Charlie Arlinghaus

March 21, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

In Wednesday’s column about a misleading attack on charter school funding, I made a big mistake. I want to correct my mistake about the source of the very misleading information that was circulated and explain to you how I made the mistake and the problem with the information. It’s important that you feel free to agree or disagree with my conclusions but not have cause to doubt my information.

In the charter school funding bill, a document was circulated that contradicted the official fiscal note provided by the state’s Department of Education (DOE). The inaccurate analysis didn’t look like documents produced by the DOE normally do, was a quasi-fiscal note that was the opposite of the official fiscal note the DOE produced, and made errors that seem to misunderstand state law. I – quite wrongly – concluded that the document posted only on an anti-charter blog was not actually produced by the Department of Education while the document that contradicted it and still is the official legislative fiscal note authored by the department was the correct one.

In fact, the department produced and still supports both documents despite the contradiction. I made the mistake by making an assumption simply on the basis of the contradiction. That was wrong.

However, it is still true that the information was misleading, inaccurate in one very important way and a few less critical ways. The bill was still a sensible small step and the very bad information is still clearly contradicted by the official fiscal note produced by the Department of Education.

Rep. Ken Weyler sponsored a bill (now sent to a study committee) to fund the regular public charter schools at 50% of average public school spending (he later proposed 47.5%). The bill did not apply to the virtual charter school. That school, because of its different nature and different role,  has been funded by an agreement which provides a set number of dollars for a specific number of full-time equivalent students.

That funding for the virtual school – which has about half as many students as the other 21 schools combined – was unaffected. Not including it made the Weyler bill affordable. There were no misunderstandings about this from sponsors or opponents and the official fiscal note from the DOE made clear they were “assuming this bill will have no impact on the Department’s memorandum of understanding” with the virtual school.

The official fiscal note assumed funding would cover 2,884 students which would then make the increased funding fall within the current state budget without adjustment.

About a month later, the contrary document began circulating. It buttressed an argument made by anti-charter activists who wanted to use a much larger number and assume very significant growth to posit an unaffordable price tag. While the fiscal note doesn’t project beyond next year, the contrary document goes out four years.

The real problem though is a decision to change and also to not change the assumptions about virtual school funding. On the one side, the contrary document changed the assumption so it could presume 4133 students, a 40% increase that makes the bill’s costs appear somewhat more dramatic if extended four years. Yet, at the same time, the department chose not to change the fiscal note attached to the bill which uses the opposite assumption. The official note assumes, as the bill’s author and everyone else did, that the virtual school is unchanged. The contrary note reverses that assumption but leaves the fiscal note as is.

One of those two documents is wrong. If one is right, the other must be quite wrong in its central assumption. The same author, the state Department of Education, can not make two financial estimates based on contrary central assumptions. Yet they did and continue to stand by both documents.

There are criticisms of some other assumptions the contrary document made but most others are a matter of debate. At its core, the real problem is one author has contradicted itself and let stand two competing and irreconcilable descriptions of a single bill – the official fiscal note and its rebuttal.

Legislators are provided authoritative fiscal notes on bills to help them understand the financial implications of policy as a point of information in decision making. Those notes, attached to the legislation itself, can and often are revised. This time it wasn’t.

Rep. Weyler drafted a floor amendment to make clear what everyone already knew before DOE’s dueling interpretations created confusion – that the bill didn’t affect the virtual funding. But by then it was too late. A bill that had passed by 54 votes before being sent to Finance died by 16 votes simply on the basis of confused financial information.

Charlie Arlinghaus

March 19, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

A modest normalization of charter school funding, although long overdue, has become a political football and subject of misinformed and purposely misleading arguments to try and kill it. The truth, easily discovered, is that the proposal covers fewer than 2% of students and involves less than 2% of state education funding and continues to ask charter schools to prosper with less than half the funding of traditional schools.

Traditional public schools have seen a spending increase of 60% over the last ten years and now receive $13,500 per pupil. In contrast, public charter schools have been level funded at $5450 since their one increase five years ago, an amount that is 40% of the funding other public schools receive.

A bill before the House of Representatives would increase that funding level to 47.5% of the state average funding. The average citizen might well think it odd to expect schools to succeed on less than half the funding of their compatriots. The response of the anti-charter community is to suggest that such over-generous funding might well mark the end of civilization as we know it.

They could be excused for merely holding a silly idea if it were not for the misleading documents they have decided to start circulating to exaggerate their case.

They have circulated a document titled “Department of Education, HB435 cost projections” which might lead the casual observer to think that the document contained cost projections produced by the Department of Education. In fact it does not. Instead it was produced by an activist and includes estimates contrary to state law and misleading information, mistakes of a sort that no one in the actual Department of Education would ever make.

Sadly, the “report” is referenced in the official House Calendar as a reason to proceed cautiously.

The masquerade document presumes every charter will increase its enrollment on into the future. In reality, every charter includes for each and every year binding enrollment caps which may not be exceeded. Many existing schools have already reached their maximum and will not grow.

It also presumes that the one virtual charter school which has nominal enrollment equal to about half of all other schools combined is covered by the law and will grow significantly. In fact, that school because of its nature is funded differently and is not part of this funding stream or the bill — as the real fiscal analysis actually done by the actual department of education pointed out. A more cynical person than I am might believe those numbers were not a mistake but included to exaggerate the case being made. But I’m not a cynic.

In reality, the bill is a modest step which will make little or no difference in the structure of the billion dollar state education aid programs or the three billion of education spending in state. But it could make a dramatic difference in the life of some individual schools which make an enormous difference to some individual students.

There are about 203,000 students in New Hampshire which is more than 10% fewer than a decade ago.  Fewer than 1.5% of them are in charter schools – the proposed bill would affect 2,884 students in 2015 according to its fiscal note from the real Department of Education.

State education spending will amount to $1.01 billion of the total $2.8 billion districts will spend. The additional charter school money will be within the amount budgeted for FY2015, according to documents produced by the Legislative Budget Office.

There’s no question going forward that there is an additional cost. If one believes that 47.5% of the amount traditional public schools receive is an unreasonably HIGH number and that a charter school should be able to operate on much less (not that any other school can but maybe you think that) then the funding bill is an extravagance.

However, I suspect most people will look at this and think “goodness gracious, 47.5% still seems pathetically low. What sort of nimrod thinks this is unreasonable?”

Debates can and should be based on real numbers. Charter schools, although a small component of our education system, are widely regarded by people of all ideologies and backgrounds as a very useful component of educational diversity. New Hampshire’s recent history is of charters being less controversial, more broadly supported, and partisan free.

A modest but operationally important funding adjustment should be non-controversial. I hope it will be.

 

Note: Read the Correction Here http://www.jbartlett.org/my-wednesday-mistake-and-the-mixed-up-charter-numbers

Charlie Arlinghaus

January 15, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

The governor would like to spend state revenues directly for scholarships to be used at any approved school, public or private in the state. At the same time, in the same term, she is arguing that legislation that does the same thing is an unconstitutional breach that must be stopped. Rarely has any leader been so directly and perfectly contradictory.

In her budget address just eleven months ago, Gov. Hassan proposed spending $4 million from the state treasury directly to pay for “need-based scholarships that can be used at both public and private colleges.” This is not an unreasonable program. To allow lower-income students access to greater educational opportunity, the governor wants to target limited dollars to them. Rather than dictate a list of specific providers, the governor believes students and their parents should choose from any licensed school, public or private, religious or secular, in-state or out-of-state to develop the best educational option for that specific student.

It makes sense. There are myriad educational options and what’s right for one student may not be as good a fit for another. I don’t think she ever seriously considered saying that the scholarship can only be used at UNH because the government controls UNH. That would limit opportunity and this program is about opportunity – opportunity that can be found, in the governor’s words, “at both public and private colleges.”

Then comes the opportunity to apply a similar logic to the state’s limited school choice tax credit program. The school choice tax credit doesn’t actually spend money from the state treasury like the governor’s favorite scholarship program does. It does allow a tax credit for businesses who donate to scholarship granting organizations.

The scholarships are need based and can, just like in the governor’s model, be used at both public and private schools. The logic is similar to the governor’s. Opportunity is best extended by increasing the number of choices not limiting them.

The governor, however, can apparently see things differently out of each eye. While her own program is a grand and wonderful accomplishment, the other scholarship program threatens “the hallowed underpinnings of religious tolerance and freedom.”  The quote is from her brief (authored by her legal counsel) asking the state court to toss out the program – not the one she proposed, the other one.

Apparently writing a check directly from the state government to St. Anselm or to Southern Methodist is an innovative and noble cause that increases opportunity among students of lower income.

In contrast, the governor would have us believe, allowing a tax credit that a business can chose to take to send a contribution to a scholarship foundation to send a scholarship to a parent to choose to go to Trinity High School is a subversive act that threatens the foundations of democracy or at least its “hallowed underpinnings.”

I want to take her seriously but rarely has a politician taken opposite actions on items of such stark similarity. The one program is a significantly greater entanglement yet it is touted as the very model of promoting opportunity. Perhaps she thinks so because it’s her idea. My ideas are grand and noble. Yours, however similar, are threats to “hallowed underpinnings.”

The intellectual goofiness (a technical term) of the argument is as amusing as it I sad. I suppose the argument asks us to believe that colleges with religious affiliations are fine and dandy but high schools threaten democracy.

In addition, we are asked to believe that a very indirect tax credit is the same as a direct expenditure but a complete tax exemption is not. Direct spending is all right only because it’s for college not high school.

Despite decades of court rulings that money that never went to the state is not actually state money (for example, taking a charitable deduction for a donation to your church is not the same as the government actually writing a check to your church), the administration would have us believe that for this one purpose it is.

This logical oddity has difficulty explaining why granting a complete and total exemption from taxes to the church in which religious services are actually held is noble and free but an indirect, partial credit threatens all those “hallowed underpinnings.”

Jason Bedrick, my former colleague at the Josiah Bartlett Center now spreading freedom from the Cato Institute, has the last word on this amusing protest.  Jason concludes, “What’s noteworthy here is not the legal reasoning, but the governor’s chutzpah.”

Grant D. Bosse

July 14, 2013

As originally published in the Concord Monitor

Attention job seekers: The New Hampshire Department of Education is hiring. It is so desperate for good help that it’s giving out six-figure contracts for part-time work.

The Executive Council last week puts the brakes on a proposed consulting contract to hire Karen Soule at $75 an hour for 30 hours a week to comply with a federal waiver to the No Child Left Behind Act. Soule was the only person who applied for the job.

Soule worked for the state for two years, making just under $78,000 annually. The contract would have increased her salary by more than 50 percent to $117,000 a year. That eye-popping figure caused Councilors Colin Van Ostern and Chris Sununu to take a closer look at the contract.

“Why did we get only one person to apply to this job?” Sununu asks. “There are a number of people in the state who can perform this work, and at that rate of pay, the fact that we only had one person apply is shocking.”

Education Commissioner Virginia Barry insists her department has to offer such generous terms to hire anyone, claiming that state employees leave the department to make more money all the time. She says she’s been trying to fill a Title 1 coordinator position for a year and a half.

But Sununu says Barry should manage her department, rather than throw huge contracts at the problem.

“She stood here and said she had such a hard time filling these roles, and they’re doing everything they can, and that’s just not true,” Sununu adds.

The Department of Education has an “Employment Opportunities” page on its website, which currently has just two openings. Neither the vacant Title 1 position nor the post of chief financial officer are listed.

“How can you go through the budget process in the last year, and not have a chief financial officer?” Sununu wonders.

“I think Commissioner Barry is exceptionally good when it comes to the customer service aspects and external management of her department. It is internal controls that we’re getting very worried about,” he said.

Sununu says Education has an abnormally large number of contractors on the payroll compared with other departments and wants specific data from Barry before the council proceeds with Soule’s contract. State Employees’ Association President Diana Lacey says state agencies are using consultants to get around budget constraints.

“It’s much easier to go forward to defend a budget that has lots of money in contracts line,” Lacey argues. “It’s much easier to get that through a 424-person legislature than creating new positions.”

And state contracts are not subject to the employee hiring freeze, or limits on equipment purchases and out-of-state travel.

The union has pushed for years to stop hiring vendors such as home health care workers as independent contractors, but Lacey is also concerned about high-level state employees retiring, only to come back days or weeks later as consultants.

“It’s demoralizing,” Lacey says. “If they’ve retired from state service, and they’ve got their pension, which they’ve earned, and their health care, and they’re getting $117,000, and working three days a week.”

She says the Legislature wants to use consultants to save money, but it ends up costing taxpayers more. Sununu is also worried about double-dipping; paying consultants who are already collecting on their state pensions.

“I would love to see some type of moratorium, where you can come back as a consultant, but you have to be out of state government for a year, or two years,” says Sununu. “Sometimes there are real specialties, and the best person for the job may be a former state employee. But you can’t just jump over to increase your pay.”

Lacey and Sununu agree that decision-makers need to know more about how much we’re spending on labor hidden in contracts. The state’s financial management software doesn’t break down contract terms in enough detail to know how many consultants are on the state payroll, and how many of them are former state workers back at their old jobs.

Now that a proposed $117,000 part-time job has gotten the council’s attention, let’s hope councilors get some answers on how to slow down the state employee revolving door.

June 17, 2013

In the school choice case that every side has expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court, the court upheld most of the law but set aside the provision that would let some parents exercise their choice at a religiously affiliated school. Josiah Bartlett Center president Charlie Arlinghaus responded:

“The final decision in this case was always going to come from the Supreme Court which I’m sure will uphold the law. No education tax credit has ever been struck down by a Supreme Court in any state. This ruling is particularly odd. The entire program is fine unless a parent by their own choice chooses a religious school. By this logic a program is illegal if neutral and only legal if actively hostile to religion. That’s absurd and I trust the Supreme Court will find it so. I hope the Supreme Court will act quickly so parents have some certainty for the coming school year.”

“The program allows businesses to receive a credit for a donation to scholarship organizations which then give scholarships to parents who may then use the scholarship at any approved New Hampshire school. The goal is to provide parents of lesser means with some of the opportunities wealthy parents have. Today, rich people have school choice. Poor people don’t.”

Charlie Arlinghaus

March 20, 2013

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

One committee chairman in the New Hampshire House admitted in a rare moment of candor that he intends to use schools as a political hostage in his grand negotiating scheme. This sort of cynical manipulation helps explain why average citizens have such contempt for politicians and their perverted sense of ethics.

New Hampshire’s charter school law has been in limbo for the better part of a year. The Attorney General has told the state Board of Education that its interpretation of language passed last session prohibits the Board from allowing any new schools to open. Oddly, the authors of that language intended precisely the opposite.

This session, to clear up the misunderstanding or competing interpretations, legislation was proposed to restore the old statutory language. The sole purpose of such a change is to clarify the board’s ability to authorize schools and resolve the Attorney General’s objection.

How controversial is this? It isn’t. The bill was endorsed by the House Education committee and passed the full House on a voice vote. Nor is this a partisan issue. The current Governor has a history of being supportive to charter schools and her budget includes the funding to open a few more each of the next two years. This legislation makes that possible.

Further according to a recent news report “the Board of Education and the Attorney General have both said they would welcome the clarity such a change could provide.”

So without any concerted opposition, this common sense resolution of a problem should resolve itself quickly so the new schools everyone agrees should be authorized can move forward to be ready for the school year starting in September. So it would have seemed until political gamesmanship entered the stage.

Although it has already passed the House once, the bill has to go before the House Finance committee. It was in Finance that the games began. Rep. Dan Eaton saw the bill as a political football to be held hostage.

Eaton is a particularly powerful member of House Democratic leadership.* He is chairman of division 2 of House Finance (one of the most important budget writing positions).

In a public hearing, Eaton discussed with a lobbyist testifying before the committee his idea that House neither pass or defeat the bill. Instead, he wanted to hold the bill – and therefore the ability of the government to authorize new charter schools that the Governor and state board are ready to support – hostage to future budget negotiations.

Eaton said “I’m looking at this as a political – I want to have a trump card or two and this is a healthy trump card” for a future negotiation with the senate over the state budget.

Consider what he’s saying: he liked the bill, he doesn’t think it’s bad public policy, he supports the policy. But he believes he can use the bill as part of a hostage negotiation with the Senate. He wants to say to the senate “I know you want this but we’ll kill it even though we like it too unless you do something else we want which is completely unrelated.”

Without question some give and take and normal compromise will be part of a budget process. Everyone expects the House and Senate to pass different budgets and to then negotiate over the details of what gets included and what gets left out. But this bill isn’t part of that process and wouldn’t be part of that negotiation unless Eaton gets to keep it captive in a back room. In effect he’s looking at charter schools and saying “I’m sorry you got caught in the crossfire but I think I can sell you for a good price.”

The governor’s budget plans on five additional schools opening in September. The state Board has said there are five schools ready to be authorized as soon as this language is in place. What no one counted on is Eaton’s desire to “have a trump card or two.”

Every session there are maverick legislators who go off on their own with some half-baked plan. But remember that Dan Eaton is no maverick backbencher. What makes this attempted abuse of power harder to excuse is that he’s one of the most powerful members of leadership – division chair for Finance.

There’s a simple solution here: kill it or pass it. The bill isn’t complicated. You want to authorize new schools or you want to extend a moratorium. But don’t hold schools hostage to your Machiavellian budget gamesmanship.

 

*The original version of the column that was published in the Union Leader incorrectly referred to Rep. Eaton as majority floor leader. Although still listed in his bio on the state website, he no longer serves in that capacity.

Charlie Arlinghaus

January 30, 2013

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Educational opportunity is something we all want for our children but is under threat in New Hampshire in 2013. While the wealthy can choose among many options to find the best fit for their children, two small programs that increase options for poor people in New Hampshire are both under attack. If opponents succeed in killing the state’s modest charter school program and the school choice scholarship program, educational opportunity will still be a reality for rich people but not for poorer members of the Granite State.

For the wealthy, options abound. If you have the means, you can afford to choose among many different choices for your children. While New Hampshire’s has better schools than most states, no one seriously believes that one school is the best possible choice for every student in a particular zip code without exception. More opportunity, more choices lead to better outcomes.

Education reformers passed a public charter school law in 2003. The idea was to create innovative alternative schools that allowed students, particularly those who can’t afford existing alternatives, another public choice in education.

Similarly, last year the legislature passed a modest program of school choice scholarships allowing tax credits for businesses that donate to organizations that give scholarships to students of lower levels of income. The program is just starting but promises to give poorer children another choice.

From the beginning, both opportunity programs have been under attack. The charter school program endured the apathy of lawmakers and the governor who merely shrugged their shoulders when a school district strangled the first charter school by neglecting to pass on the funding appropriated for the school. Enforcing that law was a bridge too far.

Future legislatures and funding formulas changed the law to eliminate the opportunity for criminal mischief but opponents aren’t done. The state board of education has been guided by the odd advice of one state lawyer claiming that the board is no longer permitted to authorize charter schools because the next budget hasn’t been passed so they have no idea if there is going to be funding. Logically, then, they can’t grant any school a five year charter because we only have a two year budget.

This contorted logic, by the way, would also suggest the closure of every other charter school (after all, the next legislature could theoretically not fund them either) and most public schools (the legislature could suddenly decide we’ll only have 14 really big schools and no one else gets money). That’s ridiculous of course, but so is the back door moratorium.

If there is ambiguity (and I don’t honestly believe there is nor did the legislature which passed the law the lawyer claims frustrates the board), it can be cleared up. Funding is the province of the legislature. Approval of schools by the board includes a financial component but the board was never meant to try and prognosticate future funding decisions of the legislature. Any cap or retreat from the policy of opportunity should be decided by the legislature not by administrative fiat or a legal opinion that has not been written down or presented for public discussion. Law is currently being determined by a private, unpublished, oral opinion.

The second attempt to limit opportunity is being conducted openly in the legislature. Opponents are trying to repeal last year’s school choice law. The law limits scholarships to students in the lower half of incomes in the state but would allow tax credits for a group that would let parents use the scholarship at any approved school in the state. This law, like the charter school law, is about opportunity for people who have limited educational opportunities today.

Scholarships will average $2500 but that small amount can make a radical difference in the life of an individual child. Today, every non-public school has some students who pay no tuition and some who pay a small amount based on need. The modest scholarship will allow every school to accept more students who pay zero and more who pay little.

It’s easy to lose sight of the goal of educational opportunity in all the ideological banter. When the liberal Washington Post editorialized in favor of a D.C. opportunity program reminded us all what this debate is about. Their editorial titled “The Right Answer” concluded: “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.”

The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy’s comprehensive analysis demonstrates that a choice program is consistent with court opinions and permissible under the New Hampshire State Constitution. In addition, a discussion of the Blaine Amendment describes its bigoted history.

Charlie Arlinghaus

October 3, 2012

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Two weeks ago, the state board of education denied every charter school application before them citing a financial problem that didn’t exist. Further their action circumvented legislation and calls into question whether they should be permitted to continue in their role as the state authorizing agency for charter schools. Their bad actions can be fixed and they should do so immediately as a gesture of good faith to both the legislature itself and the charter school community in New Hampshire.

On September 19, the state board of education considered an agenda item listed as “update on charter schools.” In just three minutes the board voted to deny all pending charter school applications. Rather than an open discussion, the pre-planned moratorium came complete with a pre-drafted statement despite a claim by a board member that the vote was spurred by information “we’ve just received.” Usually show trials are better choreographed.

The ostensible reason cited by the department and its board was a supposed uncertainty about state appropriations. Yet there is no uncertainty about state negotiations. Everyone in Concord knows and has known for more than a year precisely where we are on charter school funding. Further, the schools that have been denied would have had no impact on the budget whatsoever. They don’t start operating until the budget cycle is over.

Charter school funding, like a number of state aid programs, is an eligibility program. Rather than a cap, it is a budgeted amount based on qualified recipients (a number of grant programs operate this way) The state budgets an amount based on projections of probable enrollment but it is an estimate rather than a fixed cap. During the state budget, legislators were made aware that the department’s projections of enrollment were well off the mark. To compensate, clear language was inserted into the budget that made it crystal clear that the money was available, would be made available easily, and what the procedure would be to follow.

In the budget law, the department was given carte blanche to spend amounts that were 110% of the estimate in the budget. The budget added “In the event that chartered public school tuition payments exceed budgeted amounts by over 10 percent, the department of education may expend funds in excess of said amounts, with the approval of the fiscal committee of the general court and governor and council.”

This isn’t a little known provision in the law. In fact, the department and the chairman of the fiscal committee Ken Weyler were well aware of the provision, have been in regular communication on it, and have already acted on it once. For the previous fiscal year, an additional $330,000 was approved by the fiscal committee in June and the Governor and Council in July.

Rep. Weyler has said he was well aware that the amount for the current fiscal year would be $5 million and was waiting for it to come before the fiscal committee which he expects to approve it.

Let’s be clear: the law presumed the money would be approved. The fiscal committee and Executive Council have both been very supportive of charter schools. Yet the Board of Education claimed to have just received information which everyone in Concord seems to have known except, they claim, them.

They claim that the $5 million which the legislature expects and has known about for a year and has told them in the law they may spend so long as they get approval somehow requires them to veto a group of charter schools which regardless have no impact at all on the current budget.

This ridiculous action – and there is no other word for it but ridiculous — is easily amended. The board could easily have said to charter schools “we don’t want to act on your application pending guidance from the legislature after we tell them how much this will impact the next budget.” Instead they denied application prospective schools have spent months on.

As an act of their good faith – of which many people have reason to be skeptical – at its October 17 meeting the board should rescind its blanket denial of charters. It may be reasonable to wait until the fiscal committee acts before formally approving any charters but there is no reason to wait to admit their mistake, apologize to school organizers, and rescind their incorrect action.

Supporters of the charter school movement and legislators in particular have every reason to be skeptical of the good intentions of the current state board of education. A gesture of good faith would go a long to convincing people that they can still be trusted to oversee charter schools.

 

 Charlie Arlinghaus

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.