To help lower-income students at risk of falling further behind in the 2020-21 school year, Gov. Chris Sununu allocated $1.5 million out of $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief aid to scholarships students whose families earn no more than 300% of the federal poverty level. Much of the coverage and commentary about this modest effort to help these students has been inaccurate or misleading.

This is hardly surprising, as attacks on these scholarship programs have always consisted largely of misinformation. Here we explain some of the misleading claims being made in attacks on the governor for offering aid to lower-income students.

 

Claim: This is a taxpayer giveaway to private schools.

Fact: This aid goes to low-income families via two non-profit scholarship organizations that administer New Hampshire’s tax credit scholarships. Those organizations give scholarships directly to families, not to private schools. By law, families may use these scholarships at any private or parochial school, at any public school outside their home district, or to home school their children. The money is not direct aid to private schools. It is aid to families, who are free to choose public schools if they wish. They tend not to choose public schools, which are more expensive than most of the private or home-schooling options.

 

Claim: The scholarship organizations are sitting on $1.7 million in unspent funds from the last school year.

Fact: The $1.7 million listed as unspent in the scholarship organizations’ 2018-19 annual reports was used for scholarships awarded in 2019-20. It is not cash sitting in reserve. The effort to paint these funds as cash-rich is deliberately misleading. (The way the groups collect and spend money has been explained to legislators and education activists repeatedly.) The scholarship organizations collect money in one academic year for distribution the following academic year.

 

Claim: Money slotted for the education of children must go to public schools only.

Fact: New Hampshire has never reserved education spending exclusively for public schools. In the 19th century, municipalities would sometimes pay private schools to educate students.  State law allows public education funds to pay for tuition at private schools in some circumstances. The goal of public education is to pay for students to become educated, not to fund one particular institution exclusively, particularly if that institution offers some students an inadequate education. On average, minority and lower-income students significantly underperform white and more affluent students in public schools. There is evidence that this gap has widened during the hastily improvised remote instruction period in 2020 (see here and here). The $1.5 million is not being set aside to fund private schools, but to shrink that achievement gap by giving lower-income families the ability to access an education that will work better for their children.

 

Claim: The scholarships will equal roughly $1,875 per pupil, much higher than the few hundred dollars per pupil that public schools are receiving.

Fact: Breaking down the coronavirus education aid this way creates the misleading impression that taxpayers are being cheated. The opposite is true; they are realizing an amazing bargain. New Hampshire public schools spend an average of $19,806 per pupil, including capital and transportation spending. Of that $19,806, more than $12,000 of local taxpayer money will remain in the local public school after a scholarship student leaves. On average, the state’s portion is more than $5,000 to educate each of these students (depending on how much additional state aid they get for special educational needs and socio-economic status). With these scholarships, the state would spend a paltry $1.5 million to educate approximately 800 students ($1,875 per student), instead of more than $4 million to educate them in a traditional public school.

Including all state, local and federal spending, the value is even more stunning. For a mere $1.5 million, the state is buying an education for 800 students that would cost more than ten times as much ($15.8 million) in a traditional public school.

Furthermore, if the $1.5 million in question were divided among all New Hampshire public school students, it would equal an additional $8.65 per student, producing no noticeable impact on student achievement. Using these funds to provide scholarships for students most at risk of falling behind would save taxpayers money while freeing up space in public school classrooms when space is at a premium.

 

Summary: This supposed controversy really isn’t about what’s best for the at-risk students who will be winning scholarships or about taxpayer value. It’s about whether families ought to be empowered to choose an alternative education. For some, anything that allows families to choose an alternative to their assigned public school — even another public school in a different district — must be crushed. That’s the basis of the objection, which is really a shame.   

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