School Choice Legislation: House Votes on ‘Town Tuitioning’

By Michelle Levell

On Thursday, June 1st the New Hampshire House of Representatives will vote on Senate Bill 8 (SB 8), one of this year’s town tuitioning bills. The House Education Committee amended it with amendment #1786 in a 13 to 6 vote with all Republicans and two Democrats, Representative Barbara Shaw (Hillsborough 6) and Representative Linda Tanner (Sullivan 9), supporting the bill.

The amendment empowers local school boards to make contracts with non-sectarian private schools as “school tuition programs.” Although this is a new designation, it is not a new concept as school boards may already enter into agreements with public and private schools. Private school placement is more common for students with special needs, but some districts offer it for other students, too.

This bill is specifically for districts that do not provide Kindergarten through 12th grade in-district and must tuition out some portion of their students. This bill, like House Bill 1637 (2016), is commonly called the “Croydon bill” although it is not limited to just one community; it will impact roughly 50 small towns across the state that do not have K-12 in-district.

It is also at parents’ discretion whether or not they want their children to participate. Those who chose to enroll in school tuition programs are those who are seeking a different educational fit for their children. As seen in the Croydon program, these are children who are not having their needs met at the default public school and can thrive in an alternative educational setting.

The amendment does not diminish or remove local school boards’ responsibility to ensure sending students receive an “opportunity for an adequate education” and access to special needs services. This is consistent with existing district contracts with neighboring public and private schools.

Previous versions of the town tuitioning bill were heavily debated on accountability. SB 8 as amended allows private schools to administer any nationally recognized standardized assessment to measure student academic achievement in reading and language arts, mathematics, and science, consistent with RSA 193-C:6. Examples are the Terra Nova Test, California Achievement Test, and Iowa Basic Skills Test; all of which have been widely used for decades and administered at many New Hamphsire private schools.

These schools are not required to use the same statewide assessments that New Hampshire public schools administer, currently the Smarter Balanced Assessment in grades 3 through 8 and SAT for 11th graders while some districts use PACE, all of which are aligned to College and Career Readiness Standards (aka Common Core). Even public schools do not use one uniform assessment.

Participating schools must submit annual scores to the local school boards and state Department of Education commissioner. They also must achieve no less than the 40th percentile if they have 10 or more students in the program. If they are not reaching required test results, the commissioner may require site visits in accordance with RSA 193-E:3-b. If private schools do not demonstrate satisfactory achievement for three consecutive years, their status as school tuition programs may be revoked. These conditions mirror requirements for public schools in existing statute.

Ultimately accountability is to parents, even in school tuition programs. Parents are interested in more than test scores. They consider many factors including a school’s reputation, course offerings, teacher skills, school discipline, safety, student respect for teachers, educational philosophy, class size, teacher-parent relations, college acceptance rates, and more. Schools held accountable to parents have to take all of these elements into account.

If parents enroll their children in school tuition programs and do not find them adequately meeting their children’s needs, they will withdraw the children regardless of test scores or the state DOE’s interventions. In this way school tuition programs are accountable to parents and responsible for meeting the needs of each individual child.

In the executive session, the House Education Committee acknowledged that there is performance disparity in our public schools; some schools are high performers while others are not. Chairman Rick Ladd said:

A child is seven years old only once, and if that was my child or grandchild, I would want him or her to attend the best school possible. Children should not be trapped in a school based on their zip code.

School tuition programs also put educational options within reach for children that would otherwise not have them available. Particularly in more rural areas of our state, there are few if any chartered public schools. Making private schools available is a critical option for these children.

Opponents to the bill said they fear town tuitioning programs drain money away from public schools. This is a common myth that is not supported with facts. In a recent analysis, EdChoice demonstrates that private school choice options are a meager 2 to 3 percent of state resources even in states with significant programs in place for over a decade. New Hampshire’s current program is much smaller and younger with a minuscule impact on state resources.

Also we must consider the egalitarian opportunity school tuition programs provide. The Witherspoon Institute recently wrote:

Moreover, it seems perverse to argue that some children should be denied a potential lifeline out of poverty for the fear that the public schools might suffer as a result. By that same logic, we should deny school choice to wealthier families as well, forcing all to send their children to public schools. Yet the vast majority of Americans would be up in arms if such a policy were proposed.

Should children be forced to stay in schools that don’t fit their educational needs? Even if schools are implementing reforms to respond to the broader community or failing test scores, should individual children wait to see if those educational experiments will benefit them? Shouldn’t opportunity be available to all children, not only those from wealthy families?

Just as school tuition programs expand choice for families, they provide fiscally responsible options for school boards. Given statewide student population declines and rising education costs, these programs allow local school boards more flexibility to provide education at negotiated lower rates.

Senate Bill 8 is a win for New Hampshire students, small districts, parents and taxpayers.