By Michelle Levell
This week the New Hampshire House and Senate have two critical school choice bills coming up. House Bill 647 (HB 647), an Education Savings Account (ESA) for children with special needs is due out of the House Finance Committee this week. The bill will advance to the entire House of Representatives the following week. The senate will vote on Senate Bill 193 (SB 193), an ESA for all New Hampshire children, on Thursday, March 16th. Both pieces of legislation will help New Hampshire parents provide the best education for their children’s needs.
Education Savings Accounts are funds that children receive to a designated account that are used for a variety of educational purposes. While ESAs are new to New Hampshire, they are not new to other states. Currently five states offer ESA programs and each is unique with respect to the approved uses, eligibility qualifications, administration, accountability mechanisms, and funding sources. The two established programs in Arizona and Florida have been immensely successful. They put an expanded range of educational services and options within reach, particularly for low-income families who face the greatest challenges financing their children’s educational needs.
ESAs have withstood constitutional challenges and enrollment is optional. The Cato Institute and EdChoice representatives testified that the state and districts would have significant savings – a net positive impact on school districts of $59.7 million – if New Hampshire implements these ESA programs. Recently a news report revealed that students with autism have been receiving unfair treatment at their school district. This underscores the importance of educational options, especially for our most vulnerable students. School choice, and these ESAs in particular, can make all the difference for all our children to succeed.
For some reason, people ask whether or not parents will make good decisions for their children when they enroll in a K-12 school of choice. Why is that? Community members don’t question when a family picks up a meal at a store or drive-in instead of cooking dinner at home. Nor are they challenged if they enroll their child in soccer instead of baseball or when choosing their child’s pre-school or college. People don’t argue when a family moves to Bedford or Windham for their children’s education. But all of a sudden, families are scrutinized if they choose something other than the local K-12 public school.
Wealthy families have choice because they can afford to live in more expensive and higher academic-performing districts. They have mobility to choose from a wider array of communities and can afford tuition at private schools. Well-off families are not questioned when they enroll their children in private schools such as The Derryfield School or Bishop Guertin High School. Why are their decisions readily accepted, but not those of families who need financial assistance to have those same educational opportunities for their children? Is it an underlying discrimination against people of lower economic means or less affluent communities?
Authentic accountability comes with mobility. When parents can withdraw their children from a school at any moment, that school becomes extremely sensitive to meeting their expectations. Schools of choice must satisfy parents because to do otherwise jeopardizes their ability to maintain enrollment. Study after study shows that this benefits all students, including those remaining in public schools. A separate meta-analysis of school choice studies confirms these results. Jason Bedrick, formerly with the Cato Institute, explained that school choice programs improve educational outcomes. He said that the meta-analysis showed “highly statistically significant, educationally meaningful achievement gains of several months of additional learning from school choice.”
Taxpayers understandably want to know money is spent wisely. To that end, states may require testing on the premise that tests can guarantee an adequate education or that the purpose of education is to do well on these tests. But parents are interested in more than scores. Parents consider many factors including a school’s reputation, course offerings, teacher skills, school discipline, safety, student respect for teachers, the inculcation of moral values and religious traditions, class size, teacher-parent relations, college acceptance rates, and more. Schools held directly accountable to parents have to take all of these elements into account.
In determining accountability, the drive for more data must be put into the context of empowered parents. Children have one chance at a Kindergarten through 12th grade education that meets their needs and it is our obligation to empower parents with an array of options so that every child has the opportunity for success and every parent the opportunity to hold their child’s school accountable to the highest standard. So why limit these opportunities to just the wealthy? Isn’t it a better moral argument to support educational options for all families regardless of their income or zip code? Shouldn’t all families be trusted to make choices that best fit their children’s educational needs?
Governor Chris Sununu, a strong supporter of school choice and parent empowerment. In his inaugural address he said to parents across the Granite State, “You, the parent, have the ultimate say where your child will go to school, regardless of income.” Authentic accountability to parents is the key to success for all our children.