The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy issued a paper today rebutting the Reaching Higher NH analysis of the potential impact of SB 193, the voucher bill, on New Hampshire’s public schools and state budget.
The Reaching Higher NH analysis made several key points, using conservative assumptions and backed up in exhaustive detail:
- The bill’s eligibility criteria are complex and vague but it’s safe to say that a large proportion of public school students – and even some private school students – would be eligible for vouchers. (The private school students are those who would be entering kindergarten or first grade.)
- The enrollment and budget impact of SB 193 would land disproportionately on our cities and property-poor communities.
- The bill provides for stabilization grants that would reduce the financial impact to districts. These grants would require a new legislative appropriation at least $31 million over the next 5 years.
- Under any reasonable scenario, even if the stabilization funds were appropriated, many communities would be hard hit, especially these forty districts. Manchester, for instance, would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in state aid in the first year and more every year after.
- The State will direct new spending to students currently in private school and homeschooling who will be eligible for a voucher.
The Bartlett center uses a broad brush to refute the detailed Reaching Higher NH analysis. Here’s an overview:
The report dismisses the dominant problem faced by New Hampshire public education: enrollment decline
The biggest problem faced by NH public schools, beyond the chronic lack of funding, is demographically driven enrollment decline. We had 207,000 public school students in 2001. We have 168,000 this year. Over the past 5 years, enrollment has declined by an average of 1.4% every year. And some of our southern New Hampshire communities are growing, so the burden of this declining enrollment falls disproportionately on some of our communities.
The Bartlett report dismisses this historic demographic shift as natural “enrollment fluctuations” and asserts that offering vouchers to encourage another 1-5% of students to leave each year would not make a significant impact. In fact, the director of the current voucher program says that she has a current waiting list of 1,800, already enough to double the size of New Hampshire’s enrollment decline. The Reaching Higher NH report makes clear that the generous SB 193 vouchers could lead over time to even greater enrollment decline in our most challenged communities.
Says the financial impacts will be negligible
Bartlett asserts that districts will save money and budgets will go down if they lose students to vouchers but, as a result of downshifting and many other factors, just the opposite has happened over the past 10 years. There is no basis for this assertion.
The report then says the losing as much as 2% of a district’s revenue – $260,000 in Franklin, $3 million in Manchester – is not a significant impact.
The reality is that, future Legislatures stop appropriating funds for the ever growing demand for “stabilization grants,” large impacts on school budgets are entirely possible. Legislators won’t need an outside analysis to tell them whether 2% is a significant number.
The Bartlett report is high on rhetoric but no one claims authorship
While the Reaching Higher NH presentation is somewhat dry and complex, the Bartlett report sets up a straw man in its high energy title, “Will Education Savings Accounts Decimate Public Schools?”, follows by saying, “Opponents claim…that ESAs will lead to sudden and unmanageably large revenue reductions for public schools,” and goes on to cite Reaching Higher NH. The Reaching Higher NH analysis doesn’t actually say anything like that.
And while the Reaching Higher NH analysis is signed by Reaching Higher NH staffer Dan Vallone who gives briefings and can be questioned about his work, there is no author listed on the Bartlett report. However, the Bartlett center’s Interim President is Drew Cline, recently appointed by Governor Sununu to serve as chair of the New Hampshire State Board of Education, must be responsible for the report, whether or not he wrote all of it.