Our Turn: Education vouchers must not come to New Hampshire

Published: 5/4/2021 8:00:10 AM

As Granite Staters struggling with ever-rising property tax bills, you would expect your representatives in Concord to make an effort to minimize the cost of shifting state mandates onto cities and towns. However, this year, the New Hampshire Senate apparently isn’t listening to public outcry over soaring property taxes.

The Senate is poised to sneak into the budget a school voucher bill (SB 130) that will use public funds to pay tuition to private schools, a measure that will cost property taxpayers more to offset the loss of funds to public schools.

We saw this scheme three years ago when the Legislature considered SB 193. Relying on the state’s own fiscal studies and analysis, the Legislature wisely realized that school vouchers would cost New Hampshire taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in coming years.

If you believe that all New Hampshire children have a right to receive a high-quality, accountable and well-funded public education without the need to raise property taxes, then you should be dismayed by the current voucher measure.

Fiscal analysis of SB 130 indicates that about $90 million of public education money would be diverted to pay for these vouchers. The only way public schools could function would be to have a massive property tax hike. So, at a time when homeowners are already furious over ever-increasing tax hikes, they would have to stomach more.

Legislators already know this voucher program, called Education Freedom Accounts, will drain money from local school districts — that’s why they added “stabilization grants” to stem the loss. But there is no specific financial commitment for the grant. Furthermore, if they ever materialize, they would only be for the program’s first few years, leaving schools in the hole for years to come and prompting certain belt-tightening, such as cuts in music, art, languages and sports.

For those EFA students with disabilities who opt to attend public schools part time, SB 130 will require school districts to provide expensive services to students with disabilities and incur other costs, while stripping those districts of state aid tied to these students.

This measure is a handout to anyone who wants to set up a school using state funds without being required, at a minimum, to be fair or even to offer a decent education. Parents who accept a voucher agree to sign away any right to services and programs for children with disabilities and any protections from discrimination.

This means public dollars would be going to schools that could discriminate against any student based on gender, race, sexual orientation, national origin or other federally protected category. School operators could choose to accept only easy-to-educate kids. The measure fails to require any serious educational accountability or financial oversight. There would be an utter lack of public transparency or oversight on how the millions of dollars for Education Freedom Accounts are spent.

This is diametrically opposite to how public schools operate. They are held accountable, are transparent to the public and take on all students, as they should, even the ones whose needs are not simple or easy. Anyone using public dollars must be held accountable to the taxpayers.

What works is investing in public education and committing resources to making our students’ educational experience better, not diverting millions of dollars into a scheme like vouchers.

Education Freedom Accounts are a threat to our public education system and the opportunity for every child in New Hampshire to access a high-quality public education. Will EFAs become Freedom From Education Accounts?

Vouchers are not a magic elixir for student success, but rather a scheme offering false hope and a windfall for education providers who will have little to no oversight. A well-funded, accountable public education for all children is what works. This measure must not be inserted into the budget.

(Jane Bergeron-Beaulieu is the executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Special Education Administrators. Barrett Christina is the executive director of the New Hampshire Schools Boards Association. Carl Ladd is the executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association. Doug Ley is the president of AFT-New Hampshire. Megan Tuttle is the president of NEA-New Hampshire.)

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