Opinion: Preserve school choice for needy NH students

I recall attending church one Sunday when I was a youngster in Nashua, along with my late mother. On this day, our pastor was exhorting the congregation to write letters to Washington, D.C. to support legislation for school choice. I found his talk quite striking and memorable, and I asked mom to explain more on the way home. “Education is so very important… It may be the most important thing in life,” she told me. “Why shouldn’t everyone have a choice where they go to school?”

Her words rang true then, and stuck with me as I became a parent myself. Ever since that day, I have been baffled by the government monopoly that is exercised over education. When electricity deregulation was all the rage in New Hampshire and resulted in a new state law in 1996, I remember politicians and newspaper editors proclaiming the benefits of electric competition. “Quality will rise and costs will fall,” they insisted. If competition between service and commodity providers is good for the consumer (and, of course, it is), would not the same be true for education? Couldn’t you substitute the word “education” for “electricity” in all those editorials in the 1990′s praising competition among power producers?

Thus the New Hampshire charter school movement of 1995. While the timid state law approved that year and amended in 2003 and 2004 was a commendable effort, the barriers for obtaining a charter in New Hampshire are so high that it is difficult to imagine them gaining widespread traction or helping a very large share of public school students. The total K-12 population in New Hampshire is around 300,000 according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, but today there are just 17 charter schools in New Hampshire – serving only about 3,000 students. That’s after nearly two decades with the law in place. Add to this the recent moratorium placed on charters by the State Board of Education, and you can understand that both luck and dogged determination are necessary to create a successful charter school in the “live free or die” state.

So the New Hampshire Legislature of 2011-12 crafted a terrific scholarship program for the neediest students in the state. The Network for Educational Opportunity (networkforeducation.org) has stepped up to find real solutions for students under this new arrangement. Businesses donate voluntarily to a fund for these means-tested kids who are close to the federal poverty line. Only 85 percent of the donation can be claimed as a tax credit for the donor. The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy tells us that the program would save the state over $8 million in the next four years. And you can just hear the doors of opportunity opening for children of modest means.

But the New Hampshire House changed hands in November 2012, and these scholarships were among the first targets for political reprisal. It’s truly heartbreaking to think that almost 500 families have appealed for help with their kids’ education, and their own Legislature could take that all away before the first book is opened. For the sake of these families, let’s all hope the State Senate is willing to give this a try.

Ken Merrifield is the Mayor of Franklin, NH.

Author: Mayor Ken Merrifield

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