Who Will Be Accountable for Students Left Behind?

The following is written by Drew Cline of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. They may be followed on Twitter at @JBartlett_NH. Printed with permission.

Senate Bill 193, to establish an Education Savings Account program for New Hampshire families, was simple and efficient. Then the House Finance Committee got hold of it.

In the name of saving money, the proposed committee amendment dramatically reduces eligibility to 185 percent of the federal poverty level for new entrants and 300 percent once a student receives a scholarship, strips kindergarteners and first graders, and reduces the stabilization grants districts would receive from the state. (The last is fine, as districts would keep more than 98 percent of their operating budgets under the bill.)

Apparently to compensate for the reduced stabilization grant, the amendment adds a per-district cap (rather than a statewide cap) on the number of children who can leave a dissatisfactory educational situation via a scholarship.

The amendment further prohibits scholarship recipients from also qualifying for the separate tax-credit scholarship program.

But like a man who prefers to pay for everything with large bills kept in a cologne-scented leather wallet with “Ladies’ Man” stitched on the outside, there is more going on here than an attempt to save money.

Inexplicably — because this has nothing to do with finance — the amendment defines “service provider” (which would apply to tutors, therapists and others who would provide educational and special needs services to scholarship recipients) as a “licensed professional.” The state doesn’t license tutors. Retired teachers wouldn’t qualify unless they renewed their teaching license after retirement. Subject matter experts whose fields don’t require licensure would be prohibited from tutoring or mentoring or providing any other services.

The amendment also ventures far beyond financial concerns by mandating that children would lose their scholarships if they did not make “satisfactory academic achievement or growth” for two consecutive years. Public schools do not operate under any such threat.

Under this amendment, if scholarship students don’t meet their academic growth targets, they would go back into the public school system — where they could continue to not meet their growth targets until they graduate or drop out. But, as they would be in a educational environment they dislike and want to leave, the odds of their failing to meet their potential, or even dropping out, likely would be higher.

This amendment brings to mind the cliche line when the tough guy says, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.” The committee chose the hard way.

There are better, simpler ways to save money without creating additional bureaucracy. At the invitation of the committee, the Josiah Bartlett Center presented numerous options. We found, for example, that the ESA program would actually save the state money if it simply set the scholarship amount at 90 percent of adequacy aid and 90 percent of differentiated aid (extra money for low-income and special-needs students).

If program eligibility were capped at 300 percent of the federal poverty level and the scholarships were set to 90 percent, the state would save even more. If a statewide cap on enrollment were added, savings would be greater still. There would be no need to cut eligibility so sharply or to impose district enrollment caps, which would require the additional administrative burden of creating district-by-district lotteries.

Instead of a simple solution, this amendment severely reduces the effectiveness of the program while making it more bureaucratically complex and more costly to administer.

Politically, some restriction on eligibility is a given. But this amendment sets that restriction unnecessarily low. That raises the obvious question, should the amendment replace the previous version of the bill: Who will be accountable for the continued struggles of these additional students who want desperately to find an educational environment that works better for them, but who were denied that opportunity?