Private Schools, Public Money, OpEd in the Concord Monitor, 1/15/12

posted Jan 15, 2012, 6:29 PM by Bill Duncan
Link

MY TURN

Public money, private schools

Bill puts local education in peril
January 15, 2012

You might think that Beaver Meadow and the Kimball-Walker schools are Concord's local public schools - precious assets to be nurtured, debated over, improved.

But our Free State/Tea Party Legislature, the one we elected in 2010, says, no, these are "government-run" schools, from which parents and children need to be protected. You know, as in, "We need less government!" Make no mistake about it. They talk about "choice," but their mission is to shut down our public schools and replace them with religious and home schools.

Republican Sen. James Forsythe of Strafford has proposed an education tax credit program does just that. It is essentially a voucher program in which the state would spend $100 million in the first five years, sending children to private schools. It would take students and money out of the public schools and aggravate already declining enrollment. It would do real damage to local public schools immediately.

And Forsythe wants us to help pay for it with our property taxes. Here's how the program would work.

New Hampshire businesses would make scholarship money available to new "scholarship organizations." Then those businesses could subtract 75 percent of what they donated to the program from their New Hampshire business profits tax.

The state would spend $15 million on those tax credits in the first year, but the program could grow every year to as much as $36 million in the fifth year.

The scholarship organizations would give scholarships averaging $2,500 to students. Scholarships of up to $1,500 could go for home-schooling costs.

The scholarships would not be for low-income families who might need the money, but instead would be available to anyone at any income level - including private school students who have never attended public schools.

The scholarships would not be targeted to getting children out of "failing" schools, as many voucher programs are. Supporters argue that our whole New Hampshire education system is failing.

There would be no academic accountability for the schools receiving the money, most of which would likely go to religious schools.

7,000 students

The program starts out huge, funding 7,000 to 8,000 students in the first year, and could grow to 17,000 students in the fifth year. There are only 190,000 students in the whole state.

Where does the money come from? Our pockets. It's a shell game. The business funds the scholarships. Then the state repays the businesses with the tax credits. Then property taxpayers repay the state!

For instance, Mary Jones lives in Concord and attends Beaver Meadow School. Currently, the state gives the Concord School District an average of $3,000 in state aid toward her education each year. We pay another $1,000 in statewide education property tax to make up the $4,000 that's called the "cost of an adequate education." Then we add more local property tax money and that's the school's budget. (Leave the donor town question aside for this discussion.)

Under Forsythe's bill, Mary could get a $2,500 scholarship and leave to go to a private school. The state would repay the business 75 percent of that, a little less than $2,000. Then the state would take back from us not just the $3,000 state aid, but the whole $4,000 "cost of adequacy" grant, including the $1,000 that comes from our property tax.

Two alternatives

Just to be clear, there's real complexity behind all this, and advocates of privatizing education will try to confuse the issue. But there are only two alternatives. One is that the $100 million in tax credits the state spends on vouchers comes straight out of New Hampshire tax revenue.

The other is that money comes from state aid and property taxes that currently fund our schools, so the sponsors can assert that the program is "revenue neutral" at the state level.

Either way, in these times when the Legislature is cutting the University of New Hampshire, the Department of Health and Human Services and everything in sight, the citizens of New Hampshire have no need for a large, complex program to fund scholarships for families that do not need them.

This is an expensive new public program with no legitimate public purpose. We already have great teachers and a great education system, among the best in the country. We don't need to shut it down and replace it with a privatized patchwork of religious and home schools.

If you don't like this idea, tell your legislator. Tell the governor. Track the issue at the website Defending New Hampshire Public Education, dnhpe.org.

(Bill Duncan of New Castle is a retired software entrepreneur.)