Public education is under attack in New Hampshire.
As is the case in many states (almost as if, some larger group or network is coordinating these legislative attacks in multiple states), New Hampshire is looking at the possibility of a new sort of voucher law-- the education savings account (in New Hampshire, they're now called "education freedom savings accounts") This battle is not exactly new for the Granite State, where educational tax credits, a back-door voucher approach, cropped up at the beginning of the decade without becoming a rousing success.
The bill is SB-193, and it has already passed the NH Senate and the House education committee will be considering it shortly. If you are a New Hampshire resident, here are some reasons you should care.
Scaling the Wall
Why ESAs? Because a straight up voucher system tends to violate the separation of church and state.
Your tax dollars go to support Super Conservative Evangelical Christian School or the local Catholic School (lots of church folks will say that sounds fine, but I'm waiting for the day their tax dollars are routed toward Sharia Law High School).
But the ESAs will handled by a "scholarship organization," a third party that will hold the child's voucher (and get a 5% fee, so here's a whole new lucrative business to launch). It's a pretty transparent dodger-- I can't give Pat money, so I'll just give it to Chris and Chris can give it to Pat-- but if you're only worried about looking legal and not actually being legal, it may be good enough.
But the record on vouchers is pretty clear-- look at Indiana or Wisconsin or DC and you'll see that vouchers mostly steer public tax dollars to private religious schools.
Unaccountable Tax Dollars
ESAs may be spent on private school tuition. Or educational equipment like computers. Or books. Or tutors. Or online education programs. Or pay for your SAT and AP exams.
Granted, whatever they do, they won't do much. The bill's sponsor said back in April that the voucher would be for about $4,400, and more recently published reports put it around $3,500-- neither an amount which is not going to get you into Phillips Exeter Academy (annual tuition about $47K). But whatever they do, the taxpayers aren't going to know much about it. The bill includes requirements that the number fo students be reported, and that parents be surveyed to find out how happy they are with the program, but there's no requirement that anybody make sure that taxpayer dollars aren't being spent on tutors from the Flat Earth Society or otherwise wasted.
This remains one of my puzzlements about voucher programs. Since when were conservatives the ones who wanted zero accountability for how their tax dollars were spent. And yet, that's what SB-193 calls for. Once you tax dollars disappear into an ESA, you'll never know how they were spent. You could call it magic, or money laundering.
At last April's hearing, bill sponsor Sen. John Regan's response to this point was that they have no idea how public schools are spending money now. Regan is the head of the Senate education committee, and this astonishingly ignorant comment was greeted with the sound of school chiefs' jaws hitting the floor (really? the Senate education committee has no access to detailed reports on school spending?).
Once again, parents will dream of being able to enroll their child in whatever school they choose. And once again, parents will be surprised to discover that they don't actually have a choice. Have a child with special disability? Want to send your child to a particular private school even though your child might not be the right race or religion? Tough. It's a private school. They don't have to accept your child if they don't want to. Thus highlighting one of the worst features of a voucher system-- taxpayers get to send their tax dollars to support a school that would refuse to educate their own child.
These vouchers will provide a nice bonus for families that can already afford private school. It will provide little or no help to the poorest and most vulnerable students in New Hampshire.
Every voucher represents money stripped from a public school system. While money may travel with the students, huge costs stay in the school district of origin, leaving that district with one of two choices-- cut programs or raise taxes.
The bill itself says it has no idea what the financial impact of the bill will be. In fact, it hilarious extends this not knowing in a chart that covers the next four years.
More Red Flags
The bill is supported by New Hampshire's Commissioner of the Department of Education, Frank Edelblut, a homeschooler businessman-turned-politician. He challenged Chris Sununu for the GOP gubernatorial nomination last year, and then threw his support behind Sununu. In return, when Sununu became governor, he handed Edelblut the education job. Edelblut has no particular background or qualifications in education, and he has been hard to pin down on issues like "should schools teach creationism?" Edelblut has been honored by one of the Koch Brothers astroturf groups, and has expressed his desire to emulate Florida, a state that ranks near the bottom the barel in educating children, but is front of the pack when it comes to letting all manner of entrepreneurs, shysters and scam artists make money in the education biz.
Edelblut thinks SB 193 is super.
On a personal note
My grandmother graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1927 and began teaching, before she married my grandfather. She intended to settle down quietly with my grandfather, but she ended up running for local school board, and then slowly worked her way up politically until she joined the NH House of Representatives in 1961 and served for over thirty years. While she spent most of her career chairing the House Environment and Agriculture committee, she also headed up the Education Committee for a time.
She was a staunch Republican of the old school. When Chris Sununu's father John was Governor, my grandmother didn't have many nice things to say about him. Later in her career, she began to feel that the GOP was deserting her. I don't think SB 193 would have appealed to her much at all.
For many people, New Hampshire is that tiny little state you hear about every four years, but it's where I was born. I lived there until I was nine, and returned regularly because that's where all of my family's family lived. It has always been a practical, solid place to me, and it hurts to see it collapse into this sort of anti-public school privatization frenzy.
The next House Education Committee meeting is November 8th. If I were still a New Hampshire resident, I would be on the phone to my representative, particularly if he's on the education committee (and this site also gives you email links). The continued gutting of public education should be resisted vigorously>