OpEd by Senator Jim Forsythe

posted Feb 24, 2012, 4:28 AM by Bill Duncan
DNHPE Comment: Senator Forsythe sent this to newspapers and, yesterday, to legislators.  He continues to cite cooked national statistics on school choice while ignoring the UNH Granite State Poll in which voters resoundingly reject his bill.

Senator Forsythe talks here about choice for "families with lesser means," but his voucher bill was not targeted to lower income families until the Senate Education Committee required it.  It now has the least possible targeting - to a maximum of $67,000 annual income for a family of four.

He goes on to talk about children escaping bad schools, as if New Hampshire's public education system is in that category.

Senator Forsythe continually cites the advocacy studies supplied by school choice groups to support his legislation, but the consensus is well established: vouchers and education tax credits do not result in better educational results in the children moved to private school or in the public schools themselves.

Finally, he says again that his program is small and the money that is taken out of the schools is only natural and fair.  Not at all.  And it grows automatically every year.

Emphasis added, below.

When I campaigned for NH Senate in 2010, a key issue that I consistently advocated focused on increasing education options for children in NH by providing parents choices, including public charter schools and private schools. My direct mail pieces talked openly about promoting school choice through tax credit or voucher programs. My opposition, meanwhile, sent out mail depicting a child writing "Forsythe fails our future” repeatedly on a chalkboard, making the claim that I would destroy public education. Fortunately the majority of Americans now support school choice programs, so the residents of Senate District 4 didn't buy this baseless attack, and I was elected. I am now planning to deliver on my campaign promise by sponsoring SB327/HB1607 which would provide tax credits to support education choice.

My belief in school choice goes back to my childhood. I grew up in South Carolina where, at the time, many of the local public schools were in pretty rough shape, and the quality of education was quite poor. My mother had worked in the public school systems and knew this first hand - and she chose to send me to a private school. This definitely gave me a big leg up enabling me to go on to do well in college, and go on to get a Ph.D. I've often wondered how differently things could have gone for me if I hadn't had that advantage. Although it was a financial struggle for my family to send my brother and myself to private school, it was manageable. It has struck me as unfair ever since then that I had that advantage while families with lesser means did not. Aren't these the families public schools were designed to help?

Later, while I was in the Air Force in a different state, I got another look at school choice. An entrepreneur had unsuccessfully attempted to get school choice initiatives passed and decided he would instead simply start a scholarship program with his own money. He went to the lowest performing school in the city and offered scholarships to kids who wanted to go to private school, or get tutoring. I was completely shocked at what I saw at a meeting he had with interested parents and some of the public school teachers and administrators. One father expressed frustration with the fact that his child wasn't learning to read, but he couldn't help him since English was his second language and pleaded for some help paying for tutoring. Meanwhile the teachers’ reaction was incredibly hostile, lambasting a man who was digging deep into his pockets to help these poor children. The contrast between the deep need of the children for a better education than they were getting and the hostility of the teachers due to self-interest was remarkable. If these teachers had cared more about the children than their jobs, they would have welcomed the program with open arms.

This gentleman went on to formally set up a scholarship foundation and raise money for the poor children in the city to help them get a quality education. He hired an African-American who was very well respected in her community to be the spokesperson of the organization. After taking the job, many leaders in her community turned their backs on her, and shut her out. She explained to me her frustration with her ostracism, and the fact that these "leaders" were really just out to protect their power base and didn't want to help the children out. This was my first introduction into how ferociously an organization can fight to protect their turf, and completely discount and disregard what is best for the children that they are supposed to be helping!

Fortunately many teachers are not like this – they are either confident enough in their work to not be worried by competition, or are frustrated by what they are seeing in their particular school and are sympathetic to the program (some even send their children to private school).

As a legislator, I am seeing the protectionist attitude first hand, and it's incredibly frustrating. I am more than willing to sit down with anyone and debate school choice on the facts. Study after study show it works - not only to improve the education of the child receiving the scholarship, but for the public school that now has to compete on a more even playing field. Poll after poll also shows that school choice programs are very popular amongst parents. And tax credit programs, unlike vouchers, are programs where the government never takes the money in taxes to begin with, so they are on very sound constitutional grounds with respect to public money not being spent on religious organizations.

Many of the staunchest opponents of school choice have made all sorts of false claims or published bad math. Rather than to list all the accusations and refute them one by one, it would be more productive to simply explain what SB 327/HB1607 propose to do. A business would be able to donate to a scholarship organization (SO), which would be 501(c) 3’s registered with the state. In return, they would get an 85% tax credit against either the BPT or the BET. Meanwhile the SO's would give out scholarships with an average size of $2,500 to children attending a private school, or an out of district public school. A certain number of these scholarships are required to go to children who are switching from public to private school. For these children, the state adequacy aid to the towns (it averages $4,100 per child) would go away since that town is no longer educating that child. The size of the program is capped, and relatively tiny. The maximum number of students who could participate would be 1.5% of the existing NH student population. The potential reduction in state aid to the towns if the program is fully used represents less than a third of a percent of the total funds spent on public secondary education! I’ve looked at the fluctuations in state funding from year to year due to normal changes in enrollment, and that often varies as much as 5-10% in a large number of school districts, so any changes in enrollment due to the program would likely be smaller than the typical changes.

The reality is that wealthy or middle class families are already able to send their kids to private schools if they chose – that is nothing new. This bill would extend that option to people of lesser means since it is means tested to 300% of the federal poverty guidelines (a number where roughly half of NH families could be eligible). Isn’t it time that NH extended school choice to people who can’t afford it? The majority of public schools that are doing a great job shouldn’t feel threatened by the program. But for children who may be falling through the cracks, this program could be a lifesaver.