From today’s Portsmouth Herald, here is my opinion piece making the case that the whole voucher debate is a diversion from the real discussion of how we should get low income kids the best possible education:
Last Monday, Strafford Superior Court Judge John Lewis ruled that paying religious schools with vouchers funded by New Hampshire tax credits would violate the New Hampshire Constitution. That’s an important victory for New Hampshire taxpayers and our public schools.
But it’s just a first step. The defendants will probably ask the courts to suspend the ruling pending appeal. However, suspension is unlikely. The case will then be appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court for a decision, possibly by next winter.
Although the court has issued an injunction against using New Hampshire vouchers to fund religious schools, the program technically still exists and could fund secular and home schools.
But the scholarship organizations have generated little support from the business community, raising less than $200,000 for this year. In addition, they will have a hard time meeting the requirement that seven out of 10 vouchers must go to children leaving public schools. (They submitted court documents two months ago showing that there were only 15 applicants from public schools.) The vast majority of voucher applications have been for children who are already in religious or home schools, obviously having made their “school choice” with no state subsidy.
So, with little business support and few applicants wanting to leave public schools, the program will grant very few scholarships for next school year. Legislators I talk with, Republican and Democratic, have been saying for months that the program will probably die on the vine for lack of interest.
So why are we discussing private school vouchers at all? It’s true. It’s time to move on. The voucher debate has been a diversion from the real discussion of how we can best educate low income children in the state of New Hampshire.
Our public schools are among the very best in the world — for kids from wealthy families. Students from the richest 10 percent of American parents out-score even Finnish students on international tests! But many of our schools do not do a good job educating low- and moderate-income students.
We have almost 50,000 public school students who qualify for a free or reduced-cost school lunch in New Hampshire. Those kids’ families earn less than $42,000 per year for a family of four. That’s where we need to look for improvement.
The voucher program is marketed as a solution for these kids, but setting up a new mechanism to spend millions of state dollars sending a few children to unaccountable private schools is not a credible response. We should ensure that our public education system reaches those students right where they are now, in our public schools.
And we do know how to educate low-income children in our public schools. I visited Portsmouth’s New Franklin Elementary a few weeks ago and wrote about it on the Advancing New Hampshire Public Education Web site. New Franklin is single-minded and successful in its efforts to teach the hardest to reach kids. (Dondero and Little Harbor are too — I just happened to go to New Franklin.) Bakersville Elementary in Manchester, where 75 percent of the kids are qualified for subsidized lunches and 45% are learning English, gets amazing results as well. These schools have great test scores but, more importantly, their day-to-day teaching shows how possible it is to reach kids at risk of failing in school. And schools all over New Hampshire are doing it.
So we do know how to reach low-income students in our public schools. We should be debating how to do it better, and in more schools. For instance, most other states — and many countries — have found that access to high-quality pre-K helps low-income kids do better. And we could provide improved support for teachers trying to reach at-risk kids in all grades.
Whatever the solution is, it is not using vouchers to, as one of the bill’s authors said, get “as many students as possible out of the ‘system.'”
We don’t know what the New Hampshire Supreme Court will decide about funding religious schools, but we do know that we don’t need our legislators scheming about how to undermine our public education “system.” It’s time to move on from the voucher debate and consider real policy options for New Hampshire children.
The New Hampshire Senate should join the House, the governor and the court to put this pathetic voucher program out of its misery.
Bill Duncan is a resident of New Castle and advocates on education issues at Advancing New Hampshire Public Education.