A FEW YEARS AGO, the Legislature enacted SB372, which allowed tax credits for contributions to organizations that provided school-choice scholarships to low-income families. Now, with HB632, Democrats, the self-proclaimed defenders of the downtrodden, are seeking to repeal the scholarship program and wrench hundreds of underprivileged children from school settings in which they are thriving.
It was a sobering realization, the other day, that I have been going to the State House to testify on school-choice issues for almost a quarter of a century, since shortly after passage of the charter school law in 1995.
The one constant, among the fervent and often frenetic opposition to anyone or anything that threatens the unfortunate monopoly that the public schools hold on the delivery of free education, is that the word “draining” is used to describe the financial impact of school choice on public schools.
Usually “draining” is associated with the other mantra: “desperately needed funds”.
Predictably, during debate and passage of the scholarship program, all hell broke loose among the public school monopoly lobby and the “draining” argument was bandied about even more than usual.
It was wrong.
Let’s first illustrate with an example in a hypothetical, but much more sensible, environment in which communities could choose to build privately operated schools to deliver publicly funded education.
Suppose a community wanted to lower class size in its elementary system and put forward two proposals for a 100-seat primary school , either a) a privately run school costing $4 million dollars and operating at $12,000 per student per year or b) a new public school costing $5 million dollars to build, and $20,000 per student per year to operate.
Both schools would serve the same students and deploy public funds to lower class size in the existing schools to the exact same degree. According to education lobby doctrine, any public funds going to the privately operated school would “drain” money. On the other hand, the lobby loves the expenditure of funds on new public facilities.
Yet, it is manifestly obvious, in the above example, that, in this case, far from “draining” money, the choice of a privately operated school would save the community from unnecessary expenditure.
So, what the public school lobby calls “draining” is actually expenditure on increased capacity of seats, which lower class size, for publicly funded education. Whether the operator of those extra seats is public or private has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the financial argument.
One could equally well say that building new public schools “drains desperately needed funds” from the ones that exist already!
Now let’s leave the hypothetical and look at the actual situation in New Hampshire.
New public schools, charter schools and scholarships all contribute, in an environment of relatively fixed enrollment, to lowering class size in the public institutions. New schools cost about $50,000 per seat to build, and almost $20,000 per seat per year to run.
Charters cost only the $5,000 or so per seat per year of the state grant, and scholarships (we may as well be honest, the tax credit is, effectively, an expense because it reduces government revenues) far less than that.
According to Kate Baker, executive director at Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire, for the 2018-2019 school year, 417 scholarships were provided at a total cost of slightly less than $1 million dollars. Even allowing for some administrative costs, we’re talking about less than $3,000 per seat per year, with no public money expended on building costs. It’s an economic slam dunk!
There is also the question of quality. Ever since the Claremont II decision, over 20 years ago, was portrayed by school boards as free money to be spent on schools (when actually it was a property tax relief decision!) costs have exploded. Per student costs today are about three times what they were in those days, while the inflation index has only risen about 50 percent.
All the spending didn’t buy much. Math and foreign language skills are often identified as the best predictors of who will find prosperity in a technological and global century.
Yet only about one in every 20 public school graduates in New Hampshire can convert 13 years of math instruction into the right answers on the Advanced Placement Calculus exam, and far less than that satisfy the AP examiner in a foreign language.
Private school students pass AP exams at about 4 times the rate of their public school peers.
Given all that, every representative supporting HB632 to repeal the scholarship fund tax credit should answer the following questions:
Do you support lowering public school class size?
If so, what’s your plan to allow your community to do that less expensively than with scholarships?
Why would you not want underprivileged families in your constituency to have help for their children to attend more effective schools?
But since left-wing education policy is about power and control, rather than what is best for students and taxpayers, you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for answers!