NEW HAMPSHIRE is once again in the thick of a legislative session actively considering education voucher bills and school choice.
This time, however, a coordinated effort involving a handful of bills, along with other moves being made by the Department of Education and the State Board of Education, have the potential to irreparably harm our entire public education system. Supporters of these bills want to privatize public education in New Hampshire, pass a hefty bill onto taxpayers, exacerbate inequity, and effectively leave students and families on their own to identify and secure the educational programs, services and support they need.
I have never seen a more vigorous and orchestrated assault on public education and local taxpayer control than has been apparent in this legislative session. The New Hampshire Supreme Court has ruled consistently over the last three decades that it is the responsibility of the state to determine, define, and fund an adequate public education. These bills are an attempt to strip children of their right to an equitable public education and to pass that constitutionally required state responsibility on to parents.
The bills in question include SB 130, which seeks to create “Education Freedom Accounts” or education vouchers. It’s simply a renewed attempt at passing HB 20, which was retained earlier this year by the House Education Committee, and could cost the state up to $100 million in new spending according to analysis by Reaching Higher NH. Simply put: it’s designed to decimate enrollment at public schools and widen the equity gap.
Other bills that would undermine public education include: HB 609, which seeks to support the creation of “innovation schools” while failing to define “innovation” or outline metrics through which such schools could measure their success and student growth; HB 455, which aims to offer school choice statewide, redistributing state funding and forcing schools to accept as many out-of-district students as possible, despite the fact that we have state laws that outline pathways for school choice while leaving some oversight of the process to school districts; HB 215, which would allow districts to contract with private religious schools; and HB 242 which would reconfigure what constitutes an adequate education. There are several other deeply concerning bills being considered as well.
It should be noted that SB 130 and HB 455 also pose deep questions about equitable access. Both bills would require families to procure transportation on their own to their child’s chosen school, and SB 130 would unjustly benefit students already accessing private education.
While our legislature considers these targeted attacks on public education in our state, the Department of Education not only appears to be lobbying in favor of these efforts, a first in my memory, but is also pushing through appointments to critical department leadership positions that reinforce this one-track mindset. This includes the appointment of McKenzie Snow as the Department of Education Director of Learner Support, who served under former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos and was in charge of the federal voucher program.
The State Board of Education is additionally accepting “Learn Everywhere” programs with a total lack of transparency and appear to not be following their own rules for how to vet these programs prior to approval.
Perhaps most frustrating, this debate ignores an obvious truth about New Hampshire’s public schools: they are performing extremely well. Our public high schools have one of the highest graduation rates in the country at 87.9% according to the New Hampshire Department of Education. Our student test scores rank consistently in the top 10 in the United States. As a state, we have one of the best college acceptance rates in the nation, and our low unemployment and high worker demand shows our schools are a key part of training tomorrow’s workforce.
Voucher program states are in the bottom quartile in practically every national educational measure. Why, if our public education system is thriving even under the pressure our schools are under from the state, would we upend the entire system?
There is, indisputably, a high return on investment in public education in New Hampshire. I implore every Granite Stater who cares about public education — learn more about these bills, and voice your concerns to your representatives and our legislators. We can, and we must, do better.
Carl M. Ladd is executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association. He lives in Northumberland.