The headline about the voucher program has become the memo from the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration correcting the “misinterpretation” of the voucher tax credit law by NEO, the only active scholarship organization authorized to raise and distribute money under the law. (There was never any real doubt about the meaning of the law.)
Here is NHPR’s take, reported by Sam Evans-Brown last night:
State To NEO: Give More Scholarships To Public School Students
The Department of Revenue Administration has released a memo clarifying the rules surrounding a controversial education tax credit scholarship. The memo makes clear that the state’s largest scholarship organization will have to change how it operates next year….
The Network for Educational Opportunity will have to give 70 percent of its scholarships to individual public school students. This year it’s giving 70 percent of the funds to just 13 public school students. That’s the lion’s share of the funds going to just 12.6 percent of scholarship recipients.
And in the Concord Monitor, Kathleen Ronayne reports this morning:
DRA statement reveals misinterpretation of education tax credit law
The ruling won’t change or take away scholarships awarded this year, but it will have a significant affect on the program going forward. This year, only 13 out of 103 students receiving scholarships transferred from public to private schools. The NEO gave out about $128,000 in scholarships, meaning roughly $90,000 was split between those 13 students. Some of the largest scholarships include $12,000 between two students to attend Liberty Harbor Academy in Manchester, $6,000 to another to attend Proctor Academy in Andover and $12,000 for one student to go to Tilton Academy.
The other 90 students – home schoolers and students already in private schools – got the remaining money, and therefore much smaller scholarships. Scholarships for home-schooled students averaged $215, which goes toward the purchase of books and materials.
Here’s my letter in today’s Portsmouth Herald, responding to a letter from a voucher supporter a few days ago.
Sept. 16 — To the Editor:
Arlene Quaratiello said in her angry defense of the voucher tax credit program (Sept. 16 letter), that I am responsible for the lack of public support. I would just point out that, 2-1, public school parents have opposed using state money to send children to private schools. That’s the real reason that, out of 1,000 scholarship applicants, so few came from public school families.
New Hampshire businesses never supported the program, either. They help New Hampshire’s public schools every day, but the Business and Industry Association took no position on vouchers, and businesses didn’t testify in support of the program. It is no surprise that they do not contribute now.
And there is no question that the Network for Educational Opportunity has violated the voucher law (details at www.anhpe.org), as program reports will make this clear at the end of the year.
But do you notice in Ms. Quaratiello’s letter how nothing is ever NEO’s fault? The lack of support from parents and business is my fault. It’s the state agency’s fault if NEO violated the law. Then, of course, NEO is burdened by the bad ruling from a “liberal judge” who read the N.H. Constitution pretty much as anyone would, as prohibiting funding of religious schools.
Actually, though, NEO’s numerous problems highlight how poorly written the law is. Virtually any nonprofit that applies is automatically approved as a scholarship organization after a couple of basic checks. And once a group is authorized, the law provides no way for the state to prevent it from misappropriating money or breaking program rules.
So, NEO, a group with no capacity to run this kind of publicly funded program, is a qualified scholarship organization, fully authorized to act independently. NEO’s errors will probably cost the state less than $50,000 this year because, fortunately, its program is so small. But a larger program operated the same way could cost the state millions in unbudgeted general fund dollars.
NEO has made so many mistakes that it may well not get authorized to participate next year, but that after-the-fact punishment is the only remedy available under this ill-conceived tax credit law.
The N.H. Supreme Court may well end the program (a ruling on the appeals may come by spring) but, one way or another, vouchers are a failed experiment that needs to be ended.
Advancing New Hampshire
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.
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.
Does the voucher law require 70% of the scholarships or 70% of the money to go to public school students? This is an easy question to answer
The Concord Monitor recently reported that NEO intends to give 70% of the scholarship funds it awards this year to 15 students leaving public schools. However, there is no doubt that the Education Tax Credit statute requires that, in the first two years, 70% of the scholarships – not scholarship funds – goes to public school students. Over the months that many legislators debated the two tax credit bills and DOE prepared numerous iterations of the Fiscal Note there was never any doubt that the legislation was specifying the percentage of scholarships.
On the other hand, the “70% of scholarship funds” interpretation relies on the assertion that the law might conceivably not mean what it says – that, although there is no other legislative language or history that actually supports the “70% of scholarship funds” interpretation, the law is not quite sufficiently explicit or precise enough to remove all shadow of a doubt that “70% of scholarships” could conceivably mean “70% of scholarship funds.” Here’s what the law says. (In all cases below, the emphasis is added.)
Basic definitions in the statute specify scholarships not funds
RSA 77- G:2 (b) says in part,
“In each of the first and second program years, a scholarship organization shall award a minimum of 70 percent of all scholarships issued to eligible students as defined in RSA 77-G:1, VIII(a)(1) and (2)”
Why do you keep after the New Hampshire voucher program? Won’t it just die on the vine? (Answer: It’s a bad seed.)
There’s only one active scholarship organization to collect donations and hand out the money and, without the capacity to run a publicly funded program, it probably won’t be able to do much with the program.
So why keep after it? Why not let it just die on the vine or trundle along getting a little money to some families who could use it?
It’s true, the voucher program is not worth all the air time it takes up. Education funding, the role of charter schools in the State, support for early childhood development, the State’s role in the current education reform debates – these are all much more important topics.
And doing a better job educating our low income students, as the voucher program purports to do, is an important topic. But the voucher program has proved a random and unsystematic way to do that. Giving money to a group that helped write the law (“We want as many students as possible out of the ‘system’”) to select a small number of children to go to unaccredited religious schools is not a solution to that problem. There are many more purposeful and direct ways to help low income families get better educations for their children.
However, the voucher law will not go away by itself. It may continue to function even if the Supreme Court agrees that it cannot fund religious schools. Supporters assert that the kind of slow start we are seeing here has been the normal experience in other states and that the program will grow large over time. Any future legislature could expand the program overnight but even with no attention at all it will grow automatically if it gets enough use.
There is no legitimate public purpose for this law, no public support, no state oversight for the money and now we’ve had an opportunity to see the result of this kind of ill-conceived legislation. There is no reason to leave this kind of failed program in place.
Scholarship organization proposes funding for only 15 public school students under the voucher tax credit program
The Network for Educational Opportunity, the only active scholarship organization authorized under the New Hampshire voucher program, proposes to grant vouchers to only 15 public school students next year. Since the law requires that 70% of this year’s scholarships go to students from public schools, the total program size this year will be a maximum of 21 students (see the Note below).
This reflects a surprising lack of interest from public school families in a program that, essentially, provides free money for the asking. Over 1,800 students leave New Hampshire public schools each year for private schools. Half of them probably qualify under the income guidelines for the voucher program. But according to court documents, very few of NEO’s scholarship applications have come from public school families.
The lack of participation among public school families, coming as it does on top of the court judgement against the program, is a further embarrassment to the Republican legislative majority that expended time and political capital on passing a program said to give public school children a much-needed alternative to what supporters called New Hampshire’s failing public schools (here here and here, among many examples).