Let Families of Modest Means Choose a School


The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy

Let families of modest means choose a school

The following was written for the New Hampshire Union Leader and appeared on Wednesday, Mar. 8, 2006

WHEN 25 PERCENT of New Hampshire’s high school students drop out something needs to change.

Politicians of every stripe agree that the state’s dropout rate is a tremendous problem and the solution must include alternatives, particularly for children from lower-income families. Tellingly, the dropout rate at high schools with a wealthier population, like Hollis or Amherst, is close to zero, while it is much higher at schools with lower-income populations.

Everyone admits that the choices enjoyed by those who can afford them lead to better outcomes for their children. For more than two years the Josiah Bartlett Center has been fighting to extend those same choices to parents of lesser means.

Despite an excellent public school system, no one school will be just right for every single child. The economic power of wealthier families lets them make individual choices for individual children. But for the 25 percent of our children who drop out, their limited educational options will serve to limit their options in life.

After working for years to increase educational opportunities, the New Hampshire Legislature is poised to provide real alternatives to lower-income families. The Senate passed a bill in January that would provide a certificate to lower-income families that they could use at the school that they feel best meets their child’s needs. The House Education Committee passed its own version of a means-tested school choice bill last month.

Despite a barrage of misleading criticism, this debate is fundamentally about creating alternatives for parents of modest means, the same alternatives that wealthy families already enjoy.

A school administration lobbyist said to me during a discussion that our traditional public schools do the best possible job for the greatest number of children. And of course he’s right. In general, they do a terrific job for most children. However, no one school can possibly be right for all children. Even with tube socks, one size does not fit all.

For parents with economic means, this isn’t a problem. If one child has different needs, tuition at another school is easily accessible. As one wealthy parent described it to me, “I already have school choice for my kids.”

But parents with limited income have limited choices. All too often there is no alternative for the child that doesn’t fit into the system. School choice proposals in the Legislature are designed to create a small program for parents and students with the greatest economic need.

The city of Milwaukee has a similar targeted program that has significantly raised graduation rates. It may have been possible at one time to succeed in life without a high school diploma, but in today’s world, a child without a diploma will have few opportunities and almost certainly live on the fringes of the economy. We should have a strong economic interest and an equally strong human interest in helping at-risk children get the education they need.

Because a school choice certificate program makes so much good common sense, opponents throw up a smokescreen of misleading criticisms. They allege constitutional concerns, citing a recent case down in Florida. Yet Florida’s court has struck down only one of that state’s many choice programs by depending on a uniformity clause that does not exist in New Hampshire’s constitution. More importantly, a Josiah Bartlett Center study found the program under consideration meets the tests suggested by past New Hampshire rulings on the subject.

Some lobbyists have suggested non-public schools have a competitive advantage because of the regulations on public schools. The obvious solution is not to deny alternatives to lower-income pupils, but to work together to reduce those regulations.

Finally, some opponents of school choice will try to pretend school choice is an attack on the public school system. But the attempt to provide greater opportunities to the neediest students is nothing of the sort. New Hampshire’s public schools do a terrific job for the vast majority of students, but no system can be perfect for everyone.

Far too many of the students who need the benefit of a good education fall through the cracks and drop out. A targeted school choice program can provide students whose only current option isn’t working with an opportunity to find another choice to help them succeed.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in Concord.