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Mary Wilke: Voucher bill doesn’t help all children



For the Monitor
Saturday, March 17, 2018

If you had $1 million and could use it to either improve your local public school for the benefit of all of its students or pay for a handful of students to attend private school, what would you do? The current school choice debate really boils down to that question.

We all want what’s best for the children in our communities, including access to high-quality education. The Education Savings Account program envisioned under Senate Bill 193 (sometimes called the “school voucher” bill) reflects its supporters’ concern that some students are not being well served in their public schools and should have the opportunity to transfer to a private school or be home schooled.

Under the bill, public funds would go into education savings accounts that parents could use to help pay their children’s private educational expenses. Students from low-income families would be eligible, as would students of any income level who attend certain to-be-identified underperforming schools. The bill limits how many students could leave a district each year, based on the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Debate over this bill has been robust, and new amendments have been proposed as recently as a few days ago. One of the main sticking points has been how to fund the program.

Recent amendments shift almost the entire financial burden to local school districts, most of which are already strapped for funds. According to House Finance Committee staff, over the first 11 years, $100 million would be taken from local districts and used to fund private school tuition or home-schooling expenses for about 2,000 students. In other words, the vast majority of students would not benefit from this bill but would attend schools that were losing money because of it.

Students at underperforming schools – the very students legislators singled out for help – would suffer the most. Consider a school with 1,000 students, 500 of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. In the first year, the bill would allow 15 students of any income level to take an ESA, which would cost the district $59,000 after a one-time state reimbursement of $1,500 per student. And while the school might save a little money on pencils and paper, most costs are fixed (heat, maintenance, principal’s salary, nurse’s salary, etc.).

The upshot would be that while school choice was provided to 15 students, 985 students would remain in an underperforming school whose already insufficient resources had been reduced. If the maximum number of students got ESA grants each year, in five years the district would have lost more than $1 million to pay for 71 students to go elsewhere. Meanwhile, 929 students would remain in a school that had gone from bad to worse.

What about the overwhelming majority of New Hampshire schools that are not underperforming but are providing a consistently high-quality education? In those schools, only students from low-income families would be eligible for the program and, again, caps would limit the number of takers.

In Concord, 47 students could get ESAs in the first year, costing Concord $185,000. Concord’s school board is already proposing a reduction in teaching staff, which will cause some classroom sizes to increase. A $185,000 loss could require even more reductions.

Some legislators argue that if your schools are good, you have nothing to worry about. But school districts have good reason to worry. Parents move their children to private school for all sorts of reasons, most having nothing to do with quality of instruction. Some prefer that their child attend a smaller or larger school, or want their child to be on a certain sports team, or find it convenient to have their child in a school near the parent’s workplace. But most parents take public funds for private school because they want their child to have a religious education. More than 80 percent of private school students using funds offered through the existing Education Tax Credit scholarship program are using the funds to attend religious schools.

New Hampshire’s public schools rank near the top in the country. This reflects our communities’ collective decisions to invest in free public education for all. But we can’t maintain this high quality and also fund individual parental preferences.

SB 193, as currently written, falls short of its goal of helping all children access quality education. Rather than giving school choice to a small minority of students at the expense of all the rest, we should use our resources to help underperforming schools improve so that all of their students benefit. Rather than diverting local tax dollars to a few families who, for a variety of reasons, choose to leave the public education system, we should use those funds to help our public schools continue to find ways to meet the individual needs of every one of their students.

(Mary Wilke, a retired educator, lives in Concord.)