The Network for Educational Opportunity, the only active scholarship organization authorized under the New Hampshire voucher program, proposes to grant vouchers to only 15 public school students next year. Since the law requires that 70% of this year’s scholarships go to students from public schools, the total program size this year will be a maximum of 21 students (see the Note below).
This reflects a surprising lack of interest from public school families in a program that, essentially, provides free money for the asking. Over 1,800 students leave New Hampshire public schools each year for private schools. Half of them probably qualify under the income guidelines for the voucher program. But according to court documents, very few of NEO’s scholarship applications have come from public school families.
The lack of participation among public school families, coming as it does on top of the court judgement against the program, is a further embarrassment to the Republican legislative majority that expended time and political capital on passing a program said to give public school children a much-needed alternative to what supporters called New Hampshire’s failing public schools (here here and here, among many examples).
The lack of interest among public school parents is matched by the lack of investment from the business community. While businesses throughout the State are working closely with public education (here and here for examples), businesses have applied for less than 6% of the tax credits that pay, almost dollar-for-dollar, for any contribution the business makes to the voucher program.
And most of those tax credits have been allocated to one company, TurboCam, a Barrington company closely associated with the voucher program.
In the end, very little of even that small amount of scholarship funding will be used. The average scholarship for private school students must be $2,500 and the maximum subsidy for homeschool students is $625, so the total amount allocated to private school and homeschool scholarships for 21 students this year will be small.
The small program size raises further questions about program administration. NEO will select for funding very few of its 1,000 applicants while adhering to complex requirements in the law. However, the organization has not published guidelines for selecting the recipients of these state-funded scholarships. According to the legislative sponsors, a lottery would be necessary if the program were small compared to the number of applicants but there has been no public announcement of a lottery or other selection process.
These figures presented here are based on a response by the New Hampshire Department of Education to a right-to-know request from the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the lead attorneys in the constitutional challenge to New Hampshire’s voucher tax credit program. Americans United requested information from a report on public school student participation that the scholarship organization was required to submit by July 15.
Note: ANHPE calculates that 21 total students will receive scholarships based on section 77-G:2 (b) of the voucher statute, which says in part: “In each of the first and second program years, a scholarship organization shall award a minimum of 70 percent of all scholarships…[to public school students].”
The 15 public school students NEO has identified in its report to NHDOE will meet that 70% criterion if the total number of scholarship students is 21.
NHPR has reported, however, that NEO is operating the program on an entirely different basis, planning to award 70% of the scholarship money to public school students. This would be much different from allocating 70% of the scholarships to students coming from public schools.
The language of the bill and of the fiscal note at the end of the bill make clear that 70% of the students receiving scholarships must be public school students. The NEO alternative was not contemplated by the legislation and would be a misuse of the funds that would undermine the finances of the voucher program, passed on the promise that it would be “revenue neutral” at the state level.
ANHPE has alerted the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration to this misinterpretation of the law. There have been no further public statements from NHDRA or NEO clarifying program details.