With scholarships, NH could improve student outcomes, Union Leader OpEd, 2/15/12

posted Feb 15, 2012, 9:17 AM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Feb 17, 2012, 9:51 AM ]
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DNHPE Comment: The Cato Institute and the Alliance for the Separation of School and State, maybe even with the support of some ALEC model legislation, have been the key drafters of the proposed New Hampshire voucher program, which would be implemented by HB 1607 and SB 372.  So this "Another View" piece is the UL is a core statement of supporters.

The piece is below, with DNHPE emphasis and annotation added.

Another View
by Andrew J. Coulson
With scholarships, NH could improve student outcomes 

THE NEW HAMPSHIRE Legislature is considering a bill to cut taxes on businesses that help families pay independent school tuition.

Florida enacted a similar bill a decade ago, and so it’s useful to see how that program has worked.  [The Florida programs are not similar at all.  See footnote #1, below.]

Florida businesses that donate to a non-profit K-12 scholarship organization receive a tax credit covering the full cost (the N.H. bill would cover only 90 percent). That money brings the option of independent schooling within reach of poor families. Two studies of this program have been carried out. The first found that it improves academic achievement for students who remain in the public schools.

The second concluded that students who use scholarships to attend independent schools also enjoy an academic boost.

[Mr. Coulson is wrong three times in the previous two sentences.  Many more than two studies have been carried out on the Florida program.  None have shown a significant improvement in academic achievement in the private schools or the public schools attributable to vouchers.  Here is a jocular and authoritative take down of the studies he's referring to.  We discuss the "voucher competition improves the public schools" argument here and the general misuse of "studies" by voucher advocates here.]

But at what cost? An official analysis by the Florida Legislature’s accountability agency found that the program saved taxpayers $1.49 for every dollar it reduced revenues. The reason is simple: on average, private schools spend thousands less per pupil than public schools. And in New Hampshire, public schools spend about $15,000 per student — far more than in Florida.

[In the Cato tradition, Mr. Coulson inflates New Hampshire's per pupil cost.  See note #2, below.]

While the precise short-term fiscal impact of the N.H. bill is difficult to predict, the basic math is the same: the more children migrate from public to independent schools, the more taxpayers will save.

[Here we have the basic Libertarian pitch: shut down the public schools to save money.  Actually, the cost to property tax payers goes up in direct proportion to the number of children receiving vouchers.  There is no short, or even medium term savings as children leave the public schools.  Each dollar of state aid that leaves with a voucher-funded child is added immediately to the local property tax bill.  There is no way around that math.  The bigger, long term picture is no better.]

A program that improves learning and lowers perstudent costs has much to recommend it, but aren’t staterun public schools essential to building stable, cohesive communities? Whatever criticisms we may have of the way this or that public school is operated, the fundamental ideals of public education are deeply cherished. Americans want an education system that not only prepares students for success in private life, but also for participation in public life — and that fosters strong, harmonious communities.

As it happens, scholars have studied this question for years, and their findings were collected and summarized in 2007 by University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf [high profile voucher advocate]. He found that students in freely chosen (usually private) schools are more tolerant and civic-minded than those in state-run public schools. Just last November, a randomized experimental study by Harvard professor David J. Deming concluded that students able to choose their own school committed significantly fewer crimes than those assigned to a district school.

Much as this contradicts a common perception, it shouldn’t really surprise us.

After all, many of this nation’s political leaders have been educated in private schools and sent their children to private schools, from John F.

Kennedy to Barack Obama.

Another key concern, the program’s constitutional-ity, was settled last spring by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rejecting a challenge to an Arizona scholarship tax credit program, the Court ruled that donations to charities are private funds, whether or not they qualify for a tax credit or deduction. No parent or taxpayer is compelled to participate in such a program, and both have many options if they do participate. The parent has a choice of schools and the taxpayer a choice of non-profit scholarship organizations to which to donate. Freedom of conscience is thus preserved.

[First, it's a state constitution issue, not federal.  Second, the US Supreme court did not decide the case in the way Mr. Coulson asserts at all.  They determined that the plaintiffs did not have standing.]

With all its advantages, expanding educational choice seems a good fit for the “Live free or die” state. The one remaining argument against it is that perhaps New Hampshire’s educational performance is already so good that it needs no improving. [No one says they don't need improving.  There is much effort being invested in there.  Voucher programs don't improve the educational results among the public or private school students.  The evidence the too extensive document, but seen note #3, below for a sampling.  That is well established and it is surprising that Mr. Coulson still tries to make that argument.]  Certainly it’s true that New Hampshire students score above average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests at the elementary and secondary levels. And its college-bound students score above the national average on the SAT.

But are these scores attributable to the state’s school system or to its demography? To find out, we can compare the average performance of white students in New Hampshire to that of white students in the nation as a whole. Doing so, we find that New Hampshire is only average in math and slightly below average in reading on the 12th grade NAEP test. We also find that New Hampshire is below average in both reading and math on the SAT — though much of that deficit is probably accounted for by the state’s higher SAT participation rate. New Hampshire’s apparent performance advantage seems largely due to its population rather than to its schools. So there’s still plenty of room for improvement. [So here you have a advocate reduced to justifying a voucher program because there's room for improvement in New Hampshire's schools.  Pretty weak tea.]

With this education tax credit bill, New Hampshire thus has the opportunity to expand parental choice, and thereby to improve student achievement, boost civic-mindedness, reduce crime, and lower per-pupil costs. Why not “learn free” as well as live free?


Andrew J. Coulson directs education policy at the Cato Institute and is author of “Market Education: The Unknown History.”

#1 Florida program vs. NH program

Florida has large scholarships targeted to very poor children coming strictly from public schools rated "F" by the state of Florida for two years in a row.  The scholarship is is large and automatically renewed for a long as the student was in school.  Average family incomes are  very low, averaging only $24,000.  Participating schools were academically accountable.  Florida's schools were ranked among the lowest in the nation.

New Hampshire's proposed program has small ($2,500) scholarship and it targeted to families with up to $67,000 annual income for a family of four, coming from any private or public school.  New Hampshire has no school rating system.  The scholarship will not be automatically renewed.  Participating schools would not be academically accountable.  New Hampshire's schools are ranked among the highest in the nation.

#2  Cost per pupil
The saving attributed to private school education are central to the Cato argument for dismantling the public school system.  Cato and Mr. Coulson's colleague Adam Schaeffer, who has been in New Hampshire helping the write and advocate for the proposed voucher legislation, are famous for their bogus cost-of-education numbers.  See the "Bunkum Award" Mr. Schaeffer recently received from a nationally respected education research organization.

#3 Evidence on academic achievement in voucher programs

Ravitch in her book, "Death and Life of the Great American School System"
National Education Policy Center on the various studies that show better academic achievement and competitive benefits in voucher programs, here, here, here, here, here, and here