S enate Bill 193, which would enact “education savings accounts” — essentially a voucher system for parents wanting to remove their children from public schools — is before the N.H. House Finance Committee, where it’s slated to be discussed this week. It’s already passed the Senate on a strictly partisan vote and has the backing of Gov. Chris Sununu.
Purported to offer parents “choice” regarding their children’s education, it does no such thing. It’s not increasing the available educational options; rather, it’s shifting tax money from public schools to the pockets of those offering private education.
Parents who can afford private school tuitions, or who don’t have to work and can thus educate their kids at home, don’t need SB 193. Most families won’t qualify under the amended bill’s income guidelines, and those who would qualify likely can’t afford the cost of private schools even with the $5,500 or so in diverted public funds.
Even if parents can afford a private school, their children may not be accepted. Private schools can exclude students as they see fit. Nor does SB 193 set out any accountability requirements for those schools in terms of meeting specific educational standards or transparency. Meanwhile the public schools will continue handling the clear majority of more-expensive special-needs students, and must — rightly — adhere to accountability and transparency standards, regardless of cost.
Who would benefit from SB 193? Private schools, for sure. They’ll be able to draw some more students, who will come with several thousand dollars, enabling the schools to either raise their tuitions or replace the scholarships they’re now doling out to poorer students with the public funds. That’s a win either way.
Also winning would be the out-of-state Children’s Scholarship Fund, which administers New Hampshire’s Education Tax Credit Scholarship Program and is the only organization qualified to administer the education savings accounts under SB 193. It would be a middleman for moving the money from public to private hands — in some cases arguably sidestepping the unconstitutionality of using tax dollars to fund religious education — and keep 5 percent of the subsidy for its trouble.
And those considering home-schooling their children will get an immediate boost, raking in thousands for doing so.
But, proponents argue, shouldn’t tax dollars “follow” the student?
In a word: No. The tax dollars that pay for public education don’t belong to the student or the family; they are there for the public good.
The idea behind public education isn’t that everyone’s education ought to be paid for with public funds. It’s that everyone, regardless of circumstance, ought to have access to an education; that society benefits from an informed public — not just an educated elite. Public education is a baseline, though ideally a high one. It ensures everyone can get a decent education. Those who eschew it to educate their children via other means have no claim to public funds.
For the wealthy, who can afford a private tutor or to send their children to private schools, there’s plenty of “choice.” For those who can’t afford such options and whose children can’t get adequate scholarship aid from private schools, the public school system picks up the slack. And in New Hampshire, it does so admirably. Our public schools annually rank among the best in the nation. And where there are issues, there are mechanisms to work toward improvement. SB 193 instead encourages parents to bail on their public schools, instead of trying to better them.
And that gets to the biggest danger of these bills. They are mainly designed to erode public education, drawing funding — and students — away. One very real potential result will be triggering a cycle in which, having lost funding, school systems struggle further, thus causing more parents to opt out, costing them even more funding, etc., until the schools aren’t able to keep up with the obligatory staffing and facilities costs.
Alternatively, these schemes could simply cost taxpayers more and more to adequately provide an education for those students whose parents still can’t afford the high tuition costs of private schools or who can’t take the time from work to educate them at home.
SB 193 would be a waste of taxpayer money that harms public education and/or poorer communities while failing to deliver the “choice” it promises. House members ought to know better than to support it.