Vouchers are not the answer for poor kids

The ‘school choice’ debate is a diversion from the real discussion of how we can best educate low-income children

The Strafford County Superior Court has issued an injunction against using vouchers to fund religious schools, but the program technically still exists and could fund secular and home schools. The case will be appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court for a decision, possibly by next winter.

But why are we debating private school vouchers in New Hampshire? Supporters say it’s “school choice for poor families.” Actually, voucher debate is a diversion from the real discussion of how we can best educate New Hampshire’s low-income children.

Our public schools are among the very best in the world — for kids from wealthy families. Students from the richest 10 percent of American parents outscore even Finnish students on international tests. But many of our schools do not do a good job educating low- and moderate-income students.

We have almost 50,000 public school students who qualify for a free or reduced-cost school lunch in New Hampshire. Those kids’ families earn less than $42,000 per year for a family of four. It’s those students who need the help.

Although the voucher program is marketed as a solution for these kids, setting up a new mechanism to spend millions of state dollars sending a few children to unaccountable private schools is not a credible response. We should ensure that our public education system reaches those students right where they are now, in our public schools.

We do know how to educate low-income children in our public schools. I visited Portsmouth’s New Franklin Elementary a few weeks ago and wrote about it on the Advancing New Hampshire Public Education website. New Franklin is single-minded and successful in its efforts to teach the hardest-to-reach kids. Bakersville Elementary in Manchester, where 75 percent of the kids are qualified for subsidized lunches and 45 percent are learning English, gets amazing results as well. The White Mountains Regional School District is another great example. I could go on. These schools have great test scores but, more importantly, their day-to-day teaching shows how possible it is to reach kids at risk of failing in school.

Schools all over New Hampshire are doing it. We should be debating how to do it better, and in more schools. For instance, most other states — and many countries — have found that access to high-quality pre-K helps low-income kids do better. And we could provide improved support for teachers trying to reach at-risk kids in all grades.

Whatever the solution is, it is not using vouchers to, as one of the bill’s authors said, get “as many students as possible out of the ‘system.’” And New Hampshire businesses have demonstrated that they know that our public education system should be the priority. They have stayed away from vouchers. The program has allocated only $230,000 of the $3.4 million authorized in tax credits – and the vast bulk of that went to one company.

We don’t know what the New Hampshire Supreme Court will decide about funding religious schools, but we do know that we don’t need our legislators scheming about how to undermine our public education “system.” It’s time to move on from the voucher debate and consider real policy options for New Hampshire children.

Bill Duncan of New Castle heads the organization Advancing New Hampshire Public Education.

Categories: Opinion