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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.
Monday, I posted this saying that only 15 public school students would receive scholarships from voucher tax credit program. In the Note at the end, I said that, based an NHPR report, it appeared that NEO, the only active scholarship organization, might be administering the program incorrectly: The organization apparently intended to award 70% of the scholarship funds to public school students instead of awarding 70% of the scholarships to public school students, as the law requires.
Kathleen Ronayne, of the Concord Monitor, followed up and wrote this piece in today’s paper. Here’s what the report says about how the scholarships will be awarded (highlight added):
Only about 15 of the 100 students receiving scholarships from the Network for Educational Opportunity, the main scholarship organization, will be moving from public to private schools. Of the other 85 scholarships, about 50 will go to students who are already home-schooled and plan to stay there, and the rest will go to children already attending private schools. The total amount of scholarship money is not final because the group is still waiting to hear back from some families, but the scholarships must average $2,500, said the network’s Executive Director Kate Baker.
Under the law, if businesses donate to a scholarship organization, they will receive up to 85 percent back in tax credits. The law allows for up to $4 million in donations, but so far, only about $250,000 has been raised. At least 70 percent of the money awarded must go to public school children using it to transfer to private schools.
Home-schooled students can only receive a maximum of $625, which pulls down the average for the higher public to private transfer scholarships.
If this is an accurate reporting of the NEO position, the organization is making a serious error in administering the program.
UPDATE 4:41 8/15/13: I’ve updated the post to reflect the change shown above in the Concord Monitor report. NEO has stated that it does NOT use home schooling scholarships as part of its average scholarship calculation. I will submit a revised complaint to NHDRA as well.
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).
Here is my opinion piece in the July 12th edition of the New Hampshire Business Review:
The Strafford County Superior Court has issued an injunction against using vouchers to fund religious schools, but the program technically still exists and could fund secular and home schools. The case will be appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court for a decision, possibly by next winter.
But why are we debating private school vouchers in New Hampshire? Supporters say it’s “school choice for poor families.” Actually, voucher debate is a diversion from the real discussion of how we can best educate New Hampshire’s low-income children.
Our public schools are among the very best in the world — for kids from wealthy families. Students from the richest 10 percent of American parents outscore even Finnish students on international tests. But many of our schools do not do a good job educating low- and moderate-income students.
Here is coverage of the appeals in today’s Portsmouth Herald:
CONCORD — Multiple parties have filed appeals of a Superior Court decision that blocked a portion of a private school scholarship law allowing students to use the funds to attend religious schools.
The state attorney general’s office and scholarship organization Network for Educational Opportunity have filed appeals of Strafford County Superior Court Justice John Lewis’ June 17 order, which states that the law providing businesses with tax credits for contributing to private school scholarship organizations violates the state Constitution.
Lewis agreed with plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit objecting to the law, arguing it would divert taxpayer money to religious schools, therefore, violating the Constitution. However, his ruling did not entirely kill the law; he instead determined the scholarship program and business tax credits could continue as long as none of the money supports scholarships to attend religious schools.
Lots of appeals in the voucher tax credit case, many based on the US Constitution and decisions in other states
Three appeals have been filed asking the New Hampshire Supreme Court to reverse the Strafford Superior Court decision that the New Hampshire voucher program is unconstitutional to the extent that it funds religious schools. The State and the Network for Educational Opportunity, a scholarship organization, have each appealed the decision. In addition, the Concord Christian Academy and its scholarship organization, the Giving Going Alliance, not parties to the case up to now, have requested to “intervene” in the case in order to make their own appeal.
There is a fourth appeal, ours, seeking to expand the Superior Court decision and strike down the law entirely.
The appeal documents themselves are linked below. At this point, the documents consist primarily of forms submitted to the Supreme Court stating the questions the parties are requesting the court to decide. The arguments themselves will be made a some future point.