'Choice' bill raises questions galore, Concord Monitor, My Turn, 5/5/12

posted May 6, 2012, 3:03 AM by Bill Duncan
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Published on Concord Monitor (http://www.concordmonitor.com)

Which families benefit? Who makes up the cost?
May 5, 2012

Reps. D.J. Bettencourt and Greg Hill make a plausible-sounding case for a bad idea: HB 1607, which would set up scholarships for schooling children in non-public venues ("Good for students, parents," Monitor Forum, April 25). Unfortunately, that plausibility stems from what the authors don't say.

According to the New Hampshire Business Review, the average New Hampshire student cost existing public schools about $11,000 in 2009. What can some alternative venue make available at $2,500 that a public school can't manage out of $11,000?

Bettencourt and Hill claim that HB 1607 grants families more choice. More choice of what? For which families? While Bettencourt and Hill wax fervent about individual learning styles, let's recall that kids with special educational needs are already entitled to individualized education plans, tailored to their personal needs. Granted, this requires time and sometimes strenuous effort; however, few nonpublic schools accept children with needs of this nature. Those which do cost upward of 10 times the scholarships HB 1607 would make available. School districts, not parents, typically shoulder these costs. Shouldn't we award these scholarships to school districts, not parents?

Children who don't fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have been able to request "move on when ready" programs for decades. I was sent from third to sixth grade for reading in elementary school in the 1950s; 20 years ago, my daughter took ninth-grade English during seventh or eighth grade at Rundlett Junior High in Concord. Let's help families make use of existing resources before developing alternatives.

Bettencourt and Hill claim this bill would help "disadvantaged" children. How? Have the representatives prepared a list of alternative school placements available for $2,500 per pupil per year? Hint: It'll be a mighty short list. This program automatically excludes less-well-off families from participating, benefiting the more-prosperous few at the expense of general fund revenue.

Will scholarships aid disadvantaged parents who home-school? Only those so "disadvantaged" that they can afford one stay-at-home parent. Single-parent families can go whistle; so can the many, many two-parent families unable to live on one of their incomes.

Under-prepared

I've taught freshman composition to many well-prepared home-schooled students. I've met other home-schooled young adults who apparently expended more effort playing videogames than absorbing any high-school curriculum. These unfortunate students are often functionally innumerate and illiterate as well as under-socialized, prepared neither for the two-year college where I teach nor for the world of work. The videogame industry requires skills far beyond those needed in Grand Theft Auto. Do we want to risk adding to our pool of under-prepared youth at state expense?

As to expense, Bettencourt and Hill claim that HB 1607 will save taxpayers $8 million over the next four years, citing the Josiah Bartlett folks, and will have no state budget impact according to the state Department of Education. How does this work, exactly? Bettencourt and Hill offer no details. I have none either, but I do have questions:

If businesses contribute to this scholarship fund instead of paying the equivalent business tax money into the state's general fund, how is this not a loss to the state's general fund? How and where will these losses be made up? If not made up, what will be cut to compensate for the loss?

Presumably, scholarship funds will have to be (A) collected; (B) administered; and (C) disbursed. In addition, there will be rules, eligibility guidelines, an application process, some means of ensuring that disbursed funds get used appropriately, and personnel to keep track of all this. Where will the money come from to do this? Out of the scholarship money itself? How much will be left to disburse? Or do Bettencourt and Hill envision some all-volunteer task force, possibly comprised of the very people interested in applying for scholarships, in a kind of fox-henhouse arrangement?

Or perhaps Bettencourt and Hill imagine that few businesses will contribute, and few families will apply, so that little money is involved. If so, do we really want to spend that money setting up rules and bureaucracy to oversee a tiny program? We keep hearing that the House wishes to shrink government, not grow it.

Pluralistic society

Finally, let's recall why we have public education in the first place. Public education became widespread in this country when waves of new immigrants from many parts of the world arrived on our shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Part of the system's original purpose was not only to ensure literacy and numeracy for survival in American society, but also to transmit basic American cultural values to all comers. Public education for all provides a common ground from which citizens can forge common civic goals and ideals. It also provides 12 years of opportunities for learning to interact civilly with others from a variety of backgrounds.

The more we slice, dice, and fragment our system of educating children - whether into religious, economic, linguistic, racial, or ability-based enclaves - the more we deepen the profound divides which splinter our population. Public school prepares its students to deal with a pluralistic society. Enclaves separate and distance us from one another.

Bettencourt and Hill apparently believe that since public education served them so well, the appropriate response now is to start hacking that system to bits. We should be asking detailed and pointed questions about how and why.

(Jane J. Hunt lives in Concord.)


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