State boost in scholarship funds to private and religious schools draws Democratic criticism

Monitor staff
Published: 8/4/2020 3:55:20 PM

When Gov. Chris Sununu announced a $1.5 million boost to New Hampshire’s education scholarship organizations last week, he championed it as a win for families – and a means to help students of color.

The money, which came from New Hampshire’s $1.2 billion allotment of federal aid money will help create 800 new scholarships for families to use toward secondary education at religious and private schools. A significant proportion of that – 22% – has gone to Black students and students of color in recent years, Sununu said.

“We know that the dollars are going to help remedy this disparity,” he said. “These hardworking families deserve our help, so that their children can remain on a positive educational trajectory. And I think we can all agree this is a key step in ensuring the best health and education opportunities for all the people in New Hampshire.”

But Democrats are objecting to the move, arguing that it benefits private schools at the expense of public schools transitioning in a pandemic.

Now, the funds have become the latest front in a long-running battle of the role of New Hampshire’s public and private schools.

An analysis by Reaching Higher NH, a Concord think tank, found that the pandemic assistance given to the scholarship funds amounted to around $1,875 per student recipient, compared to an average of $213 per student in federal aid that public schools have received.

In a pair of statements, the Democratic chairpeople of the House and Senate finance committees criticized the assistance, arguing that public schools are more in need.

“Instead of ensuring that our public traditional and charter schools have the resources necessary to provide safe learning environments for all students, the governor is diverting taxpayer dollars to benefit private and religious schools,” said Concord Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, who chairs the House Finance Committee.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, the Manchester chair of the Senate Finance Committee, agreed, calling on the governor to “repeal the grant and reallocate those critical funds.”

D’Allesandro pointed to another area of the Reaching Higher NH report suggesting that $1.7 million in scholarship money that was raised last year was not spent – a claim that recipients of the funds have disputed.

“What’s further discouraging is that Gov. Sununu just allocated $1.5 million in taxpayer dollars to a fund where over 60% of the money was not even used for student scholarships,” D’Allesandro said.

In a statement Tuesday, Sununu’s office stood by the funding move, adding that it came after a letter sent by Deo Mwano, an education consultant and former refugee from the Democratic Republican of the Congo. That letter encouraged Sununu to take action to address racial disparities exposed and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic – including in education.

Approving the scholarships achieves that, Sununu’s office said.

“Twenty-two percent of those currently receiving support from New Hampshire’s scholarship organizations are of racial and ethnic minority populations – a figure more than double the statewide demographic,” said Jayne Millerick, the governor’s chief of staff. “These funds will play a critical role in furthering equitable socioeconomic outcomes and ensuring that children across the Granite State remain on a positive educational trajectory.”

To Drew Cline, the chairman of the state Board of Education, the balance of funding is not disproportionate. Those scholarship funds allow students access to better fits beyond their neighborhood school, Cline said, something of particular importance during the uncertainty around remote learning.

“There’s evidence that remote instruction didn’t serve all low-income students well, and these scholarships give those families an opportunity to find an alternative that will work for them,” Cline said in an interview Tuesday.

And Kate Baker, executive director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund in New Hampshire – the main recipient of the federal funds – pushed back at the conclusion by Reaching Higher NH around unspent scholarships. The scholarship organizations operate on a delayed distribution schedule, Baker said; the $1.7 million was raised last year to pay for scholarships this year.

“The funds for any scholarship organization, especially one that low-income children rely on year after year, must be raised in advance of making the scholarship awards,” Baker said. “CSF New Hampshire has already committed more than $1 million in scholarships for this fall.”

The disagreement follows the fault lines of the familiar “school choice” debate that New Hampshire has grappled with for decades. Some, like Cline and Sununu, say that public schools have limitations and that families deserve a diverse choice. Others, like State House Democrats and teachers unions, have countered that the public schools are underfunded and need higher investment to excel.

“Public schools are in a very difficult position,” Cline said. “They are trying to implement a one-size-fits-all system in the best of times. And in these times, I think we’re really seeing the weakness of delivering education that way.”

To Wallner, though, the state has not prioritized public schools enough, many of whom say they still have infrastructure issues around ventilation systems and staffing problems with substitute teachers and bus drivers.

“Governor Sununu claims that through the CARES Act, public schools have already received enough funding to transition to COVID learning environments,” Wallner said. “But school districts, teachers, and superintendents disagree.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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