When choice is not really a choice at all

Americans want choices. In fact, we demand them. Making purchasing decisions is empowering. And that’s part of what makes the concept of school choice so attractive. Wouldn’t it be great if you could choose what school your child attends?  

Senate Bill 193, which at press time had passed the state Senate and moved to the House would, if passed, establish education freedom savings accounts (ESAs). Parents who want to move their children out of a public school could tap into a designated amount of state funding to use toward sending their child elsewhere.

In Fiscal year 2018 and 2019, the base cost per pupil in NH using the state adequacy formula was calculated at $3,636.06. Parents of eligible students would receive 90 percent of this amount, or $3,272.45 to pay for private school, home school or other qualifying educational expenses.

One of the arguments for school choice is it evens the playing field for low-income students. In an op-ed published in the New Hampshire Union Leader in January 2016, then-Executive Councilor, now Governor Chris Sununu, wrote “New Hampshire families of low and moderate income should have a similar set of educational options for their children as do our more affluent citizens…. government should not create barriers to their options.”

However, there are a few problems. There is no guarantee the private school you want to send your child to will accept them as a student. Also, under the current bill parents would be given a “freedom scholarship,” which would cover less than half the tuition of a private school in NH. According to Private School Review, the average private school tuition in this state was $10,003 in 2016-17.

That means you have to cough up the rest, which would be impossible for the families that advocates claim school choice would benefit. (And this money is in addition to continuing to pay local property taxes for education in your town – no break there).

In fact, according to the Las Vegas Sun, Nevada’s ESA program is getting 10 times more applications from wealthier families in the suburbs than from inner-city families in poor neighborhoods.

In 2015, Nevada was technically the first state to pass a law establishing ESAs for every student without restriction, the same law the NH legislature is considering. I say technically because the program has been weighed down by lawsuits and the state Supreme Court ruled that using public tax dollars to fund private education was unconstitutional. The program remains in limbo.

Before proceeding, the NH legislature needs to consider what constitutional issues could arise. Also, they should narrow the scope of the law and apply income limits for the school choice program so it truly benefits lower income families. Or start small. Limited ESAs have been successfully created in Arizona and Mississippi for special education students and special circumstances including low-performing schools.

Lastly, school choice advocates in the legislature who want to expand education options could start by increasing public funding for charter schools.

We all want to do what’s best for our kids. And change can be good. But this bill as presented will not improve education for the kids of working families in NH.

Categories: Edit Note