Tax credit bill tarnishes national identity
By Joe Onosko and Paula Salvio
March 01, 2012 2:00 AM
Our legislators are deliberating over the future of an education tax credit program, House Bill 1607. If passed, it will provide tax benefits to businesses that offer $2,500 scholarship incentives to families who remove their children from public schools and either keep them home or send them to non-public religious or secular schools. Supporters of the tax credit claim that subsidizing students to leave public schools will offer parents greater choice (especially to disadvantaged families) and improve public education through increased competition.
There's no doubt that the rhetoric of school choice can be seductive. Many parents are concerned about the focus on high-stakes testing. Others have serious concerns given their schools are purportedly "failing" based on No Child Left Behind guidelines. It is understandable that these parents look for alternatives or ways to improve the current system. Unfortunately, HB 1607 is not the answer. Any politician who argues that paying families to leave public schools will improve those schools is mistaken. Over time, what this bill will do is destroy New Hampshire's public education system, one that currently ranks in the top five on the most recognized national metric, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Here's why the bill is a stealth attack on public education and why it will hurt disadvantaged and middle-class families: When New Hampshire students leave a public school, their adequacy aid follows them out of the school district. Adequacy aid consists of the money the state government gives a school to cover the needs of students. When a student and the student's aid leaves the school, the money reverts to the government and does not return to the school. The loss of adequacy aid obviously drains resources from the school and, as a result, schools are forced to do more with less.
A striking example of what could happen when adequacy aid leaves a public school was addressed by state Rep. Marjorie Porter of Hillsborough-Deering in her testimony to the Legislature in January. Rep. Porter pointed out that in a district such as Hillsborough-Deering, which faces a serious rate of homelessness, high poverty and 16.4 percent of students with special needs, the impact of the tax credit could be devastating. In her testimony, Rep. Porter did some simple math for us. If Hillsborough-Deering were to loose 26 students (for example, two each from kindergarten through Grade 12), under the provisions of HB 1607 the district would lose more than $90,000 in state funding; however, the district's overall expenses would remain the same; that is, heat must be paid for, buildings repaired, resources provided and so on. And, of course, students with the greatest educational needs will remain in the district because private schools are less likely to admit them or provide the needed services. (Remember, private schools have none of the accountability requirements of public schools.) As the schools lose money and must do more with less, more parents will look outside the system. Thus the quality of our public schools will fall apart, unless, of course, taxpayers who don't receive the "tax credit" pay more taxes!
If we believe that an equitable, first-rate public education is a right of all children, then we must reject the sales pitch of those who talk of choice, tax breaks, scholarships, competition and school improvement. This pitch is a curve ball that moves us away from one of our nation's most cherished ideals and identities: free public education for all to help ensure equality of opportunity and the development of a citizenry able to preserve our democracy. We must think carefully about the consequences of offering tax credits to business owners who are — in the language of those committed to equality of educational opportunity — laundering public moneys to fund private religious and secular schools.
Joe Onosko of Portsmouth and Paula Salvio of Durham are faculty members of the University of New Hampshire's Department of Education.