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.

Charlie Arlinghaus

April 23, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Bobby Jindal and the ACLU are having a fight in these opinion pages. Guess whose side I’m going to take? I agree with Gov. Jindal and we both agree with the Washington Post which said “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 issue which unites me and the Washington Post is the lawsuit over the state’s much admired school choice scholarship program.

The state crafted legislation in 2012 which created an education tax credit for businesses who chose to donate to a scholarship organizations which then awards scholarships to lower income students who may choose any public or private school in the state. The goal of the program, as with most school choice programs, is to give students of modest means more choices and therefore more educational opportunity.

The ACLU immediately sued the state to overturn the law. A lower court let the program proceed but ruled out any religious schools. The lower court explained in its ruling that the issue would ultimately be settled by the state Supreme Court which heard the case last week.

The Washington Post has not weighed in our own program here but is a supporter of a broader program called the “D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.” They point out that children of the privileged in Washington have a variety of educational options and are never limited to the one school assigned by their zip code.

In New Hampshire as in the District of Columbia, rich people have school choice. Poor people don’t. The wealthy can choose among many options to find the best educational fit for each child – quite often different schools in the same family. Poorer students don’t have those options.

Critics contended that the New Hampshire scholarship program would not help the poor but be utilized only by wealthier families. The facts are different. Former state rep. (and former Josiah Bartlett Center policy fellow) Jason Bedrick, now a researcher for the Cato Institute, found that 91% of scholarship recipients qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Bedrick’s study (for another state think tank) are posted on our website and encourage other states to consider replicating the success of New Hampshire’s program.

The ACLU has argued oddly that the program will “inflict large fiscal losses on municipalities.” Perhaps they didn’t notice the provision in the law that limits the impact to any school district to one-quarter of one percent of their prior budget. Hardly a large fiscal loss.

Opponents of the program contend that schools with any religious affiliation should be excluded. Some choices, they suggest, parents should not be permitted to make. They contend that a tax credit is the same thing as a government grant. History, experience, and the state Supreme Court have suggested the opposite.

To begin with, there has long been a distinction between tax credits or exemptions and direct grants from the state treasury. Consider that every church is granted a complete exemption from taxation, not just a credit, under state law. This is not a school or an ancillary facility but the actual house of worship. That’s okay because it isn’t an actual tax payment just an exemption or credit. It falls into an entirely different category from the collection and direct granting of money.

Because the court has never ruled directly on school choice, we undertook an examination of the existing “opinions of the justices,” advisory opinions without the same standing as ruling because they are not the result of both sides making an argument and marshaling their cases.

It is likely the court ruling would agree with the 1955 court that allowed a nursing education program at religious institutions because “members of the public are not prohibited from receiving public benefits because of their religious beliefs or because they happen to be attending a parochial school.” In short, it is important not that programs discriminate but that they don’t discriminate.

In contrast, opponents are in the position of saying the scholarship organization must actively discriminate against schools that happen to also teach religion. The law, in their opinion, must under no circumstance be neutral.

The better choice is to try and do what’s best for children. As Bobby Jindal said “parents are the first and best educators and should be allowed to make the best decisions for their children. Every child learns differently; that is why choice and competition are so important in education.”

By Jason Bedrick

In 2012, the New Hampshire Legislature passed the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), the first scholarship tax credit program to allow scholarships to cover certain homeschooling expenses. Section III details the OSA’s program design and outlines the legislative and legal challenges to the program.

The OSA’s first-year implementation is discussed in Section IV, including the results of a survey of the parents of scholarship recipients. Since the OSA went into effect, the Network for Educational Opportunity, New Hampshire’s first and so far only active scholarship organization, distributed $128,340 in scholarships to 103 students for the 2013-14 school year. Ninety-one percent of those recipients are from families with income low enough to qualify for the federal “National School Lunch” program.

The survey found that 97 percent of parents of scholarship recipients are satisfied with their chosen private or home schools, 68 percent noticed measurable academic improvement since receiving the scholarship, and 74 percent of private school parents reported that they would have been unable to afford tuition without the scholarship. These findings are consistent with previous research and demonstrate once again the promise of educational choice programs.

Click here to read the full report, published by the Show Me Institute

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

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.”