The Network for Educational Opportunity (actually, the Alliance for the Separation of School and State) is limping along as the only active scholarship organization under the voucher tax credit law passed last year. (There is one more, called the Giving Going Alliance, but the website is inactive and no one answers the phone). NEO planned to offer kickbacks to religious schools that would raise money for them but have not succeeded in raising much. Based on their publicly available records very few public school families are applying for scholarships. A superior court decision on the constitutionality of the tax credit is due any day but, regardless of that decision, the voucher program looks to be dying on the vine. There is no published plan selecting scholarship recipients. They do not know what schools many of the applicants currently attend. And when asked as part the court proceedings when they would begin awarding scholarships, the director of the program did not know (here on page 16).
The voucher program has become a sad side-show distracting from the real story of public education in New Hampshire. But it is still out there right now, so House Education Committee Chair Mary Gile sent a letter to the Network for Educational Opportunity asking for an explanation and what she was going to do to head off real scandal. If I can get a copy I will post it but, in the meantime, here are some points in response to an OpEd in Sunday’s Nashua Telegraph over the name of the program director, Kate Baker:
“The Network for Educational Opportunity is busy launching a scholarship program that will make a positive contribution to educational excellence in New Hampshire. Soon, we’ll discover the merits of parental choice in the decision of where and how students are educated when an authentic choice is presented.”
“educational excellence”: The purpose of the voucher program, as stated by one of the bill’s authors, is to entice students from New Hampshire’s highly rated public schools and send them to unaccountable and unaccredited religious schools that teach a creationist curriculum that is far out of the mainstream.
“Some 800 financially needy children, many of them underserved or neglected in their current school, will no longer be subject to the few educational options available within, and determined by, their ZIP codes. Instead, NEO is helping parents elect where to send children using a portable scholarship toward private school, a different public school, or homeschooling expenses.”
Among the first 700 applicants, 3 want to go to another public school, while 148 are currently homeschooling and would now want a state subsidy to continue doing that. Another 342 would go to unaccredited schools. While some applicants are surely “financially needy,” incomes could be over $80,000 for a family of 5 and many already attend the private school they would use the scholarship to attend.
“We’ll succeed if opponents of educational choice continue to fail in their exhaustive efforts to scuttle the tax credit law that makes this historic step possible. Which brings me to why, during our busy implementation phase, I’ve taken to this forum.
NEO received a curious inquiry from state Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, chair of the House education committee. Though couched as a letter to me, the email was sent to reporters who shared her intent on social media. So here I am, publicly setting the record straight.
Right up front, Gile mangles facts by terming our scholarships “vouchers.” In fact, the scholarship monies we raise are sourced from hard-earned pretax income from businesses that get an 85 percent tax credit for investing in better education. This makes the source of these scholarships charitable donations directly from business owners to a nonprofit. Donations never go to the state, and therefore, our scholarships can’t be vouchers. If that seems like an accounting nuance, as opponents of education choice want it to, consider that the U.S. Supreme Court sees it our way.”
A business making a $10,000 “scholarship” contribution would be repaid all but $429 of that by the State (here’s how it works). “Voucher” is the accurate and commonly applied name for this kind of program, used by everyone but voucher advocates wanting to obscure what’s going on. Does the “private money” argument really pass the straight face test?
“Gile also nitpicks at NEO’s exploration of fundraising options. In a nutshell, NEO once considered a particular fundraising model that would have permitted schools to collaboratively attract business donors for scholarships. We’d have paid the schools commission the same way we’d compensate an in-house fundraiser. Since she knows we never implemented this model, Gile’s alarmist, accusatory tone is uncalled for.”
Someone should ask Reps. David Hess and Neal Kurk, actively engaged in the voucher debate last year, if they anticipated that the 10% the Legislature provided for “program administration” of scholarship organizations would be split with schools in repayment for fundraising. How did the State of New Hampshire get mixed up with someone who thinks that this kind of kickback is a “nit?”
“Gile then makes an interesting claim about our fiscal solvency, insinuating that NEO is flush with money. So much so, she says, that she wants us to surrender the unostentatious 10 percent administrative fees that nonprofits like ours can retain under the education tax credit law.”
I haven’t seen Rep. Giles’ letter but I doubt that she would have insinuated that NEO is “flush with money.” This kind of spin suggests that Charles McGee, convicted in the 2002 Republican phone jamming scheme, is still writing Ms. Baker’s public communications for her.
“Our position on her request in the near-term is that due to our financial health, we’re willing to redirect this year’s 10 percent administrative fee amount to the scholarship account. Long-term, however, we won’t commit to doing this because we expect to build capacity in response to expected growth in demand for education choice scholarships. We also wouldn’t presume to speak for other nonprofits operating under the law and future non-profits, as these legally obtained administrative fees are used to aid correspondence with the state departments of revenue and education.
Gile then pivots to a conflicting assertion concerning NEO’s finances, arriving at the idea that we’re financially unsound. She declares that the allure of educational choice, particularly the demand for the tax credit, has waned. Without getting deep into the math, Gile should know that our organization is financially robust just as she first contended.”
Ms. Baker/Mr. McGee make this bland “financially robust” assertion with nothing to back it up. In reality, the organization’s donations have fallen from almost $300,o00 a dozen years ago to $35,000 last year. Here’s a letter from the organization’s president saying they are in tough shape and pleading for even $5. NEO lists a staff of 8, but they are mostly volunteers with other jobs. Unless they’ve found an angel, “robust” would not be an accurate description of NEO’s finances.
The organization does not have the capacity or credibility to administer a program funded by tax credits from the State of New Hampshire.
“NEO is poised to give parents $121,000 in donated scholarship monies for which businesses will get a tax credit. The funds are in the bank, ready for distribution. The program will produce up to $500,000 in net savings for the state because the educational settings where the scholarships will be used operate more efficiently than public schools. These funds are separate and apart from tens of thousands of dollars in operating funds, including for staffing, that we’ve raised from proponents of portable education scholarships.”
If you see Ms. Baker, ask her to justify that made-up figure of $500,000. Can’t be done.
“Finally, Gile pleads, “New Hampshire students and families cannot afford waste or misuse of state education funding dollars.” We agree. That’s why our novel scholarship work is 100 percent unattached to public education funding. NEO raises charitable contributions in a voluntary exchange that’s exclusive from how public education is funded. Period. The U.S. Supreme Court sees it our way.”
“Gile may view every potentially taxable dollar in the economy as belonging to the same public education system that fails many of the state’s most vulnerable children. As someone who deals with those children and their parents, I’m sorry to inform Giles that this tired notion offends, and it is deliriously out of touch.”
All Ms. Baker can really say is that, somewhere in the State, she has found only 15 public school kids whose parents would rather send them to a different school (there may be more but NEO’s applicant records are incomplete).
Most importantly, Ms. Baker and her writing team have no basis for the assertion that the “public education system..fails many of the state’s most vulnerable children.” Manchester’s Bakersville Elementary School, for instance, has 80% free and reduced lunch kids, 40% of whom are learning English as a second language, but almost 70% of whom are proficient in reading in the 3rd grade. Think about those numbers. That is amazing.