My Turn: SB 193 abuses the meaning of choice

For the Monitor
Tuesday, November 14, 2017

I have for decades worked diligently for school reform, for opening up the public school system to innovation and personalization of learning for students with diverse needs and interests. As a professor of education at Northeastern University, I supported the creation in Boston of “pilot schools,” which are charter schools created within the public school system, where teachers and parents are free to change the structure and the curriculum in ways that benefit students.

“Choice” is an important concept in children’s learning. Kids need to make choices about how they can best respond to the learning goals set for them. Teachers need to make choices about how best to nurture learning for diverse children. And parents need to make choices when deciding what kind of environment they feel their children can learn best in.

Senate Bill 193, the “voucher bill,” currently before the New Hampshire Legislature, abuses the meaning of “choice.” It requires the public to pay the cost whenever parents choose to transfer their children from their public schools to private schools, including religious schools, or to home school them.

Promoting “choice” through vouchers is destructive, since it undermines our current system and increases the already heavy burden on local property-tax payers. For every child who transfers from a public school to a private or religious school, the local public school loses $3,500 and must make up that money by raising local property taxes. Thus this bill would promote “choice” for parents by negatively impacting every child who remains in the public schools. You can’t remove 1/200th of an art teacher or a soccer coach or a program to help girls gain confidence in math and science.

SB 193 also hopes to skirt constitutional concerns about funding religious schools by moving public monies to a scholarship center that then “awards” scholarships to parents that may be used to send children to religious schools. This laundering scheme is of doubtful legality and, what’s more, will be the largest source of money transfers away from public schools because it is the religious schools that have the lowest tuitions. This scheme will most quickly contribute to the rise of property taxes and the downfall of our public schools.

When only a few children take advantage of vouchers, the structure of costs in a school does not change. The only change is that the local community must increase taxes to replace the stipends paid to the voucher students. If 5 percent of our students around the state transfer using vouchers, the local property taxes will go up by $31.5 million. If 2 percent transfer, then the cost will be $12.6 million to the local property taxpayer.

New Hampshire public schools are already seriously under-funded due to our disproportionate reliance on local property taxes that leave many of the children from lower-income families at a distinct and unfair disadvantage. This bill would only exacerbate what is already a morally inadequate funding system.

Imagine if this concept spread to other aspects of community life – if residents in high-end gated developments opted to remove their tax dollars from their town’s first responders to fund their own security forces. If the proponents of SB 193 truly want to support educational experimentation and parental choice, they might provide supplemental funding to support a parent’s decision to seek a different education for their children.

A half-century ago, there were three places that brought diverse Americans into meaningful contact with one another: our downtown shopping areas, our military draft and our public schools. Now, for most of us, there is only our public schools. We lose them, we cut the sinews that attach us to people outside our social class or religious affiliation.

Isn’t there already far too much inequality in our society? Aren’t we seeing far too much polarization and tribalism in America and the world? Why would we add to this crisis by further weakening our public schools?

(Robert L. Fried is a retired educator, a former director of Upper Valley Educators Institute, and the author of “The Passionate Teacher” and “The Game of School: Why We All Play It; How it Hurts Kids; and What it Will Take to Change It.” He can be reached by email at rob.fried@gmail.com.)