Public education under attack in New Hampshire, OpEd in 3 papers, 11/13 & 20

posted Dec 6, 2011, 2:22 AM by Bill Duncan
Concord Monitor Link, 11/13/11, "Public education under attack in New Hampshire"
Nashua Telegraph Link 11/13/11, "Gutting public schools, one bad bill at a time"  (Here is a  response by Rep Michael Balboni, chair of the House Education Committee, a week later)
Portsmouth Herald Link 11/20/11, modified to refer to reportage the Herald had published several days earlier, "The attack on N.H. public education"

Public education under attack in New Hampshire

Last spring, the Republican legislature passed SB 67, establishing “a committee to study the implementation of an education tax credit plan in New Hampshire.” This would be a new program of business tax credits to move students and money out of public schools and into private, religious and home schools.

The committee met several times this fall and recently issued its first report, recommending legislation for next year. There is little detail in this two-page report, and the proposed legislation could take some entirely different form, but this project is much bigger news than it may seem.

The report proposes an initial program of $10-$15 million in tax credits to New Hampshire businesses. Companies could write off 75-90 percent of contributions made to scholarship funds for New Hampshire students. It is not clear whether the scholarships would be targeted to lower-income students.

The committee asserts the program would be budget neutral or even generate savings for the state. The report does not spell out how this counterintuitive result would come about, but committee discussions centered on holding back state aid from local school district budgets.

Currently, each school district gets annual state aid of roughly $3,500 per student. Under the new program, for each student receiving a scholarship and leaving public school for private school, the state would hold back some amount of the state aid that would have gone to the district, up to the $3,500.

But, of course, there will be no way to actually make the program revenue neutral. If your neighbor planned to send Mary, her eighth-grade daughter, to a private high school next year, your public school would have lost the state aid for Mary anyway and the state would have “saved” it.

The difference under the new program would be that business taxes the state should have collected will be paying Mary’s private high school tuition. The new program would be “taking back” state aid that the district would not have received anyway.

The committee report does not say what the goal for all this hocus-pocus would be. And it is still not clear what the final legislation will look like.

What is clear, though, is that if the Legislature follows the committee’s recommendations, it will establish a new multimillion-dollar, tax-funded support system for private, religious and home schools.

You will hear proponents use words like “competition,” “marketplace” and “choice for low-income students,” but the program’s impact would be to spend public money to undermine public education.

One agenda item recorded in the committee minutes was: “Is there any research on the issue of what size scholarships would be necessary to encourage parents to switch to private education …?” This is our Legislature using our money to make an ideological statement.

The push to gut public education took shape in the 2011 legislative session. The most visible and successful step was the effort to defund the University of New Hampshire and the community colleges, reducing the already modest state contribution to UNH by 50 percent and to the community colleges by 30 percent.

Other radical bills had broad Republican support as well:

The perverse move to reduce public school attendance by lowering the age at which high school students could drop out passed the House before failing in the Senate.

The bill to eliminate universal kindergarten failed, but a majority of Republicans voted for it in the House and succeeded in passing a bill to limit state funding for kindergarten to half a day.

A bill to repeal compulsory school attendance passed the House.

A majority of Republicans even supported HB 340, which would have granted parents a reduction in their local property taxes if they would take their children out of the public school.

Bills to eliminate or hollow out the New Hampshire Department of Education are in committee and could come up any time.

The theme is clear.

America’s system of public education, invented by Jefferson and Adams, is the foundation of our democracy and our market economy. The debates, regardless of politics, have always been about how to improve it to enable our kids to compete in the world.

But when today’s Republicans talk public education reform, they mean to dismantle public education – or “government schools,” as they call them – and replace them with private, religious and home schools.

New Hampshire’s public school system works well today. We cannot allow the Republican Legislature to violate the public trust by gutting it and giving the funds to private, religious and home schools.

Bill Duncan, of New Castle, is a retired software entrepreneur.