted that poor kids in New Hampshire need the choice to attend private schools but the NEO tabulation shows that there would be little school choice happening under the voucher program. Families have made their choices with no help from the State.
Out of the 280 applicants whose current school is known, only 15 would be transferring from public schools. Think about that. Two years of wrangling over state subsidy for vouchers and, so far, voucher advocates have identified 15 students who would switch out of our public schools. Our schools must be doing something right.
Another 147 NEO applicants would homeschool. But all of these students homeschool already. There are no public school students who will begin homeschooling because of the voucher tax credit program.
Finally, 93 students would continue attending their current private, primarily religious, schools. These are clearly families who have made their choices in the traditional way, without the need for State subsidy. If they now receive vouchers, the subsidy will be to the schools, not the families.
For instance, 16 applicants attend the Cornerstone Christian Academy in Concord and would continue attending Cornerstone if they received a voucher. The need for tuition support calculated by NEO ranges from $1,800 to $6,500 per student per year. But Cornerstone must be providing that subsidy now. If those students received vouchers funded by New Hampshire tax credits, the families would go on more or less as before but Cornerstone would be able to reduce the tuition support it provides.
What does this mean as New Hampshire public policy? It is possible that, if the program continues, the numbers will change somewhat. But the real lesson is clear now. Last year’s Legislature passed a voucher program that libertarian legislators and religious schools lobbied for but it was a program in which business leaders and public school parents expressed little interest. Today, business leaders and public school parents still have little interest.
New Hampshire tax dollars are subsidizing private schools, not providing school choice for public school kids in need of more choices than they have.
NEO appears confused
The table also illustrates that is in over its head. Although 70% of the voucher students must come from public schools that receive state adequacy funding, NEO does not know where most its applicants currently attend school. NEO did not ensure that its applicants identified their current schools so, for 421 of it 701 applicants, NEO says that the current school is “not available.”
The voucher statute requires NEO to award all scholarships and report the results to the State by July 15. In just over two months, therefore, the staff would have to select the students, determine the size of the voucher, determine whether the school will accept the student and will provide any additional support needed, and be sure that the various percentages and averages required by the law are met.
Although NEO would probably have the funds, if not shut down by the court, to support just a few of these 701 students, the decisions are still complex. However, NEO has announced no lottery or other procedure that would simplify the selection process.
NEO, with almost no budget or paid staff and no published selection criteria or process, has even considered kickbacks to schools that help with fundraising. The group is unlikely to meet challenge of managing public money in compliance with a complex statute.
What should happen now?
The New Hampshire Senate majority leadership is clearly committed to the voucher program. However, based on this and other data that is sure to come out in the next weeks, Senate President Bragdon should take the voucher repeal bill off the table and give the body another opportunity to review and debate the program. Even for a school choice advocate, this is not a program you would want to have out there.