Charlie Arlinghaus

March 28, 2012

As originally publish in the New Hampshire Union Leader

The School Choice Scholarship Act being considered in both the New Hampshire House and Senate is a modest step toward providing children of lesser means with the greater educational opportunity long afforded students from high income families.

It is a truism in education that rich people have school choice and poor people don’t. Statistically in New Hampshire, 30% of children from upper income families go to non-public school. At the lower ends of the income spectrum, only 5% do. In addition, higher-income families have greater economic mobility and are more likely to be able to pick a public school district by moving. Those families who can move more easily, who can afford more choices, have more opportunity and often better outcomes because of those choices.

New Hampshire’s public schools, in the aggregate, are among the best in the country. But one single choice assigned on the basis of zip code not educational requirements can not possibly work well for everyone even if it works well for most. Every student is better off if ha or she has more than one choice.

The goal of the school choice movement in New Hampshire is to give more choices to more people. In 2012 the focus of that effort is a means tested, education tax credit based scholarship bill.

First and foremost, the bill is a good idea because it provides scholarships, funded entirely by tax credits and private donations, to students from lower income families that can be used at any approved school, public or non-public, in New Hampshire.

The local school will be a terrific option for many children but not for every child. Now more children will have more opportunity to explore more choices. That’s a good thing.

While opponents have raised some technical concerns, opposition essentially come down to philosophy. Some opponents don’t believe greater educational opportunity should come at nonpublic schools. But I think we presume that the one assigned school isn’t always going to be the right choice, we ought not object to a different provider.

Financially, the bill benefits the state budget. The scholarship amount, and the tax credit for that scholarship, is smaller than the state per pupil aid so each child who moves saves the state budget money. Our calculation at the Josiah Bartlett Center is that the state budget would save between $1.5 and $2.5 million each year.

Local school districts would see less money in total only if they had fewer students. Just as today, if a school has fewer students, its per pupil aid declines. Under this program, a district would have fewer dollars and fewer students but more money per student because the amount lost is less than a third of New Hampshire’s $15,000 per pupil spending.

There are always constitutional questions about school choice. A study my organization did in 2004 found that even a voucher program properly constructed should be constitutional. Nonetheless, what we think a court should do and what they might do aren’t the same thing.

However, a tax credit program is a step removed. Based on jurisprudence across the country dealing with very similar language, tax credit programs will be found constitutional although some opponents think they shouldn’t be.

At the end of the day, this is a modest attempt to provide some children with scholarships. The total size of the program amounts to less than one-quarter of one percent of the $2.7 billion spent in New Hampshire on K-12 education.

The average scholarship is small but critical to opportunity. While $2500 is not full tuition, the sticker price is not what almost any student pays. Every non-public school has some children who pay zero and some children who pay very little based on need.  This program will allow a school to educate more students.

So much of what we talk about in public policy is based on spreadsheets and politics. This program is perhaps the most important proposal the legislature will consider this year. It may not change the dynamic of education in the aggregate but it will make an enormous difference in the lives of thousands of individual students.

A School Choice Scholarship Program is a modest step for the state government to make. But modest steps can be huge leaps for individual students.

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