The Keene Sentinal published a new oped by Bill Duncan today making the point that a New Hampshire Department of Education committed to school choice as its primary policy objective is failing the public schools for which it is responsible. The chair of the House Education Committee says our best in the nation schools “don’t cut the mustard” and, rather than helping them improve, we should take the kids out. Our department of education, closely involved in developing and lobbying for SB 193, seems to agree. This can only damage our neighborhood schools. Here’s the oped:A deeply divided House Education Committee voted 10 to 9 last Tuesday to send SB 193, the voucher bill, to the House floor with an Ought to Pass recommendation, but not without much drama and amending as the education commissioner and committee advocates sought additional votes. If the bill passes the House it will go to the House Finance Committee for debate on the financial issues.
The problem with SB 193 isn’t in the details of the bill, which will continue to change. The problem is in the the bill’s basic proposition that we should being moving our students into private schools because our neighborhood schools don’t “cut the mustard” in the finger wagging words of our House Education Committee Chair Rep. Rick Ladd (R, Haverhill).
New Hampshire parents – and everyone who sees their neighborhood schools as the heart of their communities serving all “our kids” – would be right to ask, “Wait a minute. We don’t fund our schools now. Our poorest communities already face property tax increases in the face of decreasing state funding. Why would we use our minimal education funds to send a select group of children to private schools?”
SB 193 provides up to $5,100, even more in some cases, to induce parents to move their children out of their neighborhood schools into homeschooling or private schools, including religious schools.
Supporters say that, based on the 2012 voucher program that never really got off the ground, only a select few kids will use an SB 193 voucher. But 193 is a whole new deal. More students would qualify and the vouchers would be two or three times the size of those in the 2012 program. And the 2012 program stayed small because business did not make the needed tax credit funded donations to the program. The new program does not rely on business support. SB 193 can make an unlimited claim on New Hampshire’s funding for public education.
Whatever number of parents take a voucher in the first year, more will in the second and every year thereafter. When our own state Department of Education makes private school choice its central priority, saying that children should leave their local public schools with a voucher, parents will hear the message loud and clear.
SB 193 is not just a bill. It is a fork in the road setting the direction for the future of New Hampshire public education.
But how will the private alternatives compare to our public schools, already ranked among the highest achieving and most innovative in the country? There will be no way for the Legislature, voters or the business community to know.
SB 193 sets no educational standards of any kind. We have detailed statutes that define our constitutionally mandated adequate education but SB 193 sidesteps them all, making the parent solely responsible for accountability. Although the State would uses adequacy funds to pay for the voucher, we would have no way to know whether the education we are paying for meets our constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education.
And the bill creates whole new challenges to the idea of accountability. Since virtually anyone can be paid with voucher funds as a “tutor,” a new kind of non-school school becomes possible. The BigFish Learning Community in Dover, for instance, is not a school, does not register with the State as a school, but charges a tuition of $9,000 per year and can be paid with an SB 193 voucher.
SB 193 will inflict the greatest damage on the communities most in need of help. Manchester, with it’s tax cap, divided school board, demographic challenges, and great surrounding alternatives, will be hard hit. But our rural schools, already dealing with demographically driven enrollment declines and lack of tax base to support their schools, don’t have the private schools that would be affordable even with a voucher. They would have to rely on computers, small religious schools, home schooling, or non-school schools like BigFish. But parents already working hard to make ends meet will find even these options difficult, so only the more advantaged families would be able to make use of vouchers.
The solution that serves students in these most challenged schools is not one that sends parents out on their own to come up with alternatives to neighborhood schools. The real investment in our kids is an investment in local school leadership committed to overcoming the special challenges those schools face. That strategy has had dramatic results from White Mountains Regional to Parker-Varney Elementary in Manchester to Pittsfield, Franklin and many other communities.
SB 193 and the private school choice policy put forward by our Department of Education are not a good alternative to providing real leadership and support for our neighborhood schools.