Emancipating Education: School Choice in New Hampshire

According to the New Hampshire Dept of Education, in the 2010–11 school year New Hampshire spent $15,585 per pupil, more than enough to send every child to private school. This year it will cost even more.

Unfortunately, throwing more money at public education doesn’t equate to better education. Just to demonstrate conclusively that money can’t force children to learn, the Washington, D.C. school district spent $28,170 per pupil in 2009. The D.C. test scores and graduation rate (around 56%) were far worse than the national average.

If it were possible to buy education, the U.S. would be the second-smartest place on Earth. According to the 2009 OECD figures, we spend more per pupil than any nation in the world except Switzerland. The U.S. spent an average of $149,000 for the K–12 education of every 2009 public high school graduate.

Unfortunately “education” is not something that you can ship around by the ton. According to the most recent PISA report, U.S. students placed 25th out of the 34 OECD countries in math. Finland, which came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math, spends 30% less than the U.S..

Only 77.5% of U.S. students even graduate from high school. West European high school graduation rates average around 80–90%, and that doesn’t count the many students that enter industrial or banking apprenticeship programs. (Finland’s graduation rate is 93%.)

However, spending less money can work—as long as it is used to give parents and students a choice in schools. There was a successful voucher program in Washington, D.C. which provided $7,500 to students for private school tuition. Students in the program achieved a graduation rate of 91%, far higher than the national average, and at far less cost to the school district. The Obama administration has for now successfully campaigned to end vouchers in D.C., but the Washington Post and other groups are trying to restore the program.

Just as in D.C., school choice would actually save money in New Hampshire. Most private schools in N.H. are cheaper than public schools.

People assume that private schools cost more because wealthier parents tend to use them. They are forgetting that the private-school parents have to pay for both public school taxes and private school tuition. Looking around N.H., you will find many private school tuitions are far lower than the public schools’ cost:

Among secular schools, in 2010 the Well School charged $7,360 for grades 1–4, $8,800 for grades 5–8. Monadnock Waldorf School is now $10,000 for grades 1–8. The Pine Hill Waldorf School in Wilton costs $12,160 for grades 1–8.

For religious schools, Pioneer Junior Academy charges $3,700 for grades 9–12. Trinity Christian Academy in Peterborough is $3,100 for grades 5–8, $3,400 for grades 9–12. St. Joseph Regional in Keene charges $4,164 for parish members and a bit over $5,000 for regular tuition. Few denominational schools charge even half what public schools cost.

This single fact is the invisible elephant in the educational debate. Most people simply have no idea what their schools cost, because they don’t pay directly. The fact is that the public schools have plenty of money to run good schools. They just don’t know how. Public school teachers know this, which is why an above-average percentage of them send their children to private school.

So there is no budgetary excuse to shortchange our children. Our concern should be strictly about education quality, and finding the right school and mode of education for each child. School choice would be worth paying more for; the fact that it would save money just adds irony.

Why Not Vouchers?

So why not just divide up the education budget, send every parent a check, and let them spend it? Parents could choose the school that will let their child succeed. Parents, after all, have their child’s interests closer to their hearts than do anyone else. Whether their child goes to public or private school, the tuition money should follow the child, not some arbitrary bureaucratic boundary.

According to the Heritage Foundation backgrounder “School Choice in America 2011”:

Nine states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs: Colorado (Douglas County), Florida (special needs), Georgia (special needs), Indiana, Louisiana (New Orleans and special needs), Ohio (Cleveland, Ed Choice, special needs, and Autism scholarships), Oklahoma (special needs), Utah (special needs), Wisconsin (Milwaukee and Racine County), and Washington, D.C..

Education-establishment opponents of vouchers claim that allowing parents to choose religious schools violates the separation of church and state. (Apparently being forced to send their children to secular schools doesn’t violate the rights of religious people, for some reason). The U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of vouchers in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002). The Court stated that vouchers are constitutional as long as the money is paid directly to parents and not to schools, and as long as there are also secular schools available.

However, some state constitutions, including New Hampshire’s, have provisions to protect taxpayers from being forced to support “religious” schools (once again completely ignoring the problem of taxpayers with religious beliefs being forced to support irreligious schools). Implementing vouchers would require constitutional amendments in many states—unless proponents were willing to discriminate against religious parents of all denominations.

There is a fear among school choice supporters that if we first give the money to the state (i.e., to politicians) and let the state dole it back to the parents, the politicians will interfere with the parents’ choices. As with food stamps, the money will come with strings and limitations—just the opposite of what makes for innovation. A partial interim solution to both the legal and bureaucratic barriers lies in tax credits.

Tax Credits: Education’s Emancipation Proclamation

Tax credits avoid separation of church and state legal issues, as the money goes directly from the parents’ paycheck to the school. According to the 2011 Heritage report, “nine states—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—offer education tax credits,” and “five states—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, and Minnesota—offer tax deductions to reduce their state income-tax liabilities by taking deductions on education-related expenses, including private-school tuition.”

This year New Hampshire would become the tenth tax-credit state under a bill supported by State Representative JR Hoell (R–Dunbarton). Hopefully readers of this article will contact their state representatives and ask them to support returning education money to the parents.

If you’re in the Mascoma Valley, your current state representatives are: Chuck Townshend (D–Canaan) at 632-7493 and chuck.townsend@leg.state.nh.us, Paul Mirski (R–Enfield) at 632-5555, and Charles Sova (R–Orange) at 523-4578 and charles.sova@leg.state.nh.us.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, over 25% of U.S. children already have access to limited school choice. As of 2007 (the most recent year available on the NCES website), 16 percent of grade 1–12 students attend a public school other than their assigned school. Nine percent go to faith-oriented private schools and three percent to secular private schools. There are also roughly three percent in home schools according to the NCES.

Overseas, many nations with more successful schools already have choice-oriented systems. Sweden has nationwide public school choice. Finland leaves schools entirely to local control, creating more room for innovation.

Choice drives innovation and experimentation. And just as in any other field, the absence of choice (a.k.a. competition) leads to stagnation and failure. Letting parents, rather than politicians, choose where to spend their children’s tuition money will drive that competition.

The question is not whether we can “afford” school choice. The question is how we can afford denying school choice to any New Hampshire child. □

Bill Walker lives in Plainfield, N.H. with his wife and several attack poodles. He worked in lentiviral vector research at the Mayo clinic, and now shovels DICOM data at M2s in West Lebanon.