Business leader Val Zanchuk: “Don’t destroy a top public school system” – MyTurn in the Concord Monitor

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Val Zanchuk, owner of Graphicast in Jaffrey and a pillar of the New Hampshire civic and business community, published this today in the Monitor.

The proponents of Senate Bill 193, which intends to establish “education freedom” savings accounts, see a dystopian educational landscape that defies the reality of public education in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire’s public education system was recently ranked best in the nation and has been among the top-rated systems for years. Our state leads the nation in the development of 21st-century skills, competency-based education, career pathways and extended learning opportunities.

New England, the birthplace of public education more than 150 years ago, enjoys the highest levels of per capita wealth in the country. It is the home of some of the world’s leading universities and a hub for technology and innovation. Broadly available public education and economic success have gone hand in hand for decades.

SB 193’s voucher program and the scholarship organizations proposed to manage them would be an expensive, corruption-prone, inefficient bureaucracy – intended to satisfy an education ideology, not an education problem.

Are public schools perfect? No. They can be frustratingly slow to react to the fast-paced changes of the economy and society. Additionally, each district has its own characteristics and personality, reflecting its local control.

As a businessperson trying to work with schools to help develop a future workforce with the career ready skills needed for success, I have found that it takes time and trust to create curricular motion.

Public education has undergone transformations throughout its history in the United States, as the needs of our economy and society evolved. It is transforming again, as we face new challenges and opportunities. Change can be uncomfortable, and there are those who do not take well to change, so any transformation takes constant communication, conflict resolution and repeated assessment.

There are alternatives to public education in New Hampshire.

Full-time home schooling is an alternative for about 3 percent of students. Private schools, including boarding schools with non-New Hampshire students, account for just under 8 percent. These choices have existed for years.

Parents who choose to use these alternatives have always recognized that the additional costs, time and commitment associated with these alternatives are also their choice. They make these choices fully recognizing that they do so in addition to their support of public education. SB 193 would disrupt this equation to the detriment of everyone.

SB 193 would create a voucher system where public money would subsidize private choice. It would add about $70 million in cost to the state to pay for students currently in home school and private school. The program would also downshift potentially millions of dollars onto local communities.

The choices that SB 193 create are available only to a small fraction of families and these options come at the expense of students who lack the financial means to attend private school, or who have unique needs that private schools choose not to address. By subsidizing those able to afford private school, this program would quickly sort students into “haves” and “have-nots,” and further divide our communities at a time when we should be finding new ways to bridge divides and strengthen our communal values.

SB 193 would effectively transfer public funds from poor families to affluent families. SB 193 would provide vouchers worth about $3,200 for families to use to pay for private school or home school. The average cost of a private elementary school in New Hampshire is $10,773. The average cost for a private high school is $29,649. The voucher would not make these choices available for the majority of families in the state.

The bill also fails to require private schools to change enrollment requirements. So even where a family could use the voucher to pay for private school, the school has no obligation to accept a student who may require special educational services, or may not have the best grades. For such students, SB 193 does not create new opportunities. It restricts those students’ choices by pulling money out from their public schools.

If our public schools were failing, then something like SB 193 could provide an alternative to parents seeking the best for their children. However, they are not failing. They are consistently at the top of the list of by any number of measures. Why would we, as a community, want to destroy one of the country’s best public school systems? It makes no educational or economic sense.

President John Adams wrote this in 1785:

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

We should heed his counsel.

(Val Zanchuk is the president of Graphicast in Jaffrey.)