Here is my oped in this morning’s Portsmouth Herald
How is it that New Hampshire’s voucher tax credit program can find only 15 public school students who want vouchers? And plans to give them almost $11,000 apiece to leave their public schools and go to private schools! Then the program would spread the rest of its $235,000 pool of donations among 85 more students whose families are already paying their way in private and home schools to make the average scholarship equal the $2,500 required by the voucher law.
Is this what Sen. Stiles had in mind when she steadfastly refused to consider repealing this complex, ill-conceived and pointless intervention in our public education system? I actually don’t think Sen. Stiles or anyone else who supports the voucher program had that in mind. But voucher advocates and their legislative sponsors steadfastly opposed the oversight and accountability that would have prevented this kind of result.
One of those voucher advocates, a key player in designing the legislation, is now the only active scholarship organization authorized to collect donations and decide who gets the money. The group, the Network for Educational Opportunity (NEO), is a libertarian advocacy organization whose mission is to shut down public schools. It has very little staff and no financial or program administration experience.
Any oversight board charged with ensuring that participating scholarship organizations and schools were credible would have rejected NEO.
Since there is no oversight structure of that kind, I have lodged a complaint with the Department of Revenue Administration saying that the NEO is not operating the program according to the law.
The statute says that 70 percent of the scholarships must go to students leaving public schools receiving adequacy grants from the state. This was key to passage of the legislation because it means that the state can withhold those funds to offset the cost of the voucher tax credits, making the program cost-free to the state.
But NEO wants to give 70 percent of the scholarship funds to the 15 public school students. That is only 15 percent of the scholarships — an obvious error — but it allows NEO to change the program entirely, giving large scholarships to a few public school families and very small scholarships to the other 85.
NEO is doing all of this, having provided no public description of its policies or process. How are students chosen? By lottery? By subjective judgment? How many of these scholarships are to multiple children in the same family? Is there even a policy about multiple scholarships to the same family?
There are many questions about NEO and its administration of this taxpayer-funded program. I hope NHDRA responds to the complaint and audits the organization right away, before families are further misled and confused by this disorganized program for which the state is responsible.
If the NHDRA does act quickly, the families could be protected for this year. The program could possibly operate, giving a very small number of scholarships. And the program could fund strictly secular schools, since the Strafford County Superior Court has said that funding religious schools violates the New Hampshire Constitution (that decision is being appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court). And, yes, the Legislature could add oversight next year and look for a credible organization to handle the donations and scholarships in the future.
But, really, what’s the point? By the time the voucher program got out of the Legislature last year, it was too complex for anyone to make sense of it. It never had popular support, beyond NEO and the religious schools that hoped to benefit and the first-term libertarian legislators who wrote it (one of them saying, “We want as many students as possible out of the ‘system'”).
New Hampshire businesses are working with the public schools and never saw a need for this program. Most public school parents didn’t either — and obviously still don’t.
The Senate did the state a disservice by refusing to go along with the House to repeal the program earlier this year. And our own Sen. Stiles played a pivotal role. Her single vote enabled the program to survive. At this point, however, the program is in a shambles and Sen. Stiles owns it.
Sen. Stiles should join House Education Committee Chair Mary Gile to co-sponsor voucher repeal in the next session of the Legislature. And the Senate should vote unanimously for repeal and move on to the serious business before the state.
Bill Duncan is a resident of New Castle and advocates on education issues at Advancing New Hampshire Public Education.