By Bill Duncan
How is it that New Hampshire’s voucher tax credit program can find only 15 public school students who want vouchers? And is giving them $164,000 – $11,000 apiece – to leave their public schools and go to private schools. The program then spreads the rest of its $235,000 pool of donations among 85 more students whose families are already paying their way in private and home schools, making the average scholarship equal the $2,500 required by the voucher law.
Is this what state Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, had in mind when she steadfastly refused to consider repealing this complex, ill-conceived and pointless intervention in our public education system? I actually don’t think Sen. Stiles or most other voucher supporters want that. But voucher advocates and their legislative sponsors steadfastly opposed the oversight that would have prevented this problem.
One of those advocates, a key player in designing the legislation, is now the only active scholarship organization authorized to collect donations and decide who gets the money. The group, the Network for Educational Opportunity (NEO), is a libertarian advocacy organization whose mission is to shut down public schools. It has very little staff and no financial or program administration experience.
Any oversight board charged with ensuring that participating scholarship organizations and schools were credible would have rejected NEO.
I have lodged a complaint with the Department of Revenue Administration, saying that the NEO is not operating the program according to the law. The organization is giving 70 percent of the scholarship funds to the 15 public school students, which is 15 percent of the scholarships.
If NEO has proceeded with its announced plan, it is obviously against the law.
The law says that 70 percent of the scholarships – not scholarship money – must go to students leaving public schools receiving adequacy grants from the state. It even uses the phrase “number of scholarships.” That was key to passage of the legislation, because the state withholds those adequacy funds to offset the cost of the voucher tax credits, making the program cost-free to the state.
However, the NEO plan involves so few public school students that the state would lose over $150,000.
Beyond that, NEO has provided no public description of its policies or process for choosing families to receive scholarships. Is it by lottery? If not, are they friends of NEO or its donors? There’s no way to know. There are many questions and no transparency.
But we can insist on accountability.
First, NHDRA should issue guidance restating the obvious, that the law clearly requires that 70 percent of the scholarships – not scholarship funds – go to public school students.
And if NEO’s program report shows that they mishandled the state’s money, NEO should be removed. NHDRA may also determine that business donors should lose their tax credits.
The New Hampshire voucher program is in a shambles. The Strafford County Superior Court issued an injunction against funding religious schools because it violates the New Hampshire Constitution. That decision is being appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court and parts or all of the law could be struck down.
NEO has demonstrated that, if the program does survive the courts, NEO or any group could misuse this program in the future, potentially on a much larger scale. Yes, the Legislature could try to fix the law, but what’s the point?
The voucher law is too complex. And only NEO and the religious schools that hoped to benefit supported it – along with the first-term libertarian legislators who wrote it (one of them saying, “We want as many students as possible out of the system.”)
New Hampshire businesses work with our public schools and they never saw a need for this program. Most public school parents didn’t either – and obviously still don’t.
The Senate did the state a disservice by refusing to go along with the House to repeal the program earlier this year. Sen. Stiles played a pivotal role. Her single vote enabled the program to survive. At this point, then, Sen. Stiles owns it. She should join House Education Committee Chair Mary Gile to co-sponsor voucher repeal in the next session of the Legislature. And the Senate should vote unanimously to shut the voucher program down and move on to the serious business before the state.
Bill Duncan is a resident of New Castle and founder of Advancing New Hampshire Public Education.
- Poll Shows Highest Level of Public Disapproval for Vouchers Ever (news.firedoglake.com)