Friday, February 5, 2021

NH: Full Neo Voucher Assault On Public Ed

You may have heard that there is a bad voucher proposal up in New Hampshire. How bad is it? Pretty bad. I'll give you the history, the long detailed read, and the short story here.

Attempts to gut public education in the granite state are not new. Back in 2017, the GOP made an attempt to push Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) through to, as always, dodge that troublesome church-state wall thingy.

How We Got Here

Those neo-vouchers were relatively small, a mere $4,400, but came with the usual idea that the money could be spent on any education-ish thing that parents wanted to spend them on. That bill also included virtually no oversight; taxpayers would have no idea how their tax dollars were being spent. 

That attempt ultimately failed, but it highlighted the forces arrayed against public education in New Hampshire, like the GOP bill sponsor and head of the Senate education committee John Reagan who claimed that the lack of voucher accountability was no big deal because they have no idea how public schools are spending money now, which is a sign of either astonishing mendacity or astonishing incompetence.

Frank Edelblut also made an appearance in that legislative adventure. Edelblut was a businessman, venture capitalist, and one-term NH state representative. He ran for governor in 2016, but got clobbered in the primary by Chris Sununu, son of former NH governor and Bush I White House Chief of Staff arch conservative John Sununu. Edelblut conceded gracefully and threw his support behind Sununu, who then appointed Edelblut to post of Commissioner of Education for the state, where he has agitated in favor of gutting public education ever since. And no, I didn't skip over some sort of education-related credentials in his past--he has none (though he claims to be an expert because he home schooled his kids).

In 2019, Edelblut was arguing for "Learn Everywhere" a variation on micro-credentialing where you can pick up course credits any-old-where, from any-old-one. Schools would not really be necessary, and Edelblut claimed it would promote equity because anyone could take any course anywhere--except that in his initial model families were paying for the course themselves. That would have been a real obstacle to equity, but it's not hard to imagine it as a foot in the door to be followed by "Hey, we could create voucher-style ESAs to help families pay for all their micro-credentials." It was a creative approach in that while most states were working on the financial side of neo-vouchers, Edelblut decided to try setting up the course delivery system first. But that didn't ultimately fly, either.

Late in 2019, the legislature turned down about $46 million from the federal Charter School Program, the grant program that has launched millions of dollars worth of failed charter schools nationally. Edelblut was unhappy, and tried to get them to reconsider. They didn't. 

He told the Union Leader:

Do I look like someone who gives up that easily? We'll be back."

That was early in 2020, and he wasn't kidding. Late in that year, the GOP flipped both the House and Senate in NH, and the opponents of public education cheered, "Game on" and became part of the nationwide push to kick off 2021 trying to further the privatization of education in states all across the country.

The Wonky Details (You can skip to the next header for the short form)

HB 20 is only 14 pages long, but it is one of the most brutal voucher bills in the country. The thirteen sponsors are looking to establish the Richard "Dick" Hinch education freedom account program, after a conservative speaker of the house who died on January 1, 2021 of Covid. If "education freedom account" sounds familiar, that's because it's the same name that Betsy DeVos used when trying to establish a similar program on the national scale

EFAs would be funded by the state, which would simply hand over whatever support would have gone to the public school district serving that the scholarship organization that will handle the dispersal of funds. Whole new growth industry there--they can keep up to 10% of the funds involved for administrative costs. Private and public entities can also kick in "any gifts, grants or donations" they like.

The money could be spent on private school tuition (good luck with that--tuition at Phillips Exeter Academy is about $50K); on-line learning programs; tutoring; services contracted from any school, public or private, such as classes etc; textbooks or instructional materials; computer hardware; internet connection; software; school uniforms; testing fees; summer school; tech school tuition and fees; any kind of therapies; college courses; transportation to and from service provider; and pretty much any other service the scholarship organization okays (if they don't okay it, they have to explain why).

Rebates and refunds go back into the EFA. Parents can supplement the EFA any way they wish, but they can't pay into it. The EFA funds won't be taxed. The money rolls over until the student leaves the program, is axed for shenanigans, or graduates from high school. 

And just in case you don't get the implications of this unbundled approach, the law specifies that nothing in it "shall be construed to require that an EFA student be enrolled, full- or part-time, in either a private school or nonpublic online school. 

One of the striking things about this bill is that there are no apparent limits on who can get an EFA. The usual playbook is to start small, with vouchers offered to students from low-income families, or with disabilities, and then to expand those limits later. But this bill just goes for it--every student in New Hampshire can apply for one of these.

The scholarship organizations get a to-do list. They have to keep parents informed. They have to provide a written form explaining the allowable uses of the funds. They have to come up with a "commercially viable" method for paying vendors (it can't rely on reimbursing parents for out-of-pocket expenses). They have to report annually on how many students, how much money, parent info.

But when it comes to oversight? The scholarship organization has to maintain a list of available vendors, but there's no screening process for getting on that list. They have to maintain some sort of parent rating system. But any parental shenanigans is to be dealt with after the fact and after any evidence is acquired. Vendor misbehavior consist of failing to deliver what it promised or kicking cash back to parents, so things like, say, violating discrimination laws or teaching that the earth is a disc on the back of a turtle--those are okee dokee. All a vendor has to do to be on the list is submit notice that it wants to be on the list, or a parent can ask. The scholarship organization "may approve education service providers on its own initiative," but there are no criteria provided for that decision.

And the scholarship organization may most definitely and specifically not "exclude, discriminate against, or otherwise disadvantage" an education provider because of their religious "character or affiliation, including religiously based or mission-based policies or practices." So the EFAs proposed will funnel state tax dollars directly to religious organizations. 

And while there's little about oversight in the bill, there is a whole section about "Independence of Education Service Providers." Nothing in the law can limit their "independence and autonomy," and they will be given "maximum freedom." Nothing in the law can be construed to "expand the regulatory authority of the state" and taking the state's money cannot make the provider an agent of the state. And no education service provider "shall be required to alter its creed, practices, admission policies or curriculum" in order to get EFA money.

There's a legislative oversight committee, but their job is to make sure the program is running smoothly from a nuts and volts point of view. And there's a whole section about future legal problems. If a provider sues the state for being kicked out, the burden of proof is on the state. If someone tries to point out that the law is unconstitutional, parents can get involved. 

There's also a crazy appendix that throws numbers around for various scenarios to estimate financial impact. My favorite is the one that admits that when a student leaves public schools, that school will lose revenue and experience no savings, but then goes on to assume that over a three year period, the school's finances will just be okay again. 

The Short Form ( for the tl;dr crowd)

The bill makes every student in New Hampshire eligible for a neo-voucher, which can be spent on pretty much anything selected from a list of edu-vendors that will include anyone who wants to be on it. Like other ESAs, it favors unbundling and ending any need for actual schools.

There almost no oversight at all. No regular audit of the program funds. And very specific language hammering home the fact that vendors must have all their freedom. In particular, they can't be disincluded because of religious content or practices, nor required to change those in order to cash in on the program. This is a voucher program explicitly and deliberately aimed at feeding public tax dollars to private religious schools. The Iowa Satanic Temple has been punking the Iowa legislature over similar rules; NH looks ripe for the same.

There are zero protections for students in this bill. Ditto for taxpayers. 

How's It Going?

The hearing about the bill drew about 3,800 people to speak, only 600 of whom wanted to speak in favor. It will continue next Thursday. Edelblut threw out some claims, like how the bill would reduce taxpayer costs and would close the performance gap. There isn't an iota of evidence that either of these things are true. Meanwhile, folks have noticed that the bill gives a green light to any and all discrimination by education providers, as long as they claim religion. Actually, technically it doesn't look like they even have to claim religion. Folks have come from way out of state to speak about the bill. The president of NEA-NH summed it up this way:

Public school funding is open and transparent. Voucher spending is private and shrouded in secrecy. Public schools are owned, operated, and managed by the public. Private voucher scholarship companies are designed to make a profit. There are no laws or limits that prevent parents from choosing to send their children to a private, religious, or home school. Every family is free to make that choice. But that choice should never diminish another child’s education or obligate any other family to help pay for their tuition.

This is a terrible bill, destructive to public education and irresponsible in its use of public funds. It is only "empowering" if you think it would be empowering families to be given "freedom" from the damned FDA always telling them which food is safe to eat. It is the ultimate in the voucher idea that the state can hand parents some money and wash its hands of any responsibility for them. It is really about "empowering" vendors to rake in some of that sweet, sweet public money while operating as they please. It is the vendors, not the families, that get to exercise choice in this system. Here's hoping folks in New Hampshire can squash it flat.

1 comment:

  1. To what extent could Miguel Cardona, assuming he is confirmed, make this a very difficult thing to do?
    Recalling Arne Duncan's use of NCLB Vouchers, might a similar program aimed
    in the opposite direction (towards solidifying Public Education and Teacher Professionalism), possibly be viable?