GOP threatens N.H. schools, Portsmouth Herald, 12/11/11

posted Dec 11, 2011, 6:41 PM by Bill Duncan

December 11, 2011 2:00 AM

New Hampshire's Republican legislative leadership has a vision for educating our school children. It's a private, market-based replacement for public schools. It features home schools and little accountability for results. And it's paid for with our tax money! They won't achieve that, but they're trying, and could do serious damage to New Hampshire public education in the process.

In the next session, for instance, they will try again to nullify the Claremont decision, destroy the Department of Education, and deregulate home schooling. And they will propose an "education tax credit" to fund private schools.

The education tax credit bills should be alarming to parents who depend on our public schools. There are two similar bills sponsored by an all-star array of Senate and House Republican leadership. They are in draft form, but Sen. James Forsythe, R-Strafford, was kind enough to send me his. It could change, but here is what it does so far.

It provides $15 million in tax credits to New Hampshire businesses that fund scholarships for students who leave public schools for private, religious and home schools. The scholarships are not targeted to low-income families. There is no requirement that the private schools perform well in educating their students.

This is a huge program that, as written, could grow dramatically, from funding more than 7,000 students in the first year to 17,000 in the fifth year, when it could cost the state $36 million a year.

Supporters will assert that the state would get this money back in state aid (about $3,500 per student) not paid to the school districts for children who have left for private schools. That would require big changes in current law, however. And, in any case, many students switch each year anyway, without the expenditure of millions in public money. It would be impossible to identify the "savings" attributable to the tax credit program.

You will also hear supporters earnestly advance the fiction that it is really private money going to schools. Don't believe it. The tax credit is just a legal maneuver to overcome court challenges. These millions are coming straight out of our pockets. This is a voucher program, pure and simple, funding private, religious and home schools with public money that otherwise could have gone to our public schools.

So, why do this? Why spend state money enticing students out of the public system? The bill itself says —¦competition is critical to improving the quality of education in the state...;" The purpose, it says, is to educate children —¦without governmental control...;" and to "Enable children in this state to achieve a higher level of excellence...;" and "Improve the quality of education in this state...;"

To justify funding private schools for this purpose, the Republican leadership has begun telling us that New Hampshire has lousy public schools.

House Deputy Speaker Pam Tucker, R-Greenland, is a sponsor of one of the bills. She said in the Dec. 4 Seacoast Sunday that our schools are bad because too many of our children are performing below grade level. She used precisely the same erroneous numbers that the House Education Committee chairman, Rep. Michael Balboni, R-Nashua, used to trash our schools in the Nashua Telegraph (Nov. 20).

They offer the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test results as support for their assertions. But a simple check of the New Hampshire Department of Education Web site shows that they are wrong.

NAEP does not provide assessments of "grade level" achievement, but rates proficiency levels, from "Basic" to "Proficient" and "Advanced." It tests a small sample of children (about 3,000 for each test, out of 200,000 students in New Hampshire) in the middle of the school year, when grade-level results could not be tested anyway. Its purpose is to compare state-level performance over time, not to measure student grade-level achievement.

And our NAEP results are great! Along with Massachusetts, New Hampshire's fourth-graders have the highest math performance in the country. We have the highest proportion of "Proficient" and "Advanced" students in the country. And 92 percent of our students achieve "Basic" or better. Our eighth-graders were third in the country. We get similar great results in all our tests and even compare well on a world-wide basis.

So we have a school system to be proud of. The Legislature should protect and improve it, not denigrate and defund it. A good place to start would be for our legislative leadership to stop gratuitously trashing our schools.

Our education system may be too precious to entrust to this Legislature. The rest of us need to stand guard over it.

Bill Duncan is a former member of the Portsmouth Herald editorial board and lives in New Castle.