Charlie Arlinghaus

May 16, 2012

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

A very small step for the state will be a huge leap for individual students if the legislature decides to adopt a modest school choice scholarship act today. Despite misleading accusations flying around from people who resist any change, the debate comes down to whether you want to provide hundreds of poorer students greater choice with little impact on the current system.

The program is simple. Businesses who chose could if they wished receive a tax credit for donations to a scholarship organization. That non-profit would give scholarships averaging $2500 to students from poorer families (the cut off is roughly the bottom half of New Hampshire households).

The total program would amount, in the first year, to less than one-tenth of 1% of education spending in New Hampshire (hardly a financial shift). The state budget would actually save a few hundred thousands of dollars each year.

Critics worry that individual towns will lose money. Yet no town would lose a dime unless it also lost students. And that’s how the state aid programs work already. Fewer students fewer dollars, more students more dollars.

One student here or there has little impact on spending but that’s true in both directions. Aid is per pupil. One more student, a town receives another $4000 even though it has no additional cost. The same is true in reverse. The first student lost saves a small amount of money while perhaps the tenth saves a great deal more because you can consolidate.

To prevent spiking problems, the school choice scholarship act contains an impact cap. As a result of this program, no town will lose more than one quarter on one percent of its total budget. I suspect that towns that deal with 5 and 10 percent increases and decreases every year can manage with a base of 99.75% of their budget.

Opponents also fret that an average scholarship of $2500 isn’t enough to help enough people. First, with an average some scholarships can be higher and others lower. More important is that no school charges sticker price. It’s much like college that way. Every non-public school has some students who attend for free and some students who pay a relatively small amount – as much as their budgets and financial aid funds allow. The mission of each of these schools is education after all.

A scholarship of $2500 will allow more students to attend for free and more students to attend for a nominal amount. The Josiah Bartlett Center has studied in detail similar programs in eight other states and this is the experience in each and every one of them. A scholarship provides more opportunity for more people.

The other canard thrown at people is the constitution. There are some who believe this program should be unconstitutional but whether it should or shouldn’t be it simply isn’t. While other programs lead to constitutional guesswork, programs of this type (an education tax credit) have been litigated nationally and in states with more or less the same language of our constitution. They have always been found constitutional because they are funded with tax credits and involve the free choice of parents.

At the end of the day, the only reason to support or oppose a school choice scholarship program is whether or not you believe in the wisdom of the goal. Children from richer families have school choice now. Poorer families do not. I honestly believe that extending a choice of schools to people who don’t have one now will result in better outcomes for individual students.

It is common sense that more choices for poorer families are better. School choice has been studied as much as any policy choice in America. Of the ten academic, random assignment studies, nine found positive impacts for participating students. One claims no change. Of the nineteen studies of the existing public schools in school choice areas, eighteen found those public schools had also gotten better. One found no change.

It’s hard not to think of this as a win-win situation. No school, good or bad, works for everyone. Allow more students more choice is. The program proposed for New Hampshire is limited to poorer families, has a modest and limited financial impact on school districts, and will make a difference in the lives of hundreds of students.

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