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  • Rep. D.J. Bettencourt
  • Rep. Greg Hill
Sunday, April 22, 2012

Choice in education shouldn’t be restricted to the rich

Guest Commentary

We’ve each attended public schools for most of our lives, including undergraduate and graduate studies. We know from experience that New Hampshire public schools offer an outstanding education for most students.

But while many kids flourish in their assigned school, some students need a different educational environment. Every child learns differently, and every child holds within themselves their own particular genius.

This potential can best be realized when a child and their families have the ability to choose what school they believe will best engage, prepare and educate them for the future.

Unfortunately, other than the choice to uproot and move to a different school district, most middle-class families lack choice in education, which is a barrier preventing many children from achieving their full potential.

The School Choice Scholarship Act (HB 1607) allows businesses to make tax-deductible donations to K-12 educational scholarship programs. Such programs would offer up to $2,500 scholarships to disadvantaged and special-needs students toward the cost of out-of-district public schools, independent schools and even certain homeschooling expenses.

With these scholarships, students and families could investigate and select the educational forum that best suits their needs. The best school for a child may offer smaller class sizes, or a vocational technical program, or a “move on when ready” system for gifted students, or a particular expertise with a child’s special needs.

In addition to better serving our students, choice would empower their parents to get engaged in their children’s education. These reforms would create better accountability in education – proven to be the single, biggest factor in improving academic performance.

Scholarship programs like HB 1607 are a low-risk first stop in educational innovation. Similar programs have been tested as successes in eight other states.

Moreover, studies from Harvard, Stanford and the University of Arkansas have shown that school choice programs have positive impacts on academic performance.

Of course, it would be imprudent to pursue a new program without considering the costs. A Department of Education estimate shows HB 1607 would have little to no impact on the state budget and a financial impact of less than a half of 1 percent on local school budgets.

A study by the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy shows that allowing business-funded scholarships actually would save taxpayers $8 million over the next four years.

To be sure, certain special interests will resist any attempt to alter the status quo in education. But facilitating scholarships to disadvantaged and special-needs students should not be a partisan issue.

We are sensitive to “church-state separation” concerns should a family choose to apply a scholarship at a church-affiliated school. We don’t want taxpayer dollars supporting religious activities any more than we want churches to become dependent on government money.

That’s why scholarships under HB 1607 are entirely privately funded. Any choice to utilize scholarships at a religious institution is entirely the choice of parents. As affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, such programs give families choice without entangling the government in religious affairs. It’s a fair and sensible solution.

School choice is not an indictment on public schools nor a battle of public vs. private schooling. It’s about giving disadvantaged and special-needs students and their families the opportunity to excel in an education that fits their needs.

HB 1607 is also about looking to the future in education, a future that will look starkly different than today. We know the 21st century school must be different than the 19th and 20th century system we’re still living with. But how?

That’s the role of innovation, a process that is, by its nature, incremental, testing for successes while leaving behind what proves ineffective. Choices in education will kick-start that innovative process.

All journeys must begin with a single step. Let’s take that step with scholarship tax credits.

Rep. D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, is the majority leader of the New Hampshire House of Representatives and the prime sponsor of HB 1607. Rep. Greg Hill, R-Northfield, is a co-sponsor of the bill.