SB 193 an unjustified attack on N.H. public schools
SB 193 is an education voucher program that received much criticism during the 2017 legislative session, and rightly so. As originally written, it allocated potentially enormous sums of public taxpayer money (from $3,600 to $7,500 per student) for parents to send their children to elite private schools and religious schools, and to fund the efforts of home-school parents, some of whom are zealous, religious fundamentalists.
And the financial burden of SB 193 would have been absorbed by the state’s excellent K-12 public school system that educates nearly 90 percent of New Hampshire children.
By early November, the bill’s sponsors realized revisions were needed to gain passage by the House Education Committee. As a result, restrictions were added to the “educational savings account” or ESA voucher plan; that is, it would apply to “low income” families (e.g., a family of four making less than $73,600 per year), students with a special education plan and students unable to enroll in a charter school or access monies from the state’s scholarship tax-credit program.
Even with the revisions, SB 193 passed by the narrowest of margins in the Education Committee (10-9), and will now be voted on by the full House today.
I’d like to offer six reasons why SB 193 barely skidded across the committee finish line and why it is so important for parents and citizens committed to community-owned and operated public schools to speak out immediately and loudly.
First, voucher programs do not work. Study after study, whether conducted by a conservative- or liberal-affiliated organization, arrives at this conclusion. Even the conservative Fordham Institute, a strong ideological proponent of school choice, acknowledged this finding from their own recent study; “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools” (goo.gl/ZNe8RV).
In a threadbare state like New Hampshire, with no income or sales tax and so many other issues to address (including being “ground zero” for our nation’s opioid epidemic), we cannot waste any of our precious public monies on a voucher plan that has consistently failed to demonstrate better achievement outcomes relative to public schools. Beyond the wasted money, it is unethical to send our state’s children down an educational path that lacks research support. Also note that SB 193 funds a new private agency to administer the program by using 5 percent of the bill’s allocated funds and, again, at a time when the state has so many other more pressing issues to address.
Second, New Hampshire’s public school system for decades has been ranked among the very finest in the country. The most reliable method to compare the 50 states is to use results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that is administered in reading, mathematics and science in grades four, eight and 12. The 2015 NAEP results again find the Granite State scoring first, second or third in all grades and all subject areas (check out our performance here: goo.gl/6HkiAa). And a recent report by U.S. News & World Report ranked New Hampshire to be “the best state for pre-K to 12” in the nation (goo.gl/yhjNFq).
Given these findings, New Hampshire legislators should be experimenting with reform plans that attempt to improve our state’s already high performing education system, not creating new programs that hollow out the system and direct monies toward private schools that serve a fraction of the state’s students.
Third, the New Hampshire Constitution clearly states that citizens cannot be forced to support religious schooling, whether in a family home or at a religiously affiliated institution. SB 193 fails to abide by this requirement in our state’s foundational document.
Fourth, we still don’t know how much the program might cost state taxpayers – see Reaching Higher NH’s latest analysis about potential costs: goo.gl/KC6xPD.
Fifth, the 2012 state Legislature already passed a law that gives public-school parents unparalleled rights to direct their child’s education, as reported by ABC News (goo.gl/QYjf1G). In short, no state in the nation allows parents to customize their child’s public education more than New Hampshire, leading one to conclude that SB 193 is really about directing public monies to private schools.
Finally, SB 193 is part of a broader conservative ideology that believes “government schools” (as the naysayers call them) should be replaced by a marketplace of private schools that compete for the vouchers of consumers (i.e., parents). It is based on a quasi-religious article of economic faith known as “spontaneous order” which assumes that competition (and the profit motive) will create better schools than those run by communities and their hired educational leaders. In the 60 years or so since economist Milton Friedman offered up his education voucher plan, we’ve yet to see supporting evidence.
Looked at in the broadest of terms, school voucher programs reduce equality of educational opportunity, undermine our nation’s meritocratic system and make a sham of the American Dream.
Given the above arguments and the fact that nine out of 10 New Hampshire children attend public schools, SB 193 does not serve the public good and should be rejected by the House.
Joe Onosko is a member of the Education Department at UNH.