DNHPE 4/23/12 Special Alert: Call to action on the voucher bills

posted Apr 24, 2012, 3:06 AM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Apr 24, 2012, 11:26 AM ]

The Last Public Hearing on the Voucher Plan (SB372)
Tomorrow, Tuesday, April 24 
1:00 PM
(Note: I said 2:00 last week...my error) 
House Ways and Means Committee
Legislative Office Building, Room 202 

I hope I got your attention.  These are the closing days for the voucher bill and it's hand-to-hand combat.  Voucher supporters are pulling out all the stops.  There is a new amendment to SB 372.  It is attached to the bottom of the page, here.  It is intended to get the votes needed to pass the bill with a veto proof majority.  They were 40 votes short of that goal last time and we need to hold as many of those as possible or it's all over.

The new draft attempts to get the needed votes by spinning two fictions.  The amendment appears to protect the school districts from the high cost of the voucher plan and appears to provide a form of accountability.  The bill actually does neither. We need to make sure the Legislature hears that message.

Sign up for the closing push

The period between the hearing tomorrow and the final House vote on SB372 will be critical.  I had anticipated that the vote on the House floor would be Wednesday, May 9, but there appears to be enough work to do on the bill that it may not be until May 16.  We will know more tomorrow night.

Until the vote, we will need to communicate frequently by phone and email with a critical set of legislators - the 49 who voted against the plan on March 29 and those who were absent.  

I would like to put together a roster of people who would make a firm commitment to help do that.  The phone calls will mostly be messages.  That's fine.  The emails will be to the whole group.  I'll provide the names, numbers and messages.  It's not hard work but it will require real attention.

If you can help, let me know.  I'll figure out how much to plan to do according to how many people we get.

Now, here's why the supporters' sales pitch is nonsense.

The 1% Cap Fiction

When the House voted on the HB1607 voucher bill on March 29, Rep. Neal Kurk (R-Weare) spoke out forcefully against it because it downshifted costs to the school districts.  Since then, Sen. Forsythe has negotiated a new provision (it starts on P. 11, line 27) that could appear to address his concern.  It says that, if the voucher program reduces a school district's adequacy grant (state aid) by more than 1% of the school's total grant amount, the State will give the district a "stabilization grant" for the amount over 1%.

Why is this a fiction?  The program size is small initially - only $3.4 million in tax credits.  That's about .6% (that's point six percent) of the size of the total $578,000,000 statewide adequacy grant.  So a 1% cap doesn't matter much.   No school is likely to hit the cap.  But the key to the voucher plan is that it starts small and grows fast - by 50% between the first year and the second year and up to 25% per year after that.  

And the "cap" increases in proportion!  

So in the 10th year, when the program could be giving as much as $32 million in vouchers to 12,000 students, the cap on the cost to the school budget would be at 8.9% of their adequacy grant, a huge hit to find out about in September of the school year.  

And the kicker is that state aid to many communities is capped at a level below what the formula would give them.  Bedford, for instance, gets only $830 per student in state aid.  But the voucher program would take away an average of $4,300 per student.  Many towns have a similar story to tell.

The 1% cap is smoke and mirrors.  Supporters sell the plan to as revenue neutral because it takes money from the schools' adequacy grants.  Legislators need not think of the tax credit as a real cost, they say.  But now they are telling those concerned about the schools that it won't really take their money either!  

The real cost of this fast growing plan has not changed.  Whether it comes out of the state's general fund or the education trust fund that was supposed to go to the schools is immaterial.  There's no reason New Hampshire should spend its tax money helping children go to private schools.

There is still no accountability for the money

Most, by far, of the recipients of these funds will be small Christian schools that require no specific qualifications of their teachers and have no publicly available record of academic performance.  Senator Forsythe says that accountability provisions he added have drawn support for the bill from moderate senators.  But there is no academic accountability in the bill.  (Here is the accountability proposal we made back in February.)

In the new amendment, the scholarship organizations do an optional parent survey (P5, line 18) and the NH Department of Education designs an annual "Scholarship Impact Report" (P. 3, Line 31), to be completed by the school districts, on why the students left the district.  This is a tortured exercise designed to yield nothing.

Many states have extensive academic accountability requirements but the baseline is always: 
  • annual testing, either the state achievement tests or a nationally recognized test that measures learning gains in math and language for all participating students in grades that require testing in the state's public schools.,
  • reporting the results in a way that would allow state to aggregate data by grade level, gender, family income level, and race; and
  • providing graduation rates of participating students in a manner consistent with nationally recognized standards.
This would be far simpler and more useful than the softball surveys included in the bill.