January 29. 2013 5:02PM

Educational opportunity is under attack on many fronts


Educational opportunity is something we all want for our children. But it is under threat in New Hampshire. While the wealthy can choose among many options to find the best education for their children, two small programs that increase options for poor people in New Hampshire are 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.

If you have the means, you can afford to choose among many different options for your children. Though New Hampshire has better schools than most states do, no one seriously believes that one school is the best possible choice for every student in a particular zip code. More opportunity leads 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. It allows tax credits for businesses that donate to organizations that give scholarships to students from lower-income families. The program is just starting, but it 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 who claims that the board is no longer permitted to authorize charter schools because the next budget hasn't been passed so no one knows if there is going to be funding. Logically, then, they can't grant any school a five-year charter because we 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) 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 that 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. It would allow tax credits for business donations to scholarship organizations. The scholarships would help parents purchase an education at any approved school in the state. This law, like the charter school law, is about increasing opportunities for people who have limited educational opportunities today.

Scholarships will average $2,500, 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, it reminded us all what this debate is about. The 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."

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.