This morning HB 1637, the school choice for small towns bill, had a public hearing in the Senate Education Committee. Below is a copy of my testimony. A summary of the hearing will be posted shortly. The committee may exec the bill at any time, so the public is urged to contact them as soon as possible. Their recommendation will be very influential on the entire Senate’s final vote.
John Reagan — District 17, Deerfield
Nancy Stiles — District 24, Hampton
Kevin Avard — District 12, Nashua
Molly Kelly — District 10, Keene
David Watters — District 4, Dover
To: Senate Education Committee
From: Michelle Levell, representing School Choice for NH and NH Liberty Alliance
Re: HB 1637-FN, relative to school attendance in towns with no public schools.
HB 1637 clarifies in statute that small towns without their own public schools may offer alternative arrangements for their students, regardless of grade level. These agreements could be made with area public and private schools. Districts can provide an education for their town residents without being the direct producer of that education.
HB 1637 is consistent with RSA 194:22 which says districts can contract with “an academy, high school, or other literary institution in this or, when distance or transportation facilities make it necessary, in another state, and raise and appropriate money to carry the contract into effect.” Some NH districts have existing contracts with out-of-state private schools, including the Lyme school district’s arrangements with Thetford Academy and St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont, and Chatham’s tuition agreement with Fryeburg Academy in Maine. The bill is also consistent with RSA 193:1 that allows compulsory attendance to be satisfied with enrollment at private schools or home education programs. Districts are also able to make placements to out-of-district or private schools through the “manifest educational hardship” provisions in RSA 193:3.
The most vocal opponents to HB 1637 — the Attorney General and the state DOE’s attorneys — have repeatedly stated that “In order to meet its duty, the State of New Hampshire has implemented a system to guarantee that all public school children receive the opportunity for an adequate education. This system is exclusive to the public schools.” That system only guarantees the delivery of education, not the quality. Note that per the 2015 statewide assessment scores only 58% of NH students across all tested grade levels are at Level 3 or better in English Language Arts. For mathematics, the scores are even lower at 46%. That means that not quite 3 out of 5 students are at Level 3 or better in English and less than half are in math. The statewide assessment clearly does not guarantee a quality education, merely that an education is provided. On the other hand, the competitive nature of the private school marketplace ensures that students receive an education that meets the customers’ expectations.
At the House Education Committee’s public hearing, there were arguments presented that claim NH private schools, which are approved for attendance by the state DOE, somehow have lower or less rigorous standards than those used for our public schools. Yes, the requirements are a little different, but they are certainly not inferior. Some of the differences include that private schools are not required to use College and Career Readiness Standards or the statewide assessments that are aligned to those standards. Many private schools use other academic standards and tests. Private schools may also hire teachers that are not certified, but may hire subject-matter experts with other experience. But private schools have an additional requirement in order to survive in the competitive marketplace of educational options — they must meet the expectations of tuition-paying parents. If private schools do not meet those expectations, then parents can withdraw their children from the schools. Those expectations often include discipline and behavior standards, academic standards, graduation rates, college acceptance rates, and more. Schools are accountable to the parents, not just agencies in Concord and by extension, Washington, DC.
The other argument presented earlier against HB 1637 was the concern that these agreements could be expensive to districts. That claim ignores that the school choice program is structured so that if tuition at a selected alternative school is less, the town has a savings; if it costs more, families pay the difference. That is an integrated part of the program. For example, Croydon only directly provides education for their students in grades K through 4, and must tuition out students for grades 5 through 12. Their school choice program is currently saving their residents approximately $16K this year alone because tuition at the Newport Montessori School is $4K less per student than the AREA agreement with the Newport School District.
HB 1637 is common sense legislation that would significantly help some of NH’s smallest and most economically challenged districts. It is a reasonable way districts could financially manage small and declining enrollment and state building aid limits. This would impact not just Croydon, but 14 other districts that must contract-out a portion of their student population because they do not offer in-district education at some grade levels. It also gives parents a greater voice in selecting the best “fit” for their children’s education. HB 1637 is a win-win for students, districts, and taxpayers.
Please issue an Ought to Pass recommendation to HB 1637.