Public education in New Hampshire is on the edge of a precipice. There is a well-coordinated effort underway in our state to dismantle public education in favor of privatization. This effort includes, among other things, a large-scale expansion of charter school funding and the adoption of a voucher program that allows public money to be spent for private and religious schools. Advocates describe these programs using euphemistic language such as “school choice” and “educational freedom accounts.” Don’t be misled. These programs divert public funds away from our public schools, allow taxpayer dollars to be used for private and religious schools, and will increase property taxes.
Under the recently adopted voucher program, a family can claim between $3,787 and $8,458 of taxpayer dollars per child, per year if they decide not to enroll their children in public school. Funds can be claimed annually from kindergarten through high school graduation. For a family with two children, that means between $98,462 and $219,908 of taxpayer dollars over the course of 13 years. Families can use these funds to pay a portion of the tuition at well-endowed private or religious schools, or for almost anything remotely related to the education of their children.
The New Hampshire law is notable for having few limits on how the funds can be spent and very little accountability to protect against improper use. Arguably, a family vacation could qualify as an educational expense. While parents certainly have a right to choose to send their children to private school, (or on an overseas trip), our tax dollars shouldn’t be used to pay for it.
The law limits eligible families to those with a household income not exceeding 300 percent of the poverty level. However, the family must only meet that income test when applying in the first year. Thereafter, they continue to qualify every year regardless of income. It is customary for household income to increase over time as wage earners gain experience, are promoted, or when parents rejoin the workforce as their children grow. The current law makes no adjustment for these expected changes in household income, with the inevitable result that taxpayer dollars will be used to pay for wealthy families to send their children to exclusive private schools.
Once a family opts into the voucher program, the neighborhood public school no longer receives state education funding for those students — but that does not mean costs drop by a corresponding amount. Many of the costs of operating a school are fixed. A reduction in the number of students does not directly translate into a reduction in the number of teachers or in the cost to heat the building. When taxpayer money goes to fund private schools, public school students suffer the loss. Reduced funding means cuts in programming. Typically, extracurriculars and enrichment classes such as art, music, foreign language, and specialized technology classes are the first to go. When these cuts are not enough to cover the gap, the cost is passed on to the taxpayers in the form of higher property taxes.
In addition to the voucher program, the expansion of charter school funding has a similar impact. This additional funding will not be used to support our existing charters, but rather to dramatically expand the number of charters. It provides funding so that small groups of parents can create new charters without any input or approval from the local school districts that will be directly impacted. Public funds will be diverted to charter schools; however charter school students can still attend public school for expensive courses, such as computer labs and physical education, not offered at the charter school. The local public school loses the revenue but keeps the cost.
It is estimated that the voucher program will cost over $70 million in the first year and the charter school expansion may add another $17 million. Those costs will be downshifted to our cities and towns, and ultimately to us as taxpayers.
Don’t be fooled by the term “school choice.” Our local communities, our neighborhood schools, and the property taxpayers — who are ultimately responsible for ensuring all of our students have access to a quality education — are being given no “choice” in this matter.