UPDATE 9/6/13: The Nashua Telegraph has printed a correction saying that NEO says it will give $129.000 in scholarships. This compares to the “$250,000” NEO had said it would award and that I based my calculations on. The reduction in total scholarship amount does not correct the fundamental error NEO has made. If it has awarded 15 scholarships to public school students, as it reported to DOE in July, then under the law, it can give no more than 21 scholarships. NEO cannot legally give $129,000 to those 21 kids.
UPDATE 9/4/13: I understand via back channels (I have asked NEO but received no reply) that NEO has changed its plans and committed just $129,000 to scholarships, not the $235-250,000 reported here in June (“We got to about a hundred children in that category, which I know doesn’t seem very high, but we raised $250,000 dollars so it is actually the right ratio.”) and again here more recently. If NEO is sticking to it’s erroneous story that it can allocate 70% of the scholarship funds to public school students, my oped below is still basically accurate, that the 70% issue is a problem. But the numbers will be different because NEO will spend just over half of its donations. However, this is still twice what it is allowed to spend under the law.
Here is my opinion piece in today’s Nashua Telegraph. Although it is similar to this one a week ago in the Portsmouth Herald, it’s a week later now and the scholarship organization has probably actually awarded its scholarships, so I have updated the steps I propose that the State take.
How is it that New Hampshire’s voucher tax credit program can find only 15 public school students who want vouchers? And is giving them $164,000 – $11,000 apiece – to leave their public schools and go to private schools. The program then spreads 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, making the average scholarship equal the $2,500 required by the voucher law.
Is this what state Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, 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 most other voucher supporters want that. But voucher advocates and their legislative sponsors steadfastly opposed the oversight that would have prevented this problem.
One of those 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.
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 organization is giving 70 percent of the scholarship funds to the 15 public school students, which is 15 percent of the scholarships.
If NEO has proceeded with its announced plan, it is obviously against the law.
The law says that 70 percent of the scholarships – not scholarship money – must go to students leaving public schools receiving adequacy grants from the state. It even uses the phrase “number of scholarships.” That was key to passage of the legislation, because the state withholds those adequacy funds to offset the cost of the voucher tax credits, making the program cost-free to the state.
However, the NEO plan involves so few public school students that the state would lose over $150,000.
Beyond that, NEO has provided no public description of its policies or process for choosing families to receive scholarships. Is it by lottery? If not, are they friends of NEO or its donors? There’s no way to know. There are many questions and no transparency.
But we can insist on accountability.
First, NHDRA should issue guidance restating the obvious, that the law clearly requires that 70 percent of the scholarships – not scholarship funds – go to public school students.
And if NEO’s program report shows that they mishandled the state’s money, NEO should be removed. NHDRA may also determine that business donors should lose their tax credits.
The New Hampshire voucher program is in a shambles. The Strafford County Superior Court issued an injunction against funding religious schools because it violates the New Hampshire Constitution. That decision is being appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court and parts or all of the law could be struck down.
NEO has demonstrated that, if the program does survive the courts, NEO or any group could misuse this program in the future, potentially on a much larger scale. Yes, the Legislature could try to fix the law, but what’s the point?
The voucher law is too complex. And only NEO and the religious schools that hoped to benefit supported it – along with 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 work with our public schools and they 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. Sen. Stiles played a pivotal role. Her single vote enabled the program to survive. At this point, then, Sen. Stiles owns it. She 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 to shut the voucher program down and move on to the serious business before the state.
Bill Duncan is a resident of New Castle and founder of Advancing New Hampshire Public Education.
When the Telegraph told me they would have a side-by-side response to my opinion piece, point-counter-point fashion, and that it would be from Mr. Gorrell, I thought that would be good. I had posted a piece from Mr. Gorrell last year (here) because I thought it stated the case in a way that was useful for the debate. This time it is mainly an ad hominum thing that charges me with being a liar who lives in New Castle. There’s no defense of NEO administration of the program or any other point of interest in the debate. But it’s there if you want to see it.