Ken Gorrell - Free to choose, Laconia Daily Sun, Nashua Telegraph 3/15/12

posted Mar 19, 2012, 6:09 AM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Mar 19, 2012, 7:13 AM ]

Ken Gorrell - Free to choose
Mar 15, 2012 12:00 am

Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, a life-long advocate for individual choice in a free economy, believed that for education, “spending will be most effective if it relies on parental choice and private initiative — the building blocks of success throughout our society.” I suspect Dr. Friedman would have advocated for New Hampshire’s school choice bill (HB-1607).

Who could be against having choices and rewarding initiative? Dr. Friedman identified such people: “A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it…gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want.” In the “Live Free or Die” state there are some people who think they know what parents ought to want for their children, and are willing to play loose with the facts to limit parents from exercising choice and initiative.

Professionals with reputations at stake and ideologies to defend use studies and statistics to defend the status quo. But many parents know from experience that the status quo does not serve their child’s best interests. Even with dedicated teachers and administrators, our public school system can’t help but be one-size-fits-all. We demand choice in every other part of our lives; why should we accept a system that holds so many middle- and lower-income parents captive? We should recognize that no single system could possibly serve the interests of all students, and look for alternatives that give parents choices focused on their needs, not the needs of a particular system.

HB-1607 offers hope to parents by helping them pay for the right educational opportunities for their children through private scholarship organizations — private money applied to advance our shared public goal of educating the next generation. The irony for the opposition to consider is that enacting this bill would result in more money flowing into education, as parents use their privately-funded scholarships and their own money to educate their children.

The school choice bill does not offer dramatic change. Fewer than 1.2-percent of our students could use scholarship money to pursue other opportunities. This would not devastate the public system, which last year lost nearly 1.6-percent of its students through normal attrition. The money involved is dwarfed by our public education expenditures: Scholarships would make up less than 0.25-percent of total spending.

This bill is revenue-positive for the state, since the average scholarship level is set at $2,500 and the average amount the state sends to local districts is $4,100 per student. Local districts set their own budgets, which are not directly based on, or minutely-sensitive to, per-pupil costs (district budgets may increase even when student population declines). The loss of state aid caused by a child using scholarship money to leave the district would have little effect on local budgets. In fact, if a district lost students as a result of the bill but kept its budget constant, spending would increase on a per-pupil basis. Opponents like to obscure this fact.

Importantly, the bill does not send us into uncharted territory. We need not rely on faith or the promises of advocates; we can look at the real experiences of other states. Ten states offer similar programs, including Florida, Pennsylvania, and Utah. Not only have these programs been successful for the students who took advantage of them, resulting in higher test scores and high parental satisfaction, the positive results of competition were felt by the public schools they left, where student scores were reported to have improved as well. Dr. Friedman would understand.

So why is a revenue-positive proposal that offers greater parental choice and more private money for education considered controversial? Because it would take some decision making away from an entrenched bureaucracy that consistently puts one education process ahead of the people it was meant to serve. HB-1607 offers more parents the chance of finding a learning program that fits their child. It’s too bad that members of a “particular group” insist on imposing their will, telling parents what they “ought to want.”

The bottom line for HB-1607 is that if all New Hampshire parents are satisfied with their local schools, no scholarship money will be disbursed. The status quo will be maintained. But if some parents are not satisfied, who would deny them the ability to use private scholarship money to exercise choice and initiative in pursuit of what they believe is best for their children?

(Ken Gorrell of Northfield is a defense-industry consultant. He has served as chairman of the Winnisquam Regional School District Budget Committee.)