Next week, the New Hampshire House of Representatives will consider SB 193, which would create education savings accounts (ESAs) that families could use to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online courses, educational therapy, and various homeschooling expenses using a portion of the funds that the state had allocated for their child’s education at a district school. The ESA idea is highly popular among Granite State voters and for good reason: families that have utilized ESAs to provide their children an education in other states report incredibly high levels of satisfaction (see here and here).
Earlier this year, a bipartisan majority of the House Education Committee voted to recommend passing SB 193. However, some committee members who objected wrote a “minority report” that was printed in the December 22nd edition of the NH House Record (see pages 19-20). Unsurprisingly, the report parrots the talking points that opponents of educational choice have been disseminating. What follows is a point-by-point rebuttal of these spurious talking points.
The minority report’s eight objections are in italics and our responses are in bold:
Talking Point 1) Although we have no problem with parental choice, we feel that public tax dollars should stay with public schools and not be diverted to private and religious institutions;
The purpose of public education is to make sure that all children have access to the learning environment that’s right for them. It shouldn’t matter whether that’s a district school, charter school, private school, or homeschool. And, indeed, public dollars already flow to private and religious schools – and have done so since the 1700s. (See this Granite Institute report for more information.)
Talking Point 2) There are limited tax dollars currently available for schools and an ESA program would further deplete available resources;
The tax dollars are for children, not institutions. Moreover, even in the highly unlikely scenario that 5% of students switch out of their district schools, no district would lose more than 2% of its total budget – and that’s before factoring in the stabilization grants that limit losses to no more than ¼ of 1% of a district’s budget. (See this Josiah Bartlett Center report for more information.)
Talking Point 3) We believe in the tenet advocated by our Founding Fathers of the separation of church and state and that using public tax dollars to fund students attending religious schools is a violation of our state constitution;
ESAs are constitutional under both the New Hampshire and U.S. Constitutions. What the state constitution prohibits is the direct funding of religious schools. However, it permits public funds to flow to parents who can then choose among secular and religious educational options. As the NH Supreme Court opined in 1955, when it advised that a voucher program for nurses would be constitutional even if they attended a religious institution: “What was intended to be forbidden by the amendment of 1877 was support of a particular sect or denomination by the state, at the expense of taxpayers of other denominations or of no denomination. It was not intended that members of a denomination should be deprived of public benefits because of their beliefs.” (See this Josiah Bartlett Center/Institute for Justice analysis for more information.)
Talking Point 4) We feel that an ESA program should be administered by the NH Department of Education as is done in five of the six states having ESAs, and not a private organization. The legislature can hold the department directly accountable for the use of tax dollars, but has limited oversight of a private organization;
Florida has had the most successful implementation among the existing ESA programs, and its success has been attributed to the fact that it is managed by a non-profit that has the autonomy and flexibility to achieve the mission of the program: empowering families to choose the educational environment that works best for their children. (For more information on how different states implement their ESA programs, see this Granite Institute/EdChoice report.)
Talking Point 5) The use of valuable public education tax dollars for “private education” will add additional tax burden on the public to make up the balance of lost tax dollars of a school district to private education;
As noted in the response to #2, the fiscal effects are likely to be minimal. Moreover, the state’s portion of education funding does not even cover the average variable cost per pupil, meaning the declining enrollment will likely lead to savings, even before factoring in the stabilization grants. It is also worth noting that even if 5% of students switch out of the district system – the upper-bound estimate that opponents of the program predict – that is well within the average annual enrollment fluctuations that most districts already face. (See this Josiah Bartlett Center report for more information.)
Talking Point 6) NH public schools are among the best in the nation ranking at the top of key national indicators so why introduce this type of program in a successful system;
ESAs are about individual children, not state averages. No school is the right fit for all students who just happen to live nearby. Even a great school might not meet the needs of a particular child – whether they need additional services, an escape from bullying, or just a different learning environment. That’s why it’s important to empower families to find the right fit for their particular child’s individual learning needs.
Talking Point 7) We realize that there are some public schools that struggle, but see little state commitment or leadership to assist these schools;
Again: this is about individual children, not systems. Under SB 193, 95% of the state’s base aid per pupil follows the child to his or her family’s chosen learning environment. Students also receive 100% of the state’s differentiated aid for children who are low-income, English Language Learners, or have special needs.
Talking Point 8) We have concern over the state’s educational adequacy responsibility of the students’ education in private schools and the evaluation reporting process of the students’ educational progress. Public schools are the very heart of a democratic society. They are a diverse dwelling place dealing with the totality and variety of a student population. This is where the values of democracy and civil engagement are formed. It lays the future foundation for our work force. Parents have multiple kinds of educational choices for their child within the public school system and we believe that the state should not fund a private schooling choice through public tax dollars.
ESAs makes education providers directly accountable to parents, rather than politicians and bureaucrats. If families want to send their children to schools that are subject to the state’s regulations, they already have plenty of options. But many families are looking for something outside that system. That’s what the ESAs empower them to do.
Political control over schools is a zero-sum game that creates winners and losers. If families disagree about how the school is educating their children – which curriculum or textbooks they’re using, which pedagogical practices are employed, how much time is dedicated to test prep, etc. – then some families will have their preferences reflected in the schools and some won’t. By contrast, ESAs empower all families to choose the schools that align with their values and educational preferences.
Educational choice is not only good for individual students and their families, it’s also good for society. Choice programs lead to improved academic performance among both participants and district schools, higher rates of high school graduation and college matriculation, and even higher rates of civic knowledge, civic engagement, and political tolerance.
It’s time that New Hampshire brings its education system out of the era of factory education and into the 21st century, the era of customization. SB 193 would go a long way toward that goal.
For even more information, visit our page on Education Savings Accounts.
The NH House of Representatives will vote on the ESA bill, SB 193, on either January 3 or 4. Please contact your reps, urging them to support the bill. Brief and polite calls are most effective. Be sure to mention you are a constituent. You can find their contact information at Who’s My Legislator. Mass emails are far less effective, but the email for all Reps is firstname.lastname@example.org.