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Our Turn: Voucher bill does not serve the public good

Published: 2/16/2021 10:13:36 AM

Public outcry three years ago helped defeat a disastrous school voucher bill (Senate Bill 193). Sadly, it’s needed again, as 13 Republicans are sponsoring House Bill 20, an even more radical voucher plan that gives public taxpayer monies to any parent wishing to send their child to an elite private academy, religious school, or private or public charter, or educate their child at home.

HB 20 will have our state government using taxpayer monies to write school vouchers totaling anywhere between $3,786 to $8,458 for each child each year to any interested family, including the wealthiest.

The net effect will be devastating for our community schools that serve 89% of New Hampshire families with school-age children, including reductions in educational quality, accountability, equal opportunity, rising costs locally and at the state level, and a questionable influx of parents from out of state.

Reduced quality of learning

President Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was unable to generate any voucher interest in the U.S. Congress over the past four years for two key reasons: the public doesn’t want vouchers in their communities and research consistently shows that voucher programs don’t work.

The Center for American Progress estimates that for participating students it’s the equivalent of “missing out on more than one-third of a year of classroom learning.” Also informative is Sweden’s nearly 30-year unsuccessful experiment with school vouchers.

Even Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and longstanding proponent of school choice, has capitulated on vouchers: “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.”

And this crazy plan is being hatched despite the fact that New Hampshire’s school system has been ranked among the very finest in the country for decades. U.S. News & World Reportrecently ranked New Hampshire third best among all 50 states for pre-K to 12 education based on “enrollment in pre-K, standardized test scores, and the public high school graduation rate.”

New Hampshire legislators should focus on reform plans that help improve our state’s already high performing public schools, not create a new program like HB 20 that directs public monies toward a small fraction of the state’s students using a voucher model that research has discredited.

Until Gov. Sununu took office in early 2017, the N.H. Department of Education had been scaling up its nationally acclaimed reform program called “PACE.” Education First and other national organizations were raving about PACE: “Many state policymakers from around the country are already looking to the Granite State for lessons about what to import into their own proposals for accountability innovations.”

Instead, the Governor’s Education Commissioner, Frank Edelblut, pushed through his controversial state-run “Learn Everywhere” program while shelving PACE, a reform plan that was serving the state’s public schools.

Finally, the Republican legislature in 2012 already granted parents unprecedented power over their child’s public education. As reported by ABC News, no state in the nation allows parents to customize their child’s public education more than New Hampshire, leading one to wonder if HB 20 is really a giant first step by Republicans to privatize K-12 schooling in the Granite State under the cover of a pandemic.

Cost

In a threadbare state like New Hampshire with no income or sales tax, we cannot afford to waste precious public monies. Three years ago, the less radical SB 193 voucher plan was estimated to cost an additional $2.6 million in state expenses and incur a loss of $5.8 million in state aid by Reaching Higher NH.

Reaching Higher NH estimates the more radical HB 20 voucher plan will cost “$50.9 million in new state spending in the program’s first year alone . . . if 50% of the 22,103 students who are currently enrolled in private school or are homeschooling, registered for a voucher under HB 20.” Remarkably, even Granite State Home Educators is leery of HB 20.

And HB 20 is being promoted right after the massive expansion last summer of the Education Tax Credit Program that already diverts state public dollars to a voucher/tuition scholarship program for kids attending private schools or receiving home schooling.

Also alarming is the recent finding that “an estimated $1 billion of federal taxpayer money lost to waste and fraud in charter school administration,” with Concord’s Capital City Charter School closing due to unexplained accounting practices.

Equal opportunity and fairness

U.S. News & World Report in 2019 ranked New Hampshire third in pre-K to 12 education among the nation’s 50 states, and ranked the Granite State No. 1 in personal “opportunity, where upward mobility is as much a birthright as basic freedoms.”

Why would legislators vote for HB 20 and blow up an educational system that ranks third in the nation, especially given this same education system is responsible, in good part, for the states No. 1 ranking in citizen “opportunity”?

It’s important to know that HB 20 is part of a much broader conservative libertarian ideology that believes “government schools” (as the naysayers call them) should be replaced by a marketplace of private schools that compete for consumer-parent preferences. This is due to a longstanding economic faith in “spontaneous order”, a quasi-religious theory that assumes competition (and the profit motive) always creates (through “the invisible hand”) better forms of social organization than anything created by decades of conscious, deliberate human effort – including that of elected school board members, the public, hired school leaders, and teachers to design education programming for all students in the community. Instead, HB 20 wants to wave the magic voucher wand and see what happens.

The rise of QAnon has revealed how easily Americans can be duped into believing crazy ideologies thanks to the raging firestorm of misinformation on social media. School privatization programs like HB 20 remove community input in the education of future citizens and indirectly promote unfounded and dangerous parental beliefs and ideologies using public tax dollars.

HB 20 will bring to our state cultists and other fringe-view groups on the right and far left because, unlike their state of origin, New Hampshire will give these parents thousands of dollars for each child whom they’d educate at home anyway. Why? Because they don’t dare use public or private schools where their kids will be exposed to mainstream culture that challenges the nonsense they’re pedaling.

Democracies cannot survive if they do not create public citizens, and this includes learning about science-based understandings of the world, how rare democracies are historically and what is needed to preserve them, and that tolerance is needed if everyone is to enjoy our remarkable democratic freedoms. Without this foundation, America’s exceptional creativity and progress in so many areas will end. Vouchers are regressive, not progressive, and will stifle ingenuity and further inflame today’s unhealthy tribal divide.

In terms of growing our state’s economy, what science and tech-driven companies will come to New Hampshire knowing their employees will have to navigate a voucher landscape involving lengthy commutes for their children or sending them to local public schools that have been gutted by HB 20?

Given the above arguments and the fact that nearly nine out of 10 New Hampshire children attend public schools, HB 20 does not serve the public good – educationally or economically – and should be rejected.

(Joe Onosko and Elaine Marhefka are members of the UNH Education Department. The views expressed are their own and do not represent the department or university.)




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