Governor Sununu, Commissioner Edelblut and other advocates for SB 193 say that very few families will seek ESA grants under SB 193. But the Legislative Budget Assistant (LBA) staff of the House Finance Committee tells a different story.
The LBA office does project that only 4-500 new students will get ESA grants, based on the limited availability of private school space in New Hampshire. Even so, the LBA says that over the first 11 years 2,000 students, fully 6% of eligible public school students, will have left with ESAs.
Reaching Higher NH projects higher numbers that, in its most conservative scenario, show over 3,400 students participating by year 11.
Even program supporters seem to be of two minds about expected participation rates. Kearsarge Republican Rep. Karen Umberger, chair of the Finance Committee subcommittee studying the bill, is quoted in the Union Leader saying, “I don’t expect anyone to lose 5 percent of their students. [ESA grants in the larger school districts are capped at 5% of students who qualify for the free or reduced price lunch program.] ” But on the same day, Education Commissioner Edelblut gave the committee a letter anticipating that that cap would not be high enough.
This is already a big impact but these participation rates should be seen as a minimum. The number of ESA grants could grow much more quickly as private schools expand, new ones form and eligibility requirements change over time. About 22% of Concord Christian Academy students are funded by the 2012 voucher funded by business tax credits (the “ETC program”) and is in the midst of a major facilities expansion to address anticipated increases in enrollment.
You will hear advocates minimize all this, saying,“If our schools are good, why do you say so many children will leave?” Or, “Competition will winnow out the non-performing schools.” Or, “Parents will vote with their feet.”
But our experience already shows that school quality is no insurance against students leaving with a grant to pay for private schooling. Grants from the ETC program have been concentrated in communities like Manchester, Bedford, Rochester, Londonderry, Rindge, and Concord. It’s obviously not a question of school quality. What is it?
It turns out that parents move their children for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they may be seeking greater academic challenge. But it’s also to play sports, or because the student would rather be in a larger or smaller school or be with friends. Or parents would prefer their children attend a school closer to home or work.
And it’s often for religious instruction. The country’s leading voucher advocacy organization, The Friedman Foundation, reports that, nationally, 57% of parents using vouchers are seeking a religious education: for 38%, the primary goal is to provide religious instruction and 19% said their goal was instruction in morals/character/values. Only 20% say they choose private schools in order for academic reasons.
In New Hampshire, over 80 percent of the grants used for private school tuition under the 2012 voucher program funded by business tax credits went to religious schools.
So SB 193 is not about our schools failing their students. The the constitutionality of SB 193 will be settled in court. But in the meantime, property taxpayers would be subsidizing parents preferences for a variety of reasons other than the quality of our schools.