June 27, 2012
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
In what can only be a sign of the coming of the apocalypse, the single best piece written on school choice over the last year was a Thursday editorial in the normally quite liberal Washington Post. On Veto Day in New Hampshire, legislators ought to ignore the hand-wringing of our current governor and instead read the Post’s article extolling the importance of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.
The importance of educational opportunity was summed up by the reliably liberal Post: “the opportunity to send their children to better schools — a choice taken for granted by many Americans, including some who are in Congress and the White House — is something beyond measure.”
This one sentence explains why a liberal newspaper would wax poetic about school choice and why many of us in New Hampshire are pushing for a School Choice Scholarship Program. In New Hampshire, rich people have choices, poor people do not. The Post points out that the privileged in Washington — the children of most senators in both parties for example — have a variety of options and rarely are sent to the school assigned by their zip code.
New Hampshire has better public schools than Washington has. Yet no one seriously argues that every school is the best choice for every child in its zip code. Those who have the means are able to make choices. Sometimes they choose the local school, sometimes an alternative school. Families of lesser means are left out.
In their criticism of a very modest school choice program, Gov. John Lynch and his fellow naysayers argue that this is some sort of attempt to “weaken our public school system.” The Post faced similar arguments to the D.C. scholarship program. It points out that “studies have shown its success in boosting graduation rates of its participants, and contrary to the fiction of its critics, it doesn’t drain resources from public education. Giving parents a choice and improving public schools are not mutually exclusive.”
New Hampshire’s program remains a very mild experiment from the standpoint of school budgets. No school district sees any reduction in state aid unless it has fewer students. Even then, its loss is fractional. To alleviate any concern an individual district might have, the total amount of money reduced as a result of this program is capped at a minute 1/4 of 1 percent of its budget. In a state where 5 percent swings in enrollment are commonplace, no one can be expected to believe that 99.75 percent of funding plus the increases every district sees normally is somehow catastrophic.
Opponents also disingenuously claim the scholarships won’t actually help anyone who needs one. The bills are limited to lower-income students. As the governor pointed out last week, “these bills do limit eligibility to students from families at 300 percent of the federal poverty level.” Opponents admit that aid is targeted but claim the scholarship amount — required to average $2,500 — isn’t enough to help with tuition. What they don’t tell you, although surely they know, is that virtually no one pays sticker price for tuition. Every school in New Hampshire has some kids who pay zero and some who pay a small amount. Scholarships of $2,500 will allow more kids to attend for free and more kids to attend for nominal amounts.
The Washington Post wrote that a deal on the D.C. scholarship program “will allow more D.C. families to attend better schools.” The same is true in New Hampshire. More students will have more choices in a modest step forward in educational opportunity.
As modest as the program is for the overall budget, we can’t lose sight of those for whom the program is not modest in the least: students who will have new opportunities. The Post concluded the editorial it titled “The Right Answer” with a call for budget writers to remember what’s important: “What shouldn’t get forgotten in this seemingly endless fight are the people with the most at stake: parents who simply want what’s best for their children.”
In New Hampshire, what will be a modest step for the state and localities and have a negligible impact on what they do and how they do it can have a profound impact on the lives of individual students and the opportunities they don’t currently have.
Today, legislators have a rare opportunity to make an enormous difference in the future of individual students.