Opinion: Say no to expanding the school voucher program

By MARY WILKE

Published: 02-05-2023 7:00 AM

Mary Wilke of Concord is a retired public school teacher.

In its first 18 months of operation, New Hampshire’s school voucher program has spent $22.8 million, which is $19.4 million more than was budgeted. To date, there has been no independent assessment of this publicly funded program, its impact on students, or how it is being administered.

Yet surprisingly, some New Hampshire legislators are pushing bills that would significantly expand it by loosening its eligibility requirements.

Many questions need to be answered before even continuing, much less expanding, this program. First and foremost: Are the students using vouchers (also known as “Education Freedom Accounts”) actually being well served? Are they making adequate academic progress? What data do we have to assess this?

Another critical question is whether the money spent on vouchers has been used appropriately. On average, eligible families can access about $4,800 per child each year to help pay for private school tuition or for education-related expenses of homeschooling. A private scholarship organization, Children’s Scholarship Fund, is paid to decide whether parents’ requests for reimbursement are within the law’s guidelines and to distribute the money accordingly.

Before expanding the program, shouldn’t someone review whether it’s making these judgments correctly? Especially since every time the organization approves a parental request, it gets to keep 10% of the approved amount?

As of last June, about $800,000 of public funds had been spent by parents on purchases from Amazon. More than $85,000 went to Staples, $40,000 to Best Buy and $27,000 to Apple. Are effective procedures in place to prevent misuse by parents who could, for instance, buy high-end computers primarily for their own use, rather than for their children’s education?

Taxpayer dollars have been sent to organizations that most parents pay without public subsidies, Girl Scouts, gymnastics centers, music and dance schools, ski areas, soccer teams, and the like. Various amounts have also been paid to Costco, Lands End, Macy’s, Gap, and Old Navy. Maybe these are legitimate educational or therapeutic expenses allowable under the law, but shouldn’t someone besides the scholarship organization be double-checking?

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Although a financial audit of the scholarship organization has been conducted, it doesn’t allay the concerns set forth above. It focused on the accuracy of the organization’s financial statements, and there’s no indication that anyone evaluated how the scholarship organization decides which expenses are appropriate or other performance issues.

You might think that a private organization doling out tens of millions of public dollars would have a watchdog, but in this case, you’d be wrong. The lack of meaningful oversight was one of many reasons concerned citizens objected to this program in the first place.

Sponsors of the bill creating the voucher program supposedly dealt with the watchdog issue by creating a “Legislative Oversight Committee” to monitor it. But its only enforcement power is to suggest changes to the law if it sees anything amiss. Moreover, the committee hasn’t met since last March, and it failed to produce the report the law required it to file with the legislature by last November.

In 2022, lawmakers authorized the non-partisan Legislative Budget Assistant to perform an independent audit of the program, but that audit won’t begin until November 2023 at the earliest, and its scope has not yet been determined.

In short, 18 months in, the voucher program is woefully over budget. We have no verifiable data to show its impact on student performance. And we don’t know, via any independent source, whether or not our public dollars have been used appropriately and protected adequately against intentional or negligent misuse.

Until we have this information, it is irresponsible to even continue admitting new students to the program, much less to think about expanding it. Please ask your state representatives to vote against any bill that would expand the voucher program.

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