Opinion: School vouchers are bad for our democracy

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By JEFF FRENKIEWICH

Published: 02-23-2024 6:30 AM

Jeff Frenkiewich teaches U.S. history and government at Milford Middle School. He is an adjunct professor of education at the University of New Hampshire. The views expressed here represent those of the author, not Milford School District or UNH.

On Feb. 8, the New Hampshire House advanced HB 1665, a bill that would raise the income threshold for families receiving education vouchers from 350% of the poverty level to 500% of the poverty level. Advocates for school vouchers argue that diverting public funds to individual families creates “the best form of accountability,” and they argue that vouchers provide a means for marginalized children to receive an education that best fits their needs. When speaking about the bill, Republican State Representative Glenn Cordelli stated, “We are going to support all New Hampshire kids getting the best education.”

This bill, its 2021 predecessor, and the recent Superior Court ruling that found New Hampshire’s legislature has failed its Constitutional obligation to provide “base adequacy” in education should prompt all citizens in our state to question how our elected officials define “the best education,” what should be included in an “adequate education,” and in this context, how do school vouchers support these goals?

We often look at students’ academic achievement when judging an education policy’s value. In this regard, the ineffectiveness of vouchers in supporting the goal of “base adequacy” is clear. In a 2018 study, the Center for American Progress estimated that students receiving vouchers miss out on the equivalent of “more than one-third of a year of classroom learning.” The conservative Fordham Institute found, “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.” Studies conducted in Washington, D.C., Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio have all found that school vouchers hurt student achievement. In short, voucher laws in other states have not improved academic outcomes for students, and we would be foolish to expect a different result here in New Hampshire. A policy that hurts students’ academic achievement certainly does not provide “the best education.”

While students’ academic achievement is important, we should also look at how school vouchers affect our communities at large. Here, we should consider the role our public schools play in building our communities and preparing our children for citizenship in our republic. Great Americans throughout our history, from founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, to 19th century reformer Horace Mann, to 20th century philosopher John Dewey, have articulated the vital role public schools play in supporting our democracy. They recognized the divisions that threaten to tear our nation apart and they promoted a system of common school education that acts as a vehicle for building community, bringing together diverse voices, building common values, and allowing children to learn the civil discourse skills necessary for citizenship in our democracy.

School vouchers, in contrast, promote a segregated society — allowing parents to isolate their children away from more diverse communities, and leaving our children less practiced in the citizenship skills mentioned above. In fact, the first school vouchers in America, so-called “freedom of choice plans” were handed out in the years following the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. States like Virginia and Alabama enacted voucher schemes so that white families could pull their children out of desegregated schools. I am not saying New Hampshire’s current law is designed with the same intention, and I do not mean to imply that, but this law is no less dangerous when it comes to dividing our society and leaving our children without the common school experience our founders desired.

Without a doubt, New Hampshire’s public schools have failed many students, but the values that serve as the foundation for our public school system are sound. Instead of looking to dissect and defund the institution that serves as the backbone of our democracy, we should be looking to make our schools better so they can serve the needs of all students.

The challenge of meeting the needs of all students is not met with plans that segregate society, and siphon $24 million away from public schools. The challenge of providing “the best education” to all students is not met with plans that lack accountability and strip local communities of the power to decide the school curriculum and control how education funds are spent. Rather, these problems are met with policy that identifies inequalities in the system and devises solutions that satisfy all members of our communities through democratic means. New Hampshire’s “education freedom accounts” fail to provide our children with “the best education,” they don’t even provide an adequate education, and they are downright bad for our democracy.

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