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.

 

In response to the Governor’s statement yesterday, Josiah Bartlett Center President Charlie Arlinghaus released the following call for a retraction:

“Earlier this week, we corrected the factually incorrect part of Governor Lynch’s veto statement on the School Choice Scholarship Act.  Rather than admit his mistake, he doubled down. On the front page of today’s New Hampshire Union Leader, Governor Lynch reiterates a claim that the bill he vetoed does something it doesn’t. His claim is clearly and demonstrably incorrect and he should immediately correct the record. He is free to veto the bill but anything more than a cursory reading immediately shows that the bill simply does the opposite of what he claims. Every scholarship is means tested. He continues to claim they are not. This is not a matter of opinion. The plain language of the bll requires every scholarship to be means tested, but the Governor contines to claim that some are not.

“The source of the Governor’s error is easily tracked. He incorrectly suggests that only 70% of scholarships are means tested. The only time the number 70 appears in the bill is in requiring 70% of scholarships to go to students currently in public schools. The language of that paragraph (section 77-G:2, I, (b) of the law) refers back to the section about existing public school children. The section on means testing is nearby so perhaps someone skimming the document would make that error. But it is an error and I suspect the Governor knows that by now. In the interest of good government, he must now retract his claim to correct an egregious mistake.

“The dispute over the Governor’s mistake is not an academic argument. It is important that as bills are debated, they rise and fall on the basis of what they actually say. The Governor simply must correct the record immediately. He is free to oppose the bill for other reasons but every scholarship is means tested and he must not officially claim otherwise.”

 

 Charlie Arlinghaus

June 20, 2012

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

This week the governor forgot to read a bill. Instead he vetoed the subject matter and complained about things that just aren’t part of the bill.  Bill sponsors always complain that vetoes are misleading or don’t fully understand but in this case there is one clear, undeniable, egregious factual error. The Governor clearly didn’t take the time to read the bill before he vetoed it.

The School Choice Scholarship Act creates tax credit funded scholarships that lower income students can use to attend a different public school or non-public school. Students from richer families already have the economic ability to make other educational choices. The scholarship bill tries to extend those opportunities to students from lower income families.

The governor seemed modestly supportive of that goal but then went off the rails. In his official veto message, he offers the claim that “while the intent of the bill, in part, is to provide financial assistance to less fortunate students in helping them switch to a private school, a substantial portion of scholarships are available with no income restrictions.”

The problem with his statement is that it just isn’t true. The bill, SB372, quite clearly requires all scholarships to be means tested at 300% of the federal poverty limit (SB 372, section VIII (b)). There’s no ambiguity. The bill simply does the opposite of what he says it does.

I don’t know exactly how something like this happens. It’s most likely sloppiness. Clearly, the governor doesn’t intend to lie about something so easily checked and so central to the concept of the bill. In a speech earlier in the process, we might attribute it to a mistake – perhaps a quick read through of a proposal where he didn’t notice details or someone’s else’s description of the bill. In this case, perhaps some early draft in the legislative process may have allowed some scholarships without means testing but the bill the governor vetoed does not. And the veto is the point.

A veto is not a mere statement of opinion; it is an act which overturns the will of the Legislature – in this case, a Legislature which worked extremely hard to address an important issue and express that issue via the legislation, passed by clear majorities, presented to him. The Legislature did its job; the least the voters can expect is that the Governor do his and read and understand what is presented to him. If a veto follows from that, so be it. But it is unfortunate and troubling to veto a bill not because of a difference of opinion but because you think the bill does something it doesn’t.

The simple solution: Read it before you veto it.

The legislature which sent the bill to the governor will now vote on whether to override his veto. They’ll discover more about the bill reading it than from the governor’s incorrect hearsay veto message.

By the way, if you read the bill, it’s actually a pretty good bill. The program is simple. Businesses who chose could if they wished receive a tax credit for donations to a scholarship organization. That non-profit would give scholarships averaging $2500 to students from poorer families (the cut off is roughly the bottom half of New Hampshire households).

The bill is a modest but important step. The money allocated is less than one-tenth of one percent of the total school budgets of New Hampshire. But for an individual student able to use a scholarship for greater opportunity, the difference is huge.

No district would lose any state aid unless it had fewer students and even then the loss is capped at one-quarter of one percent of that town’s school budget. It’s hard to see this as anything other than a modest pilot program certainly worthy of giving a try.

As modest a step as this is for the state, it can make an enormous difference in the lives of individual students. More choices for poorer families is just a good idea. Even the governor might agree if he’d read the bill.

A number of people have asked about the clear factual error in the governor’s veto message on SB 372, the school choice bill. Some sections are misleading but there is one clear, undeniable, egregious factual error.

Statement of Charlie Arlinghaus (President, Josiah Bartlett Center):

The Governor’s Big Mistake

Governors should read bills before they veto them. To prove that point, Gov. Lynch vetoed a bill today citing a provision that isn’t part of the bill. Oops. The mistake:

His official veto message of the school choice scholarship act claimed he objected because “while the intent of the bill, in part, is to provide financial assistance to less fortunate students in helping them switch to a private school, a substantial portion of scholarships are available with no income restrictions.”

It just isn’t true. The bill, SB372, quite clearly requires all scholarships to be means tested at 300% of the federal poverty limit (SB 372, section VIII (b)). Some early draft in the legislative process may have allowed some scholarships without means testing but the bill the governor vetoed does not.

A veto is not a mere statement of opinion; it is an act which overturns the will of the Legislature – in this case, a Legislature which worked extremely hard to address an important issue and express that issue via the legislation, passed by clear majorities, presented to him. The Legislature did its job; the least the voters can expect is that the Governor do his and read and understand what is presented to him. If a veto follows from that, so be it. But it is unfortunate and troubling to veto a bill not because of a difference of opinion but because you think the bill does something it doesn’t.

The simple solution: Read it before you veto it.

 Charlie Arlinghaus

June 6, 2012

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

 

The debate over education funding in New Hampshire has always had an element of fear in it ever since the original Claremont rulings. Some fears are well founded, but many are exaggerations not necessarily based in fact or actual history. Fears of the constitutional amendment being considered today are no different. The actual amendment is a tempered response to Claremont that will allow sensible lawmaking and forestall nothing of importance.

While most conservatives support an amendment and have supported one for decades, the current version finds one subset of conservatives still skeptical. This group worries most of all about local control and posits the amendment as a state takeover of education, an elimination of local rights, and suggests instead the Legislature simply ignore the court decision.

The court’s original decision was certainly a contorted definition of the ambiguous phrase “cherish the interests of arts and sciences, and all seminaries and public schools.” Beginning with his “Letters to Educators,” my colleague Eugene Van Loan has continually demonstrated the over-reach of the court interpretation.

Ignoring the decision has been one option available to lawmakers, but not one with any hope of success. Each Legislature has a few dozen politicians willing to tell the court that it wrongly decided Claremont and they choose not to be bound by that decision. In the absence of that possibility, an amendment must be considered.

Critics are in fact correct that the current amendment does limit the Legislature’s options. In fact, the language of the amendment would not allow the Legislature to abandon the funding of education entirely. Today, state aid to education amounts to $1.03 billion over 10 different aid programs. The current amendment would not allow the Legislature to spend zero dollars. Then again, no one seriously proposes that the state do nothing (not that the fear of such an outcome isn’t regularly raised by the left) so that concession forestalls nothing in reality.

Some wrongly worry that the amendment would eliminate local control of education decisions. They worry the amendment will “centralize control” of education decisions, not just funding, and move authority from the towns to the state. In fact, the amendment clarifies that the state may in fact delegate authority it has and has always had down to the towns.

From the beginning, the state has controlled education. For our entire history, the state has mandated curricula and teaching credentials. The very first education laws of the state stipulated the credentials required to be allowed to teach, and they mandated curricula — one curriculum in most towns, a different curriculum in shire towns. In the first few years, curricula were loosened, credentials were tightened.

The misunderstanding stems from language in our constitution, borrowed like most of it from Massachusetts, that gives towns the “right of electing their own teachers.” The basis and understanding of that right is at the center of a group’s opposition to the amendment.

That right never allowed towns to elect absolutely anyone for any reason with any credential. From the beginning, the state specified minimum standards to be eligible to be selected and requirements for what that person could teach. To the modern mind, we might ask what good that right was if the state nonetheless dictated who might be eligible for election.

Remember that under the original constitution that right was for “Protestant Teachers of Morality and Piety.” The phrasing was not simply anti-Catholic bigotry. It reminds us that the line between teacher and minister was not so clear as we see it today. The former colonists did not want ministers or teachers imposed on them by an Anglican Bishop and instead wanted the right to elect a minister they chose — low church, not high church, Congregational not Anglican. They liberalized the laws so the town could choose and the teachers would not necessarily have to possess a credential from a bishop in England.

Regulation of teachers’ credentials was done by the state before, during and after the constitution. Curriculum requirements were established before, during and after the constitution. However, the good Congregationalists across New England made it clear that they wanted the right to pick the specific, qualified individual lest some community with dissenting sympathies have a Church of England teacher forced on them.

We should all work to oppose laws dictating every detail of education in local public schools. But the state has had that power for 230 years, and the fact that this amendment does not radically undo that original understanding of the state’s authority is no reason to avoid doing the sensible thing.

 

Frequently Asked Questions About the School Choice Scholarship Act

By Jason Bedrick

In the last decade, eight states have launched scholarship tax credit (STC) programs to expand educational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of students across America, particularly those from low- and middle-income families. These programs provide tax credits to businesses that donate to state-approved, non-profit scholarship organizations (SOs). The SOs use the funds to grant scholarships to families seeking alternatives to their geographically-assigned public schools, including non-public, homeschooling, and out-of-district public schools.

This paper addresses Frequently Asked Questions about scholarship tax credit programs in general and the proposed New Hampshire scholarship tax credit legislation, SB 372, as amended in House Ways and Means, in particular.  There is an equivalent House Bill (HB 1607) that passed in the House and has also passed the Senate 17-7.  The latest amendments to each bill will bring them into sync.

Click here to read the FAQ