N.H. Republicans want to improve public education, Rep. Will Smith, Portsmouth Herald, 2/5/12

posted Feb 6, 2012, 12:43 AM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Feb 7, 2012, 3:17 AM ]
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DNHPE Comment: Rep. Smith's letter is below, annotated.  Go here for the unadulterated original.

N.H. Republicans want to improve public education

By State Rep. Will Smith
February 05, 2012 2:00 AM

A campaign appears under way to portray the Republican Legislature as "attacking public schools," and it needs some response.

There is certainly a frustration among those of us who care deeply about the education of our children, who will need to compete successfully in the global economy. Massive increases in spending on our public schools have been under way over the past several decades without noticeable improvement in education levels. [This is the drum beat of the anti-public education advocates, but it is not true on either countDespite our spending level per pupil being near the top internationally, American students' competency scores, once among the best compared to other developed countries, have been falling, and now rate around average.

Of 34 developed countries, we are 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. Most interestingly, China-Shanghai is now reporting its results to the same tests and has come out first among all countries. At the same time, U.S. businesses report our graduates require training in the basics in order to contribute effectively at work. [He's right. We need to do better.  However, the high performing countries, from China-Shanghai to Singapore and South Korea, are highly centralized and selective education systems.  The solution proposed here is the opposite - disband the organized public education system and fund unaccountable private, religious and home schools.]

New Hampshire is spending more than $2.8 billion on public schools this year, a 2.7 percent increase over last year. We spend annually more than $14,000 per student, compared with average U.S. spending reported to be around $9,200 per student. [Rep. Smith's figures are incorrect In spite of claims to the contrary, the Legislature did not reduce state support to education this year. In fact, it restored $150 million omitted from the governor's budget (for items such as catastrophic special education aid and existing school building construction aid), so we would not downshift costs to our cities and towns. The Legislature also essentially eliminated the unpopular "donor town" practice, which moved funds from one town to another. [This is so off-the-wall that it does not require a response.  The Legislature reduced adequacy by $200 million in the last session and cut University System funding by $50 million.]

With concern over getting the improvements that this increase in spending should provide, Republican legislators have been looking for new approaches. For example, under the philosophy that parents should be involved in and responsible for their children's education, House Bill 542 was passed to allow parents to withdraw their child from material they deem not appropriate for the child, not to change the curriculum for others, as some seem to fear. [See this page if you doubt the destructiveness of this bill.]

HB 1607 introduces an approach to providing scholarships [school vouchers] to students that is patterned on programs under way in eight other states. It would establish a business tax credit to fund a limited [large!] number of scholarships for attendance at private [including religious and home] schools. This is designed for families with limited means, and scholarships would be available primarily to students currently in the public schools, giving those families a choice where their children attend. The number and amount of scholarships would be limited to $13.5 million the first year, constituting less than half of 1 percent of New Hampshire's current public school spending. The public school district from which the child transferred would lose the state adequacy aid given for that child, as they would for any other outward transfer.

The tax credits would work like those for any other charity. Most scholarships are given to below-median income families, who for the first time have a choice of where to send their children. Florida is rated number 3 in the improvement in low-income students' average scores (NEAP Combined 4th and 8th grade reading and math) for 2003-2011, compared to New Hampshire's rating of number 40. [Because Florida has one of the lowest performing systems in the country and New Hampshire is already at the very top of the NAEP ratings.] The states that have implemented tax-credit scholarships have had favorable reactions from families. For example, Florida's Department of Education, which has had 10 years of experience with this type of program, reports that 75 percent of families using these scholarships consider their new schools excellent, and an additional 20 percent feel they are good. Some parents of special-needs children are very pleased that their new schools provide better results than they had experienced in public schools.

The Republicans in the Legislature feel it is important to try new approaches to educating our children, so we can expand what works and discard what doesn't. The approaches focus on achieving better results for the children, rather than merely preserving the status quo.

Rep. Will Smith is a Republican representing Rye and New Castle.

annotated smith