DNHPE 2/18/12 Special Edition: the school voucher proposal as it looks today

posted Feb 19, 2012, 6:29 AM by Bill Duncan

There are several developments on SB 372 and HB 1607, which would establish an Education Tax Credit (school voucher) program in New Hampshire.  The Senate Education Committee competed its public hearing on SB 372 on Tuesday, 2/14/12.  The executive session to vote on the bill has not been scheduled.  Here are two good video clips from that hearing:
  • A beautiful exchange between voucher advocate Charlie Arlinghaus, Josiah Bartlett Center, and Senator Molly Kelly (D-Keene), making clear how value-laden the phrase "school choice" is. Brings tears.  Don't miss it.
  • Rep. Gregory Hill responds to Granite State Poll numbers saying that New Hampshire parents (and everyone else) reject the use of public money to help children go to private schools.   Rep. Hill goes on to impersonate an anti-poverty worker from the 1960's.  We also transcribe and comment.
In addition,

The two voucher bills, which now are identical, have been changing daily in response to questions and feedback from House and Senate committees and from the NH Departments of Education and Revenue Administration.  DNHPE will update our pages on the bills when the amendment is adopted or, at least, stops changing.

In the House, there is much further work for the House Ways and Means HB 1607 Subcommittee and the sponsors to do on the bill before the many issues raised by the subcommittee have been resolved. Therefore, the full House Ways and Means Committee will not vote on HB 1607 on Tuesday, 2/21/12, as previously planned.  The current plan is to report the bill out on March 22, if the rule change to allow for that is adopted, as it is expected to be.

Both the bills and the discussion of the bills are evolving quickly.  But there are major obstacles to the voucher program becoming a good program for New Hampshire:

Financially, the program is a disaster.

The voucher program is funded with local property taxes.  
The proposed program would downshift to the local property tax payers the cost of sending children to private, religious and home schools.  When the state withholds adequacy aid for voucher students, the school district budget does not change, but the revenues do go down.  In the school year in which that happens, the budget for instructional program or some other operating cost will be reduced.  In the following year, either the school shrinks or the local property tax are increased to make up the difference.

The program is high cost no matter how you look at it.  
The sponsors have reduced the size of the program from $15 million to $6.8 million in tax credits.  It is still large and costly - and it's set up to grow like Topsy.  If the program grew as provided for in the bills, it would lose $4 million dollars in the first 3 years, according to DOE.  Extending the DOE numbers to 5 years, the loss would be $20 million and over the first 10 years, the state would have spent up to $200 million.  If it grew half as fast as the bills provide for, it would still lose $81 million in 10 years. The details of how this loss is accounted for vary but, in the end, it will all come out of the local property tax payer.

That's a lot of kids
The bills' sponsors say that public school enrollment is already shrinking, so the additional loss of money and enrollment wouldn't matter. But decreasing enrollments are one reason per pupil costs are as high as they are today.  The result is a chronic budgeting problem.  The voucher program, in one stroke, would almost triple the size of the enrollment decline already experienced by New Hampshire schools.

The average annual drop in New Hampshire public school enrollment over the past 10 years has averaged 1,440 students per year.  In the first year of the New Hampshire voucher program, 2880 students would receive vouchers.  Some would already be in private schools (a separate problem in itself), but however the numbers came out, the voucher program would dramatically accelerate the exodus from New Hampshire public schools.  And this would not be a naturally occurring phenomenon - the would be self-inflicted harm.

The beneficiaries would be the state's many small Christian schools, who have been out in force testifying in support of the bills.  The voucher program would reverse the 500 student per year decline New Hampshire's private schools have experienced over the last 10 years and lead to a new period of growth.  It is also a boon to the small Christian schools in that the vouchers replace money they would otherwise have had to raise for scholarships to enable children to attend their schools.  All this is good for those schools, but not a legitimate public purpose for New Hampshire's property tax funds. 

The sponsors say that the proposed New Hampshire program is about the same size as the one in Rhode Island, a state of comparable size.  Rhode Island had 71 students in it's first year and 511 last year.  So in its fourth year, the number of voucher students was .34% of the number of all public school students in the state.  The proposed New Hampshire voucher program, even at its reduced size, is 1.52% of all public school children in its first year, which would make it almost 5 times the size of the Rhode Island program and larger than any state program in the country except Pennsylvania and Iowa. 

If it grew as allowed under the legislation, the number of participating students in the fourth year could be 3% of the number of public school children in the state, which would make it proportionately the largest state-wide program in the country. 

Even if the state were willing to spend that kind of money, why would it do so with a complete lack of school accountability? 

All voucher advocates - from the Alliance for School Choice to ALEC - favor administrative, financial and academic accountability.  As the Alliance for School Choice shows, here, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Washington, D.C. all have serious accountability provisions, including academic accountability, in their voucher and education tax credit programs. The New Hampshire bills, as filed, had minimal administrative accountability but no financial or academic accountability.  The 2/16/12 amendment doesn't even have that.  

All NH sponsors and advocates have one response to the accountability question: parents can withdraw their children.  This is not a serious response and they should be called on it.  Parents need and deserve real feedback on the educational result they are getting from their schools.  But the overriding issue in this case is accountability for taxpayer funds.

Here, for example, is the Alliance for School Choice model legislation for accountability.  It's extensive.  Here's the Florida statute.  It includes accountability provisions under both the school and the DOE responsibilities.  Here's the DNHPE page on this issue.

Most vouchers would go to students who could go to private schools without them.

There is no rational for public money to move children from a successful public school system to private schools under any circumstance, but most of the families participating in this program would not have needed the money to go to private schools.
  • About 2,500 children leave public schools for private and home schools each year, without vouchers.  They clearly do not need vouchers but would naturally apply for free money from the state.
  • About the same number of children in private school are on free and reduced lunch as in public school.  These are families far below the 300% of poverty level.  But the make that choice without vouchers.
  • In addition, the New Hampshire program would be the only one in the country, other than Pennsylvania, that proposes to give vouchers directly to private school children already in private schools.  By the 8th year, there would be no requirement that any of the vouchers go to public school children.  
    • The sponsors say it is designed that way to make room for the K-3 children not counted in the ADM (Average Daily Membership, essentially the public school enrollment), but the legislation could just say that.  It is not for follow-on vouchers for students who came out of public school on vouchers because those are already covered in the public school percentages.  
    • Senator Forsythe has also said that it is to keep people from gaming the system, but those children would not be in the ADM anyway in the first several years after returning from private school. In any case, it would be easy to prevent gaming the system by adding a provision that excluded children who had been in private school recently.  However, it would have been easy to design the program to meet those objectives without throwing it open to all private school students.
There is no good reason to take money from local school systems and property taxpayers for a program like this.

What's up the the vouchers for home schooling anyway? 

New Hampshire would be the only program in the country to provide vouchers for home schooling.  What is the point of this?

Parents and voters don't support using public money to send children to private and religious schools

Public school parents, who should be the beneficiaries of the proposed state program providing money to help kids go to private schools, reject it by almost a 3-1 margin.  Why?  Possibly because 68% of them are satisfied with their local public schools.  And a solid majority of all voters say, by a factor of 2-1, that the state should not use public money to help students attend private schools.  Even conservatives agree.  Here is the report.

While Rep. Hill says that parents who are satisfied do not need to apply for a voucher.  But, of course, that's not the point.  The point is that taxpayers of all political stripes,even taxpayers who are public school parents, do not want to pay to send children to private schools.

The program is still very large and changes daily.  

Senator Forsythe said in the Senate hearing that, as a percentage of all students in the state, the proposed New Hampshire program is about the same size as the one in Rhode Island.  

Rhode Island had 71 students in it's first year and 511 last year.  So in its fourth year, the number of voucher students was .34% of the number of all public school students in the state.  The proposed voucher program, even at its reduced size, is 1.52% of all public school children in its first year, which would make it almost 5 times the size of the Rhode Island program and larger than any state program in the country except Pennsylvania and Iowa.  

Bill Duncan