Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) will not decimate public school budgets, a report released today by the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy shows. In fact, even using a high average cost for each ESA and a high ESA take up rate of 5 percent, the report shows that every school district in New Hampshire would keep more than 98 percent of its operating budget.

“Education Savings Accounts will not defund traditional public schools,” Josiah Bartlett Center Interim President Andrew Cline said. “Even using opponents’ most dire prediction, in which 5 percent of New Hampshire students take advantage of ESAs to pursue educational opportunities outside of their assigned district, districts hold on to more than 98 percent of their funding.”

The report, “Will Education Savings Accounts Decimate Public Schools? Putting ESA Funding in Context,” used a high average ESA cost that included what is called “differentiated aid,” the extra funding for students that have additional needs, such as having an Individualized Education Program or being eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Under Senate Bill 193, the ESA bill being considered in the Legislature, ESA funding would consist of 95 percent of a student’s state base adequate education grant plus most differentiated aid, if eligible.

Based on a high average ESA cost, the report calculates the financial impact on school districts if 1 percent or 5 percent of students choose an ESA. The report finds that if 1 percent of students leave statewide, school districts keep 99.7 percent of their operating budgets. If 5 percent of students leave, districts keep 98.7 percent of their budgets. Even under the 5 percent scenario, every district keeps more than 98 percent of its budget. These figures show the financial impact without the stabilization grants that are included in the latest House version of the bill. With those grants, the impact would be even smaller.

The report also considers whether a 1 percent or 5 percent enrollment decline would be unusually large. Looking back at state enrollment data from 2010-2015, the report finds that the average enrollment change over that time was a drop of 7 percent. That average decline is 40 percent larger than the 5 percent decline that some ESA opponents have used to portray ESAs as a massive threat to public school districts.

The report also calculates the amount of stabilization grant money each district would receive under the latest version of Senate Bill 193. The House version of the bill would distribute stabilization grants if a district loses at least 1/4 of 1 percent of its state adequate education grant funding. The grants would replace everything above 1/4 of 1 percent. The report shows how much money each district would receive in stabilization grants if 1 percent or 5 percent of students choose an ESA. If 1 percent of students choose an ESA, the stabilization grant would come to $950 per ESA. If 5 percent of students choose an ESA, the stabilization grant would come to $3,666 per ESA.

For the full report, click here:

ESA District Financial Impact

 

Debunking the Top Five Myths about Senate Bill 193,
 Education Savings Accounts

November 7, 2017

The House Education Committee meets on Wednesday, Nov. 8, to consider Senate Bill 193, a bill to establish Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) in New Hampshire.  This briefing paper dispels several myths about the bill.

SB 193 would establish ESAs that parents could use to purchase qualifying educational products or services.  ESAs work much like Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) do.  Parents could use them for education-specific purposes such as textbooks, tutors, transportation to and from school, or tuition at public or non-public schools.

Some of the myths are conceptual in nature (a failure to understand how the bill fits into the state’s public education framework).  Some are technical in nature.  This paper corrects the five biggest myths.

 

MYTH 1:  SB 193 drains money from public education.

REALITY:  SB 193 expands public education and empowers families.

This is a common misconception caused by the tendency to think of local public schools as the only providers of public education.  In fact, any educational endeavor financed by the public to meet the state’s constitutional obligation under Article 83 constitutes public education.  In New Hampshire (and in many other states, including Maine and Vermont), public education often is provided through tuition contracts with private schools.  Local school boards pay private schools to educate students.  SB 193 simply creates a different type of tuition contract.

The SB 193 model grants parents, rather than school boards or superintendents, more say in where state education grant money is spent, but those dollars continue to be spent exclusively on education.

 

MYTH 2:  Administrative expenses are outrageously high under SB 193.

REALITY:  SB 193 actually cuts administrative expenses almost in half.

Under SB 193, ESAs would be administered by a scholarship organization.  Five percent of a student’s per-pupil adequate education grant would be allotted to the scholarship organization to cover administrative costs.  Opponents say this wastes money that should be devoted to public education.  But that 5 percent fee is about half what the public school system currently spends on administration.

According to state Department of Education data (https://www.education.nh.gov/data/documents/summ_rev15_16.pdf), administration expenses at the public school level come to 5.5 percent (already higher than the 5 percent scholarship organizations receive in SB 193).  In addition, school districts have their own administrative expenses, which come to 4.2 percent of school district budgets.  The separate category of “business services” adds an additional 0.6 percent.

In total, 9.76 percent of public school system spending in New Hampshire is dedicated to administration if “business services” are included, 9.7 percent if “business services” are excluded.  Contrary to opponents’ claims, SB 193 reduces administrative costs and leaves more state grant money to be spent directly on education.

 

MYTH 3:  SB 193 would benefit only the rich because of private school costs.

REALITY:  SB 193 puts educational alternatives within reach of middle-income and low-income families.

The term “private school” conjures images of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, or of real-life elite boarding schools such as Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter.  But elite prep schools do not represent the typical private school in New Hampshire.

Private School Review (https://www.privateschoolreview.com/new-hampshire) puts the average private school tuition in New Hampshire at $8,546 for elementary schools and $29,383 for high schools, but the handful of elite institutions skews the high school figure.  To get a more accurate look at costs, a 2012 Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy study (https://www.jbartlett.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Choosing-to-Learn.2.pdf) examined the figures for the 10 most populous municipalities in the state (which is where most scholarship activity will take place).  The study also obtained, where possible, the actual tuition paid by low-income families, which is typically much lower than the sticker price.

Not surprisingly, the private school tuition sticker price is higher than what families actually pay.  The study found the average elementary school tuition to be $6,328 and the average high school tuition to be $9,302.  Public school costs much more, state figures show (https://www.education.nh.gov/data/documents/ave_pupil15_16.pdf).  The average per-pupil expense is $15,033 at New Hampshire’s public elementary schools and $15,068 at New Hampshire’s public high schools.

SB 193 lets families spend 95 percent of their per-pupil adequate education grant of $3,636, which comes to $3,454.  That sum would cut the average out-of-pocket cost to $2,874 for elementary school and $5,848 for high school.

SB 193 also lets students use differentiated aid (extra money given to students who are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch ($1,818) or who qualify for special education aid ($1,956).  A low-income special education student would receive 100 percent of differentiated aid plus 95 percent of his or her adequate education grant, for a total of $7,228.  That sum would cover 100% of the average private elementary school cost and 77 percent of the average private high school cost (all but $2,074).

 

MYTH 4:  Only the best, brightest and most advantaged students will apply.

REALITY:  Evidence from existing choice programs shows that they attract more disadvantaged students.

This myth can be tested by looking at New Hampshire’s existing Children’s Scholarship Fund.  Created in 2012 when legislators passed the Opportunity Scholarship Act, the program allows businesses to receive tax breaks for financing scholarships that families can use to pay for private school tuition.  Families receiving scholarships must have incomes no higher than 300 percent of the federal poverty level.  Although a family of four with an income of up to $73,800 qualifies, more than three-quarters of scholarship recipients come from low-income families.  Of the 260 Children’s Scholarship Fund recipients, 199 (77 percent) come from families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which for a family of four would be $45,510 or less.

A 2017 Florida State University study (http://www.stepupforstudents.org/wp-content/uploads/FTC_Report1516.pdf) of the nation’s largest school choice program, Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarships, found that the program attracted higher proportions of minority and low-income students (about 70 percent of participants), and that applicants had lower test scores on average than eligible non-applicants before entering the program.  The study also found that participants came from lower-performing schools.  Moreover, after receiving a scholarship, these low-income students improved their performance to that of the national average for students from all income brackets.

 

MYTH 5:  SB 193 will produce a mass exodus from the public school system.

REALITY:  ESAs will likely attract a small percentage of public school students.

This allegation is made against every form of school choice program.  It was made against the opportunity scholarship program (see Myth 4) created by the Legislature in 2012, and it turned out to be completely wrong.

In truth, scholarship programs tend to be attractive to families with few economic resources whose children really struggle in a traditional public school setting.  A standard bell curve model would suggest that scholarships would appeal to a small number of families on the lower end of the curve, and that has been the experience with the opportunity scholarship program.  Now four years old, the program serves only 260 students, and more than three-quarters of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Even the nation’s largest school choice programs typically serve fewer than 5 percent of students, and seldom more than 1 percent in the first year of operation.   Rather than being a giveaway to rich families with involved parents, scholarship programs tend to serve low-income families who are desperate to find educational alternatives for their children.  This is because ESAs provide options for families who otherwise have none.

It is worth noting that Florida’s scholarship program was found last year to increase college attendance by 6 percent (http://sunshinestatenews.com/story/tax-credit-scholarship-program-students-more-likely-attend-college-study-shows).  Given that scholarship recipients are more likely to be low-income, minority students from poor-performing schools, that is a huge achievement, which we should strive to replicate in New Hampshire.

 

The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy is a non-profit, non-partisan, independent  think tank focused on offering free-market solutions to state and local public policy issues.  Published by the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, P.O. Box 897, Concord, NH, 03302.

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Sept. 6, 2017

CONTACT: Richard Komer, Institute for Justice, 703-682-9320

New study shows how Educational Savings Accounts are constitutional in NH 

CONCORD —A legal review by the Institute for Justice, done in conjunction with the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, shows that Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) are constitutional under both the New Hampshire and United States constitutions.

“There is no doubt that an ESA program in New Hampshire would comport with the U.S. Constitution, and in this paper we conclude that the program would also pass muster under the New Hampshire Constitution,” Institute for Justice Senior Attorney and report co-author Richard Komer said.

The paper, “The Constitutionality of Educational Savings Accounts in New Hampshire,” by Komer and Institute for Justice Attorney Timothy Keller, reviews court opinions that have been issued in relation two New Hampshire’s two constitutional provisions written to prohibit direct taxpayer financing of sectarian religious instruction.

“These two provisions, properly interpreted, do not preclude religiously neutral educational assistance programs that aid parents and families rather than private and religious schools per se,” the study concludes.

The study is relevant to the ongoing debate over Educational Savings Accounts in New Hampshire. A bill to establish ESAs, Senate Bill 193, was retained in committee in the Legislature this year and could be brought forward next year.

“Legal questions about the use of public funds to educate our children can be confusing given the complex history and competing public interests involved,” Andrew Cline, interim president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, said. “This paper provides some much-needed clarity to show that there are, in fact, ways that Educational Savings Accounts can meet constitutional muster in New Hampshire.”

Educational Savings Accounts are restricted financial accounts that can be used for a limited array of educational purchases. A family that does not find the local public school satisfactory may have a child’s per-pupil allotment of school funds deposited into the account. That money can then be spent (typically via debit card) to purchase an education not necessarily provided by the local public school.

Copies of the study are available on the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy’s website, www.jbartlett.org (see link below).

 

JBC_IJ_NH ESA Opinion Final

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Charlie Arlinghaus

October 28, 2015

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

The state is refusing to defend itself and the governor is attacking herself for having bad ideas. Welcome to the world of education funding where lawsuits make everyone weird and no one seems to be able to figure out which way is up.

The City of Dover is suing the state because an education funding law in place for years limits the amount their state education aid increases. To make matters more confused, Dover’s lawsuit stipulates that they do not and will not agree that the underlying system is constitutional only that there is an unconstitutional cap on a system that they don’t have an opinion on.

With much fanfare a few legislatures ago, the state passed a new education aid formula to govern the distribution of state education aid. It was said to be “more constitutional” but from the beginning it made concessions and alterations and had caveats.

About one-third of the $3 billion in school spending comes from state revenue sources. That is distributed through a complicated formula based largely on the number of pupils in a given district in a given year. The formula creates a number but that number is then modified to make sure no town loses too much funding or gains funding rapidly and to make sure there are no net donor towns.

The law was duly passed and reauthorized multiple times. The state’s Attorney General is charged with defending the state of NH and its laws in court. If we pass a law and are sued, they are the state’s attorney. But not this time.

The law was passed by both houses of the legislature. Capping increases has been voted for by Democratic legislatures, Republican legislatures, and divided legislatures. It was signed by Governor Lynch, supported multiple times by Governor Hassan. There is no evidence that the Attorney General or legal counsels for any legislative chamber or governor’s staff protested.

Today is a different story. The Attorney General has decided that it will not defend the law as passed and reaffirmed so many times. The governor who proposed caps in her budget and didn’t support legislative plans to eliminate them has had a change of heart. She announced she agrees with the Attorney General and that she hopes the legislature will “fully fund” what the districts want.

To “fully fund” would require $14 million for Dover alone and another $25 million for the other cities and towns. Presumably the governor’s next press release will include a proposal for just where that money would come from.

Fortunately for taxpayers, the legislative legal counsels have announced they will take up the baton cast aside by the executive branch and defend the law. Senate legal counsel Rick Lehman takes the position “the legislature passed the law, it should be defended.” He and the House legal counsel, Chuck Douglas, will be defending the law. If they are successful, Governor Hassan won’t need to figure out how to find an additional $40 million to pay for her press release.

The lawsuit underscores the serious issues related to education funding that have been ignored for most of the last decade. Our whole approach is and has been contradictory.

When a newly installed legislature passed a new formula in 2008 they trumpeted their constitutional nobility in contrast to the supposed compromisers and slackers of previous legislatures who made political calculations at the supposed expense of the guidelines set out by court opinions. Yet in doing so, they specifically made an exception for towns with excess property tax — the old donor towns.

The law also sought to exempt towns losing students from the law and not do too much right away for towns gaining students. In essence, the legislatures and governors made political decisions about how aid should be distributed as a practical matter — the same kind of decision lawmakers make on every subject under the sun.

The lawsuit seeks not just to abrogate a law but also to have the court appropriate money — a function expressly limited to the legislative branch. It seems like that would have been worth defending.

Improving Outcomes through Choice

August 2015

Alicia Humphrey

Summary: Despite a recent shift toward national control over education policy, New Hampshire has implemented a variety of measures designed to embrace localization and flexibility. Some of the policies that have arisen include a new learning model, raised teacher quality, promotion of charter schools, and a raised dropout age. Data shows that these state-based innovations emphasizing school choice have led to increased success for New Hampshire public schools as compared to the state under national mandates.

Americans have become accustomed to viewing public education through a national lens. In the past, most power was left to local schools and politicians. However, since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1950 and continuing to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the Department of Education’s Race to the Top initiative of 2009, the federal government has taken and maintained increased control over schools through mandates, incentives, and funding. Although these initiatives represent sincere efforts to improve a struggling national public education system, the reality is that increased federal oversight often has the opposite effect by complicating matters with complex rules and regulations.

Once given the opportunity by President Barack Obama in 2013, New Hampshire, along with a majority of states, opted out of the unrealistic requirements of No Child Left Behind, leaving the state much freer to improve its education system on its own terms. New Hampshire has been quite successful in its attempts to reform due to a core recognition of the necessity of school choice and the rejection of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to education. To date, New Hampshire has quite successfully taken reformation of its public school system into its own hands through an innovative new learning model, raising teacher quality, promoting charter schools, and raising the dropout age, just to mention a few examples.

 

Student Focused Learning Models:

One of New Hampshire’s educational innovations is the new competency-based learning model.[1] Although this model exists in conjunction with the Common Core standards that largely govern what is taught, it certainly represents a move toward local flexibility and choice concerning how material is taught. In an unprecedented move amounting to nothing less than a complete revamp of the old learning system, New Hampshire has required statewide adoption of the competency-based model.

The change resulted from coordinated efforts including former Governor John Lynch, Former Education Commissioner Lyonel B. Tracy, and the State Board of Education in 2005. The new model replaces the traditional Carnegie Unit learning model based on passing versus failing letter grades. With the new model, learning will be based on competency broken up into individual objectives with mastery as the goal and time spent in the classroom as the variable instead of vice versa. The idea behind the new competency-based model is that it will remedy the Carnegie model’s lack of sensitivity to unique student needs due to its all-or-nothing approach to passing or failing a subject in a set amount of time.

 

Choices for Students:

The competency-based model is revolutionary in that it will allow students a choice to demonstrate mastery in a variety of ways and places other than standardized examinations in traditional classrooms—for example, through Extended Learning Opportunities (ELOs), Learning Seminars, and Place-Based Learning projects. These options have arisen organically in various New Hampshire schools due to the policy’s flexibility and focus on local control rather than federal oversight. ELOs are student-initiated in that they do not replace traditional schooling, but simply allow for it to be sculpted around each student’s interests; for example, students in the past have chosen to study everything from genetically modified organisms in farms in their communities to glassmaking and jewelry design in conjunction with their regular coursework.

Some schools have allowed students to participate in Learning Seminars for an entire year, in which they pursue and research a project of their choice centered on a problem they want to solve. Place-Based Learning projects are similar to Learning Seminars, but emphasize the importance of problem solving in the student’s specific community. Countless other opportunities like these have appeared in New Hampshire schools, most finding success due to their goal of individualizing and personalizing education for students through the more flexible and locally oriented competency model, which emphasizes choice over a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

 

Choice for Local School Districts:

It is not only students that have an increased choice now, but school districts as well; as of the 2008-2009 school year, districts in the state can choose to use the state’s competency models for English/Language Arts, Math, Science, and Work Practices (soon to include Arts and Social Studies), but these districts have the freedom to opt to design a more individualized one if they so choose. With this flexibility comes the freedom to change slowly; some schools have remained loyal to the more traditional, time-based practices of the Carnegie model, such as Oyster River High School in Durham. However, many more have been quick to adapt by creating unique opportunities for students to move at a more flexible and personalized pace, such as Milan Village Elementary School in Milan and North Country Charter Academy in Littleton and Lancaster.[2] Despite the risks that accompany these localized policies, the huge changes and successes under the competency model were made possible by the freedom, flexibility, and choice granted to schools to create programs to help students in very different communities and situations as opposed to more stifling national mandates.

Ensuring Teacher Quality:

This new learning model means little without excellent teachers to implement it; in response, the state has taken a variety of measures drawn to raise teacher quality. The state has created only five alternative certification routes other than the traditional method of certification at an undergraduate university or college: Alternative One requires a program of professional preparation in education along with a chairperson recommendation, Alternative Two is open for certified teachers from other states, Alternative Three requires a written exam and oral review, Alternative Four requires superintendent recruitment for teaching in high-need areas, and Alternative Five is an on-the-job training option that nevertheless requires a Bachelor’s degree.[3] This policy choice is compared to that of many other states, which often offer nearly double those alternative options with much looser requirements. For example, Kentucky has eight, including one which allows certification for anyone who has simply served in the armed forces for at least six years and holds a Bachelor’s degree in the subject area he or she wishes to teach with only a 2.5 GPA upon graduation.[4]

Although New Hampshire’s choice in policy may sound like a discouragement to many hopeful teachers-to-be, the unfortunate reality is that these alternative routes are just that: alternative. They often encourage lesser trained teachers to enter the profession as soon as possible, focusing on adults’ convenience instead of what is best for students. New Hampshire tackles this delicate issue by making the programs available for aspiring teachers who may not fit into the traditional mold, but simultaneously not overly plentiful and easy to complete. It is precisely the state’s ability to adopt these alternative certification methods

differing than those of many other states that has led to increased success in recruiting excellent teachers.

The more stringent method to becoming a teacher has had many benefits, one of those being a high level availability of excellent certified teachers; the 12.2 to 1 student-to-teacher ratio is one of the nation’s best and is extremely conducive to individualized attention and therefore improved learning and mastery for students inside the classroom. The financial benefit of teaching explains this in part; New Hampshire teachers make an average of about $50,245 a year or 117% of the state’s average income (an average of $3,900 more for those with Master’s degrees), making the job more prestigious and worthwhile, therefore attracting the highest quality teachers.[5]

School Choice:

It is especially in charter schools this high teacher quality is the easiest to see. These schools free of the bureaucratic red tape so common in the traditional public sphere—translating to increased teacher freedom in the classroom—have been shown to attract the best and brightest teachers from more prestigious and selective colleges, more so than in non-charter schools.[6] Furthermore, as charter schools possess less strict regulations concerning hiring practices as compared to traditional public schools, administrators have the ability to use their judgement to choose the best teachers for their individual schools and students. Largely because of these differences that allow for localized control and the flexibility to create schools that function best in unique communities, charter schools have been shown to be generally more effective than traditional public schools. Despite this success, spending per student for charter schools remains at a 40% of the money spent on traditional public schools.[7] In order to truly promote a culture of school choice, it is imperative to continue to increase funding to charters and responsibly reduce the accreditation burden for the schools in order to continue this success.

Addressing Dropout Rates:

These developments again are meaningless unless students are habitually present in the classroom. In 2008, New Hampshire increased its state dropout age to 18 from the more nationally common 16. Although dropout rates were already on the decline in New Hampshire, only one year after this simple yet effective legislation, dropout rate began to plummet at a more rapid rate.[8] This trend of notable decrease post-legislation remains despite two different formulas used to calculate dropout rates in New Hampshire in the 2000s. [9]

Even with the exception of the only dropout rate rise in the past ten years occurring in 2011, the rate during that year is still the second lowest the state has ever seen.[10] With fewer students dropping out, New Hampshire saw an increase in graduation rates. In 2010, the state’s graduation rate was at 86.3%, ranking in the top nine of all U.S. states, compared to the national average of 78.2%.

DropoutRates

 

Two years later, dropout rate was 1.26% compared to the national average of 7%.[11] It is no wonder that the state’s many innovations have been effective with a nearly complete student body present, passing, and eventually graduating from high school at one of the highest rates in the country. The state’s willingness and ability to stray from the norm and create policies that work for its students instead of adhering to the national status quo has created one of the most successful public education systems in the country.

Though it is difficult to entirely attribute the state’s success to the specific programs and initiatives previously described, it is impossible to deny the success of New Hampshire’s recent education policies as a whole; in 2013, the average eighth grade NAEP reading score was eight points above the national average and the math average was up by twelve, the average SAT score of students graduating high school was 1567 compared to the national average of 1498, and the four-year college graduation rate was 62% compared to the national average of 39%.[12]

Conclusion:

As New Hampshire has implemented countless creative education policies in the past few years that have led to these impressive results, the state has found that true success couples this progressive thinking with a focus on local authority over the schools and students they know best. Taking a lesson from the failed No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, New Hampshire’s initiatives have focused on grassroots feedback from students, teachers, and local leaders. State leaders have created truly effective and organic programs and policies centered on school choice as opposed to setting national goals with little flexibility or sensitivity to specific state needs. New Hampshire has demonstrated that although the ideas of innovation and localization may be construed to be opposites, in order to truly develop and advance, it is often necessary to embrace tradition.

 

Click here to download a pdf version of this paper


 

 

[1] New Hampshire Story of Transformation. New Hampshire Department of Education, 2014.

[2] Freeland, Julia. “From Policy to Practice: How Competency-based Education Is Evolving in New Hampshire.” Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, May 2014.

[3] Alternatives for Certification. New Hampshire Department of Education, 2012

[4] Education Professional Standards Board Certification Division – Alternative Route Option 5. Kentucky Department of Education, 2015

[5] New Hampshire Story of Transformation. New Hampshire Department of Education, 2014.

[6] Finne, Liv. “An Option for Learning: An Assessment of Student Achievement in Charter Public Schools” Washington Policy Center, Jan. 2011.

[7] New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools, www.nhcharterschools.org/home/index.php/stats-charts-graphs

[8] Bosse, Grant. “NH Drop Out Rate not dropping as quickly as government claims”, New Hampshire Watchdog, 09 Mar. 2011

[9] Dropouts and Completers, Data Collection and Reports. New Hampshire Department of Education, 2012.

[10] Bosse, Grant. “NH Drop Out Rate Jumped in 2011.”. New Hampshire Watchdog

[11] New Hampshire Story of Transformation. New Hampshire Department of Education, 2014.

[12] New Hampshire Story of Transformation. New Hampshire Department of Education, 2014.

Charlie Arlinghaus

May 27, 2015

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Oddly, State Senators who claim to be supportive of charter schools are doing their best to destroy them. Perhaps charter schools would have been better off to have outright enemies in charge rather than pretend supporters whose token gestures will do more to close these alternative schools than active opposition would.

After years of apathy toward charter schools, the state Senate has signaled its intention to out-mediocre the House and offer these schools the most nominal of Band-Aids that will help the schools almost not at all but create the tiniest of fig leafs for a handful of politicians.

New Hampshire is one of 43 states that have charter schools, which are alternative public schools that charge no tuition and are open to all. The goal of this reform has always been to provide alternatives for students. No one school can possibly serve every single student assigned by zip code equally well.

These innovative alternatives have proven popular with students and parents alike. They serve as a small but valuable part of the public education system. About 2 percent of the 183,000 students in New Hampshire’s public system are enrolled in charter schools.

Charters are an alternative system, and it was always anticipated they would cost somewhat less than the traditional school. But that gap has grown and grown and grown. The Legislature has been promising for each of the last three or four budgets that something will be done to address the cost issue. When the charter school appropriation was set in 2008 at $5,450 per student, no one thought that amount would be stagnant for the next decade.

At the time, traditional public schools spent an average of $12,935 per student (according to the state Department of Education). Since then, spending at traditional public schools has increased to $17,233 in the current school year. In contrast, charter schools have languished at $5,450 — just 32 percent of the funding at the other public schools.

I was critical when the House passed a lackluster proposal to increase spending by just $36 and then an additional $1,000 two school years from now. I felt sure at the time that senators would regard the House action as lackluster too.Unfortunately, the Senate decided to double down on mediocrity. Most senators have known and have been willing to say publicly for the last five years that it was difficult and getting close to impossible for charter schools to exist on an amount that was well below operating costs seven years ago. Schools were misled to believe that if they could survive the drought that the obvious cost issue would be redressed this year. But as has happened so often in the past, the hope was futile. The Legislature is poised to do the moral equivalent of nothing.

Senators have kept the $36 increase in the budget for next year. I don’t think I’m the only one who regards the $36 as such a small amount as to resemble an inside joke, with budget writers snickering as they include it in the budget. They also lowered the second-year adjustment to $250.

Over the last seven years, traditional public schools have seen an increase of $4,298 per student. To adjust charter schools, senators propose $286, which they describe as very generous. Despite that, one senator was heard, quite nonsensically, to object to charter schools getting more money than traditional schools.

Senators know, though perhaps they don’t believe, that the average charter school finds that costs exceed revenue by between $2,000 and $2,500 per student. Without any deep investigation, that seems quite sensible. Even if funding were to increase by $2,000, charter schools would still spend less than half per student what traditional schools do.

While supporters have always claimed these educational alternatives would be cost effective, proponents never suggested they would make do with 30 cents on the dollar.

This is not, nor need it be, a partisan issue. The original bill was signed by Republican Gov. Craig Benson. As a state senator, current Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan took the first steps to address funding issues in 2008. Since then, no one kept up.

The state cannot pretend to have charter schools as a legitimate educational alternative and then give them an amount that does not come close to covering the cost of the program. If legislators don’t know how dismal current funding levels are, it is simply because they haven’t bothered to find out. If they do know, their token gesture is merely a not very well disguised attempt to see these schools go away.

Charlie Arlinghaus

May 20, 2015

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Recent college graduates and others trying to decide whether to commit to New Hampshire long term have every reason to leave and few to stay. I hope that by now it is universally accepted that New Hampshire’s prospects are, at best, mediocre. What seems increasingly likely is that those of us hoping for mediocrity are pie-eyed optimists. Things are bad and the state is losing pace. States don’t become backwaters actively. The rest of the world just passes by lackluster states while they go along pretending everything is fine. We’re pretending, doing little or nothing, and life is passing us by.

In the last week, the Pew Charitable Trust released data pointing out that recovery from the last recession is complete but robust in some states and pathetic in others. Guess which category we fall into?

Pew’s research service on state government policy Stateline found that “while all states have added jobs since their economies hit their nadir during the recession, some have added far fewer than others.” Pew went on to highlight ten states with anemic growth of 5% or less. In this group, which might well be dubbed the pathetic 10, is New Hampshire.

Consider a recent college graduate thinking about where to start his or her career. New Hampshire is a pleasant spot and has much to offer. But what is has little of and little hope for is job growth. Why on Earth would you start your career by shackling yourself to one of the pathetic 10 — the worst states in the country in which to hope to find a job?

The national average was growth of about 8%. But more likely, if you are just starting out, you want to go to one of the Top 15 states who all boast growth rates of at least 10%. Michigan’s growth rate of 11% is more than double New Hampshire’s of just 5%.

Did you ever think we’d reach the day when Detroit was the land of opportunity compared to the decaying former economic power of New Hampshire?

Actually, I grew up in Detroit. It’s nice to follow the remarkable progress they’ve been making in recent years — jettisoning me might have been the spark they needed.

States across the country are doing things to attract jobs, to make themselves more competitive, to make their economies more dynamic. While they act and act often, New Hampshire is content to rest on its laurels.

A very long time ago (in economic terms) we were a robust, thriving economy. People moved here in droves. Jobs expanded here so fast that at times the labor force couldn’t keep up. Unemployment was below full employment and jobs went unfilled ( a problem North Dakota now has because of the oil boom).

The experience colored us and changed the way too many people think. Too many policymakers had that vision burned into their retinas and have been very slow to catch up. These are not the 1980s and our economy is not attracting thousands of economic opportunity migrants every year. We resemble Maine more than we resemble the land of milk and honey.

We are not the envy of our neighbors — as the Federal Reserve wrote about us 15 years ago. Instead we are one of the pathetic 10 and the so-called New Hampshire Advantage is a mythological creature of the past not the present.

The two worst measures that doom us are taxes and energy. When industrial users of electricity would have to pay more than twice the national average price for the privilege of being here, don’t expect them to show up.

On corporate taxes, we are better in some areas than others but we’re 48th in the Tax Foundation’s Corporate Tax Index. Very high corporate taxes coupled with ridiculous energy rates weed out an awful lots of jobs.

While we stagnate, other states are making an effort to improve their position. States all around us are lowering corporate tax rates in an attempt to get out of the bottom 10. In contrast, even a pathetic little cut in our business taxes is controversial here.

Gone is the time when we needed to preserve a New Hampshire dynamism. Now we have to try to figure out how to create one. Mediocrity is something we can hope to achieve in the future. In the meantime we are stuck in the pathetic 10.

Charlie Arlinghaus

March 11, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Over the last twelve years charter schools have become a small but critically important part of New Hampshire’s education infrastructure. Today, they are under threat by a legislative apathy that threatens to starve them to death. Some opponents are content to ignore any problems hoping no one will notice as the schools fight a struggle for survival. Soft supporters are equally guilty of destruction through apathy – one can’t claim to support something and then ignore it to the point of destruction.

From our founding, my organization, the Josiah Bartlett Center, has cajoled and prodded the powers that to be to enact and support charter schools. They are a reform which has done so much good for so many children across the country – bringing alternatives to children whose economic circumstances often leave them with no real choices.

In the end the weak laws of the 1990s were reformed and then-Gov. Benson signed a state charter school law in 2003 which led to the creation of strongly desired and needed schools.

From the beginning, the reform was fought. I was very critical in 2005 when then-Gov. Lynch sat idly by and allow a local school board to maliciously withhold money designated for the state’s first charter school and gleefully watch it collapse, starved of its funding.

That pathetic episode led to structural changes designed to make sure the funding went where it was legally required to go. Nonetheless, time and apathy have led to schools on the precipice.

After one funding jigger in 2008, charter school payments have remained dead flat at $5450. There have been no adjustments for inflation, no study of costs, no help. Charter Schools are public schools and like all public schools may not charge tuition. They have to manage their budget on that $5450.

In contrast, traditional public schools have always been much better funded and have seen their revenue skyrocket. Seven years ago, per pupil spending was $12,766, almost two-and-a-half times the charter school payment. Their revenue has not been flat. Spending has gone up to $16,199 per pupil in 2014 (according to the state department of education).

Bit by bit, charter school funding has declined in relative terms until they now receive just 33% of the amount traditional public schools get. Everyone expects charter schools to be more efficient but to believe they can survive on just one-third of the funding is either dishonest or silly.

The legislature has traditionally eschewed automatic spending escalators. That’s fine but it requires you to make routine adjustments to the payment you expect the school to run on. Keep in mind this isn’t supplemental aid to pay for one or two things. These payments are expected to pay for virtually all of the capital and operating costs of the school.

This pathetic example of apathy suggests a planning problem with state government. For the last five or so years budget writers have known they were ignoring charter schools. Many of them expressed a willingness to address the problem “next time.” But next time never comes. It’s easier just to ignore the problem and figure some else will fix it but not on your watch. Decisions are always easier if left to be made by someone else.

A bill in the House would start to address the problem but in a kind of half-hearted way. It adds $36 to the payment for next year. That’s not a typo. Rather it’s an attempt to pretend to be doing something. In the second year of the budget, the bill would increase the payment by $1000. So at the end of two years, funding would climb to almost $6500 — which will likely be about 36% of what traditional public schools will receive that year.

After a Herculean effort by some House members to try and find a way to pretend they care, they will drag funding from 33% to 36%. It will still be the lowest spending percentage in the country but someone’s conscience somewhere will be salved.

On the other hand, charter schools struggling to survive and parents desperate the keep their kids in the school they love can shrug their shoulders and say “it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”

Charter school opponents can smile to themselves and say “that won’t keep the wolves at bay for very long.” And more apathetic charter school supporters can say “well, we tried to help a little” and then try not to think about it too much.

Charlie Arlinghaus

September 3, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Last week’s Supreme Court decision moved the focus of the state’s nascent School Choice Scholarship Program from lawsuits and politics squarely back to children and opportunity. Ultimately, the court’s decision to leave this in the hands of the legislature focuses the debate on opportunity — parents and children seeking the best educational opportunity for their best future.

School choice has become such a political football and the arguments so arcane that it can be easy to forget what the debate is about – children and their education. For one segment of our population, school choice is not a potential program but is reality. Wealthy Granite Staters enjoy a plethora of choices and routinely consider what might be the best educational option for each individual child. One of their children may go to one school while his brother or sister attends a different one tailored to his or her needs, interests, and specialties. The wealth of these families creates opportunities.

The debate over school choice has never been primarily about lawsuits. As I wrote in a paper for the Josiah Bartlett Center more than ten years ago, “In the end, however, the debate over school choice is not about constitutional criteria or religious intolerance. It’s about opportunity. Everyone admits that the choices enjoyed by those who can afford them lead to better outcomes for their children. The only debate is whether or not those same choices will be extended to parents and children of lesser means.”

Rich people have school choice. Poor people do not. Few people doubt that the ability to consider multiple educational options and match them more appropriately to the unique needs of an individual student leads to better outcomes for those students. The state’s school choice scholarship program is designed for the students without those same opportunities.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the politics of the situation. Interest groups and ideological warriors on both sides of the question will get caught up in debates and arguing bits of history (it is only just conceivable that I may be guilty of this myself). For a bit of grounding in practicality, we must turn to that infrequent source of common sense, The Washington Post.

The Washington Post is a reliably liberal newspaper but school choice sometimes has the power to blur lines. Witnessing the need for greater opportunity and hope in the District of Columbia led them to toss aside ideological arguments and remind us that “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.”

Instead of discussing whether the law is good or bad for children, provides or doesn’t provide greater opportunity, opponents are reduced to talking budgets. The governor frets that the program diverts millions of dollars (actually $128,568 last school year) and decimates the budgets of existing schools. This echoes the ACLU argument that the program will inflict large fiscal losses on municipalities. If you listened to either of these ill-informed critics you wouldn’t know that the law actually limits the loss of aid in any district to a miniscule one-quarter of 1% of the prior budget.

Their financial misdirection is not nearly as egregious as their oversight of opportunity. No one would seriously disagree that increasing the number of options to consider is good for students and their parents. Instead, opponents are reduced to claiming that while options are all well and good, some options ought not be allowed – notably anything that contains a whiff of religion. Some more cynical actors are sometimes heard to say that some parents don’t know what’s best for their kids and can’t be allowed to make those decisions themselves.

As with any good policy, the primary argument for school choice is individualist rather than ideological. No one school, whether the traditional school, the public charter school, or an independent school is the right choice for each and every student in a particular zip code. Each student is an individual with different needs and different interests. One choice is not enough to address those needs.

In New Hampshire, the school choice program will always be relatively small. But every student should have a choice between smaller and larger schools; private, public, or public charter schools; traditional, Montessori, or Waldorf schools; specialized or more general schools. The goal I identified ten years ago stands today: providing students for whom their only current option isn’t working the means to find another choice that suits their individual needs – in plain and simple terms, greater opportunity.

Charlie Arlinghaus

May 7, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Governor Hassan made a mistake by nominating someone engaged in an ongoing lawsuit against the state to regulate the area over which he’s still suing. The mistake is not one of policy but one of propriety. The nomination can and should be withdrawn before tomorrow’s vote of the Executive Council.

Bill Duncan and I don’t agree at all on education policy but that does not and should not have any bearing on the propriety of his nomination to the State Board of Education. What’s inappropriate is that he’s currently engaged in suing the state in this very area – the area he’s being tapped to oversee.

After the state’s school choice scholarship law passed in 2012, opponents of that filed a lawsuit to overturn it. That lawsuit, known as Duncan v. New Hampshire, is ongoing. A recent headline missed this when it said that “State Board of Education nominee had sued state over education funding.” The tense of that headline is wrong and that distinction makes all the difference.

As the article makes clear, the lawsuit is ongoing. So the governor has nominated someone to the State Board of Education who is currently suing the state over education policy. He didn’t once upon a time sue the state. He hasn’t expressed concerns. He is currently engaged in lawsuit – a lawsuit named after him – and is going to oversee that area – the area of his ONGOING lawsuit. Does the governor not see that this is a trifle odd?

As a matter of policy, we should not appoint plaintiffs of ongoing lawsuits to oversee the area of state policy over which they are suing. Ever. The governor could find plenty of liberals she could appoint to the State Board who don’t happen to be currently suing the state of New Hampshire over education policy.

This problem can occur when you seek out activists for appointment to oversight positions. Previous governor have rarely sought activists for these oversight positions. Craig Benson, for example, selected a respected local businessman Fred Bramante to chair the board. John Lynch also avoided activists and those who had been lobbying the legislature for his appointments. His selected chairman was another respected local businessman, Tom Raffio, who remains in that position.

Something Benson and Lynch – and their predecessors – agreed on: not one of them ever appointed someone suing the state over education to oversee education policy. Nor did they appoint anyone else enmeshed in an ongoing lawsuit to oversee the subject of that lawsuit. Tax lawyers suing the state weren’t appointed to run Revenue Administration. Prison activists engaged in an ongoing lawsuit didn’t take charge of corrections.

No sensible person, looking at this outside of a political lens could argue the merits of appointing ongoing plaintiffs.

Adding another wrinkle to this is one unique role of the State Board. The State Board of Education charters, authorizes, and regulates almost every charter school in the state. Mr. Duncan, aside from suing over other issues is regarded by the charter school community as leader of their opposition. He’s on the other side from them in every debate. He has said “charter schools are a political statement not an educational improvement.” He’s referred to them as “dismantling public education” and called them a “distraction.” Despite that he says he supports charter schools. You can see, however, why the charter schools of the state might be skeptical.

These views of his – and by extension the governor who nominated him – are a policy choice. They are free to make that policy choice (with which I obviously disagree). But should someone with such demonstrated hostility to charter schools be placed on their oversight and authorizing board?

That’s a policy choice the governor is free to make. His hostility to such schools makes his selection slightly disingenuous on the part of a governor who claims to be supportive of charters but it is not structurally disqualifying. I expect that a fully qualified nominee she picks with have equally doctrinaire liberal views on the matter.

I don’t want to lose sight of what is disqualifying. I said this before but is worth repeating: As a matter of policy, we should not appoint plaintiffs of ongoing lawsuits to oversee the area of state policy over which they are suing. Ever.