Once again, New Hampshire’s Republican lawmakers, backed by Gov. Chris Sununu and Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, are taking aim at public education in the state. And once again, the weapon of choice — is choice.
House Bill 20 aims to create “Education Freedom Accounts,” what has long been known as vouchers, to allow parents to move their children from public classrooms to private schools. It would enable the parents of pretty much any child who qualifies for public education to apply for an account to subsidize all sorts of costs of private schooling.
Specifically, it would allow the diversion of what the state pays to local school districts per student to be used for private education — at any private school, secular or religious, or for homeschooling, or other programs not run by public school systems. Proponents disingenuously claim the intent is to help poorer families who want the option, or choice, of a private education. They also note it would pay for programs such as speech or audiological therapy the public schools may not provide.
As for the first claim, note that what the state pays per student in “adequacy” aid would hardly make a dent in the tuition of many private schools in New Hampshire. It won’t push poorer families into private schools; it will just subsidize the tuition of wealthier ones. And since many private schools have scholarship and other aid programs for low-income students, the money would simply replace that aid, reducing the cost for the school, not the families.
As for the latter, taking state aid away from local districts to fund therapy isn’t an answer. Funding needed educational therapies as part of the expectation of providing an education is.
Some critics of the plan will point to the inclusion of religious schools in the program as a constitutional hurdle. It may well be, but that’s not the real harm of this proposal.
Advocates of House Bill 20 won’t say their intent is to strip funding from public schools, though Edelblut did lay bare, at a hearing on the bill last week, one of the main objectives. That would be, he testified, to lure enough kids out of public schools that they can eventually downsize, saving taxpayers money.
They key word there is “eventually.” It won’t happen anytime soon, or easily.
School facilities are already in place, and will require maintenance even if only a few students use them. Curricula call for a wide assortment of subjects to be incorporated under the state’s — and districts’ — standards. And contractual obligations still must be met, as must special education costs. (Notably, many of these standards don’t apply to private schools.) Someone will have to teach language arts, an array of science, math and social studies classes, and other required course subjects. There won’t be a call for fewer school nurses, nor will losing a chunk of students save on busing, unless the exodus to private schools conveniently happens geographically. So losing a third of students at, say, Keene High, isn’t going to directly equate in any way to reducing staff by a third. It might not mean reducing staff or costs at all.
What it WILL mean, assuredly, is losing a third of state aid, which is based on attendance. And that’s going to put local districts — many of which are already sinking in the quicksand that is the state’s laughably inadequate “school aid” — in the position of having to further raise local taxes to fill the gap.
The long con here is the promise to taxpayers that they’ll eventually pay less for education. That might happen, someday. But in the meantime, for years, the state’s children — other than perhaps those from families that really can afford private schooling — will suffer through school systems that lack the necessary funding to operate properly. The only alternative will be for local taxpayers to pony up even more money to fill the gap left by the diversion of funds meant for public — not private — education.
It’s almost as if these lawmakers have forgotten the purpose and value of public education: To ensure at least a baseline core of learning for those who cannot afford to pay for their children’s schooling, and haven’t the means to do it themselves.
Particularly now, when the state and municipalities are struggling due to the yearlong pandemic, there’s not going to be any extra cash to make up those losses. Meanwhile, Sununu, Edelblut and company are proposing taking away up to $4,000 or more per student from local districts. Oh, and up to 10 percent of that will be siphoned off by the “administering” organization — private service providers that oversee the barely necessary application process and serve as a pass-through of the funds to the private schools.
HB 20 is an awful bill for education, and anyone who values education for all ought to be letting lawmakers hear about it now.