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My Turn: Voucher bill is tip of school choice iceberg



For the Monitor
Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A deeply divided House Education Committee voted, 10 to 9, Tuesday to send Senate Bill 193, the voucher bill, to the floor with an Ought to Pass recommendation, but not without much drama and amending. It was so hastily drafted and redrafted that House Education Committee Chair Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican, acknowledged that it would need to be fixed in the future.

The bill will go to the full House and the House Finance Committee in the next legislative session.

SB 193 would offer parents up to $5,100 (or even more) as an inducement to move their children out of neighborhood schools into homeschooling or private schools, including religious schools.

It is a new voucher program written by and for a national organization, the Children’s Scholarship Fund, because the New Hampshire business community did not support the 2012 voucher program by using the tax credits the program offers. The new bill doesn’t require that kind of public support. It provides for much larger vouchers and increases the pool of potential voucher recipients. The funding comes out of the General Fund and goes to the student instead of the school district. And there would be no cap on the financial impact to the state.

As big a move as this is away from public schools, the frenzied bill drafting has resulted in many anomalies. As one example among many, a provision buried in the bill would make a whole new kind of “non-school school” viable. The BigFish Learning Community, in Dover, is one of these. BigFish is not actually a school but homeschoolers could use a voucher of as much as $5,181 per year to pay part of the $9,000 tuition.

Most Democrats are opposed to SB 193 and some Republicans are either opposed or have real concerns. The bill provides no workable way to assure that the state is meeting its constitutional obligation to provide those children an adequate education.

SB 193 is the most visible proposal, but it is just the tip of the school choice iceberg.

Replacing neighborhood schools with private and home schools has long been a theme of public school debate. Critics have asserted that our teachers, academic standards, test scores, remediation rates and overall policy direction are all bad. But the fact that our governor and education commissioner now say that too has given the debate new force.

The vision emerging at the Department of Education and in the Legislature is a bigger change than it might appear at first. The basic proposition is that we should replace our system of neighborhood schools with a marketplace of private choice in which each family makes its own decisions about its own children, funded by state and local tax revenue.

Our district schools would become just one of the choices in a new education system under which parents would essentially create their own individual school systems a la carte from any vendor – an online software company, a voucher-funded private school or home school, a charter school or a traditional district school.

This notion of the future surfaces all through the discussion of our schools. You see it in local school boards and in a new level of contentiousness at the State Board of Education. You get unexpected proposals from the New Hampshire Department of Education. Just the other day the department posted a position announcement for a new, legislatively authorized “Charter School Program Officer” but turned it into a school choice lobbyist. This will probably get rolled back but demonstrates the department’s priorities.

But the most ambitious proposals are coming from the Legislature. There are some 14 school choice bills pending for the 2018 legislative session.

Probably the most damaging will be House Education Chair Rick Ladd’s proposal to reopen the manifest educational hardship statute governing the process for reassigning a student to another school if the family feels that continued attendance at the current school presents a hardship for the student. The bill text is not yet available but will surely include wide-ranging school choice options such as the Department of Education has proposed to the state board in recent months (unsuccessfully).

We can anticipate proposals that would obligate a school board to reassign to another school, including a private school, most any student whose parents ask for a reassignment. And, since the sending school district must pay the full tuition negotiated with the receiving school, funding would come primarily from local property tax revenue, making a revised manifest educational hardship statute a backdoor to universal school choice. The result would be fiscal and school management chaos.

The new vision is nothing less than a radical overhaul of New Hampshire public education. Advancing New Hampshire Public Education (ANHPE.org) will provide all the background distilled it down to where everyone – parents, school board members, educators and students – can get into the discussion.

(Bill Duncan of New Castle is a member of the New Hampshire State Board of Education.)