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Another View -- Jody Underwood: Improving on NH's education monopoly

September 26. 2016 5:35PM

Guiding a child's education is a fundamental part of parenting, and no one knows a student’s needs like his parents. So the current system, where unelected bureaucrats can ignore parental wishes with impunity, while forcing poorer people (like me) to subsidize richer people, is nearly the opposite of what we should want.

But if you can use my money to send children to private schools, I can demand that it not be wasted. That requires oversight, although not necessarily by bureaucrats who benefit when prices go up and quality goes down.

There is a standard model for dealing with situations where we don’t want poor people denied access to something essential, tax money wasted on substandard products or services, or poorer people subsidizing richer people.

Someone demonstrates that he can’t afford something essential. He chooses a licensed private provider, and gets money that can only be spent on that thing.

For medical care, there’s Medicaid but no state-run hospitals, only private providers such as Dartmouth-Hitchcock or Elliot Hospital.

This also applies to other government programs such as heating oil, LIHEAP; for food, food stamps; and so on. Again, there are no state providers for these services, only private ones.

But for education, we create a government monopoly in which providing a service is equated with producing it. It’s like saying that since some people can’t afford food, the government had better start farming.

The obvious alternative is an Educaid program. License teachers, the people who are actually providing the service, the way we license doctors, and let parents seek out the best teachers for their children, the way they seek out the best doctors for their families. What they can’t afford, we help them pay for.

Parents would lose the ease of shipping children to the nearest government school, but gain access not just to private schools, but to the kinds of products and innovations whose creation is spurred by competition, and stifled by a state-mandated monopoly.

Teachers would lose some security, but gain the recognition, flexibility and opportunity available to other kinds of professionals, like doctors and lawyers.

Taxpayers like me would benefit from the way competition drives costs down and quality up. And providing aid only to those who demonstrate a need would relieve me of the perverse burden of subsidizing people who have more than me.

Educaid would be available for educating students, but not for warehousing them. It’s one thing for my taxes to be used so that kids don’t miss out on education. It’s another for me to be paying for people to park their kids while they go out and increase their incomes.

Who wins? Responsible parents, their children, teachers who want to be treated as professionals, and taxpayers like me.

Who loses? Indolent or wealthy parents, complacent teachers, and bureaucrats. That sounds about right to me.

So if that’s where we’re headed, and I think we should be, then letting parents use tax money to pay for private schools seems like a step in the right direction, but only if we keep in mind that it’s only a step.

For more than 100 years, small towns in New Hampshire have used tuition as a form of Educaid. A paper from Granite Institute, “How New Hampshire Provides Small Towns with Access to Schools,” summarizes both the history and the current state of tuitioning in New Hampshire. New Hampshire law allows school boards to make several schools available to parents so the parents can choose the school that best meets their child’s needs. Many towns don’t know that this century-old law exists, so bureaucrats and teachers’ unions are determined to kill this option for parents, thus mandating that children only attend their government-run schools.

The paper also summarizes the situation in which the New Hampshire Department of Education is taking the small town of Croydon to court. The town enacted town tuitioning giving parents access to both public and private schools in the 2014-15 school year.

We hope the information provided in this paper will empower New Hampshire citizenry to reclaim local control in their towns to do right by all their children and the people who fund their education. With enough people on board, we can stop the hypocrisy.

Jody Underwood is a member of the Croydon School Board and an education fellow at the Granite Institute, a 501(c)(3) public policy organization.

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