School board member: Public schools are an investment in our children and in our communities

The Valley News featured this column from Carey Callaghan, who is the chair of the SAU 70 (Hanover) School Board:

Last month, a bill that creates “education freedom” savings accounts for students took a big step toward law in the state of New Hampshire. I won’t dwell on the constitutionality of the bill for a state and nation founded on the principle of separation of church and state. Public dollars should not fund religious institutions, even schools. There are many other reasons to oppose this bill.

The bill, SB 193, carves up each district’s basic adequacy grant — provided from state tax dollars to ensure each district can educate every child — and allows up to 90 percent of the state per-pupil amount to be siphoned off by parents to support tuition for charter, private, home schooling, and other education expenses of the parent’s choice.

Freedom is an appealing word, but this bill is less about freedom than about taking tax dollars provided to support all children (adequacy aid), and allowing those few with means to do so to divert them for private gain.

To preface, I have no familial ties or business interests related to the education profession. I am a business person who serves as a board member and chair of a school district that straddles the Vermont/New Hampshire border. Moreover, my community (SAU 70) is a relatively well-off district that is unlikely to be directly impacted by SB 193, because we receive virtually nil in the way of adequacy aid.

If my district doesn’t have a direct stake in this fight, why speak out against it? Because this bill will cannibalize the budgets of districts with lesser resources and erode communities and democratic purposes across the state.

The idea that a parent knows best what is right for his or her children is deeply compelling. Of course, parents in New Hampshire already enjoy the freedom to enroll their children in private and religious schools — on their own dime. SB 193 is not only a privatization of public dollars for private purposes, but a privatization for the benefit of the few. These few are those that can afford to make up the difference between “scholarship” funds and private school tuitions. Casualties include children without these options and taxpayers, particularly in small communities that lose students. They would have to pay more to maintain adequate schools for those children who remain.

Over time, this will likely lead to segregation of our schools between “haves” and “have nots,” a split that may also occur along ethnic and racial lines. If separation and segregation of our children and our communities is a goal of the Legislature, SB 193 will help.

There is a second aspect to fairness. Public schools must, by law, accommodate all comers — including those with disabilities. And public schools are held accountable with respect to standards. Private schools have no such obligations. To siphon public monies into private schools is to push up per-pupil spending in public schools through adverse cost selection, while simultaneously funding private programs of questionable quality, and which are not held to account by the taxpayers who fund them.

I also have grave doubts about the effectiveness of privatization efforts such as SB 193, often labeled voucher programs. Recent studies raise significant questions about whether vouchers improve outcomes. In particular, recent findings from the states of Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana, which have three of the largest voucher programs in the country, suggest that, after controlling for the motivational bias of those who opt in to such programs, there is little to no perceived educational benefit to such programs. In fact, the studies indicate a significant decline in math test scores in all three states and a measurable decline in reading in one state. In other words, vouchers will cost more, and they seem to erode educational outcomes at the same time. A lose-lose proposition.

Beyond that, I believe we face a clear moral imperative. The investments we make in our public schools aren’t just an investment in our children; they are investments in our communities. Just as we renovate and invest in our homes to maintain their value and provide a stable hub for our family and broader community of friends and neighbors, so too we need to take care of our schools. When we privatize, we replace investment in shared enterprises and experience, focused on a common future for our communities, with private investments that are unlikely to be as valuable. Particularly in many small communities across our wonderful state, losing the public school is losing the last shared institution. SB 193 is a step toward diminishing our schools, and the beginning of a journey toward losing them. It is a step toward loss of shared civic purpose, a step toward splintering our communities into silos of like-mindedness. Ultimately, it is a step toward the loss of the civic compact that is the foundation of our democracy. If you feel as I do, speak out against SB 193.

Read the full column here.