Risking all for choice

Vouchers may help students but imperil public schools


LACONIA — School districts could lose $5.8 million in state aid, nearly $100,000 in Laconia alone, under a bill allowing public funds to be spent on private education or home schooling, according to a study by a policy analysis group.

Those are first-year effects from Senate Bill 193, according to the study by Reaching Higher NH, a nonpartisan education policy nonprofit.

Dan Vallone, director of engagement for the group, said the organization does not oppose or endorse the Senate-passed bill, which could be considered by the full House as soon as Jan. 3.

“We're just saying what a plain text reading of the bill indicates and we put it out there so people can make the best decision on what it says, what it means and what the practical implications are from a financial standpoint,” he said Thursday.


How it works

The measure would allow parents who work with an approved scholarship organization to receive the bulk of the state’s per-pupil adequate education grant, which is about $3,600, to be spent on private education or home schooling costs.

This money would no longer be available to the school district, so districts would see a loss of state aid if the bill were to pass. District officials say many of their costs are fixed and unaffected by a marginal reduction in students.

The bill would provide stabilization grants to districts for the loss of state aid exceeding one-quarter of 1 percent of the district’s voted appropriations in the prior year.

But since these grants would not cover all lost funds, costs would remain. The cost in Laconia would be $97,188, according to the study. Manchester led the list with a cost of $432,009, followed by Nashua at $407,388 and Concord at $213,684.


Stabilization grants

Assuming a 3 percent participation rate, overall state costs of stabilization grants to school districts would be $2.2 million in the first year (2018), growing to $10.1 million in year five, totaling $31 million over five years.

A comparable program in Indiana has a 3 percent participation rate. Also, unmet demand for scholarships provided in a New Hampshire tax credit program would also indicate a 3 percent participation rate could be seen here.

The bill would also allow students to join the program after being in a private preschool or kindergarten. New state spending for this group would be $2.58 million, the study found.


Participation, accountability

Most local families could meet participation requirements in the legislation that sets maximum family income at three times the federal poverty level, or $73,800 for a family of four.

In Laconia, 60 percent of students can receive free or reduced-price lunches, which are available when family income doesn’t exceed about two times the poverty level.

In its study, the organization said the bill lacks clarity about academic accountability.

“SB 193 contains accountability requirements that appear to be in contradiction with each other,” the report said. “The bill seems to compel any student who selects a voucher to take the annual statewide assessment.

“However, the bill also contains language indicating that the accountability requirements for vouchers students could be satisfied with an annual portfolio review and one other measurement tool agreed upon by the parents, the Commissioner of Education, resident superintendent, or private school principal. This issue complicates efforts to assess related potential academic impacts.”

The report also said there's nothing in the bill to prohibit the program's oversight commission from having a financial interest in education providers that could receive public money through the program.

Bill backers

Backers of the bill say it would empower parents to make the best education choices for their children. Some children might encounter bullying in a public school, or not have access to the best curriculum for their needs.

Rep. Norman Silber, R-Gilford, said he is still studying the bill, but supports it in principle.

"It's about freedom and the freedom to choose," he said. "The best people to determine how a child is to be educated are the parents.

"They can choose to send their children to public, or private non-sectarian, or parochial school or they can home school them."

On the cost question, Silber said he feels money spent on public schools doesn't translate to academic achievement. 

"In Gilford, the reality is that we're spending over $23,000 per student and the results on education achievement is miserable."

He repeated a quote he has used before.

"We're paying Cadillac and Mercedes prices and getting Yugos out of the Gilford school system."

 Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, the bill's author, said the measure would improve education outcomes.

“What we know nationwide is that any time you create any type of competition in education, you get a better product,” he said. “By introducing competition, you'll get better-trained students. This has happened all around the country, and test scores in nearby public schools have increased.”

Backers also say the financial effect on school districts would be minimal and comparable to the loss of students and state money seen in the yearly churn when students move away.

Laconia School Superintendent Brendan Minnihan has concerns about the measure.

He said it has the potential for taking support away from public schools.  

“Public schools are important for promoting democracy and getting along with people from different socio-economic groups, religions and demographics,” he said. “Public schools have an important connection to the community. Not to say other schools don't have community, but it may not be one attached to your town.”

He also said that schools are equipped with options that can give children many of the educational choices that might be sought in a private education.