Learn Free or Die

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New Hampshire can put its famous state motto to work on education.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Last month, Arizona became the second state after Nevada to enact universal education savings accounts, or ESAs, which allow parents to spend a state’s per-pupil aid amount on other education options. New Hampshire may soon be the next state to establish a universal right to freedom of education—if Republicans don’t lose their nerve.

In 2012, the Granite State established a modest tax-credit scholarship program, but last year only 178 students—less than 0.1% of statewide public school enrollment—received awards, which average about 15% of $14,909 per-student public school spending. The state Senate opened the school-choice doors last month by passing a universal ESA bill that would give parents who withdraw their kids from public schools 90% of their child’s per-pupil state allocation to spend on private-school tuition, curriculum, tutoring or other state-approved education expenses.

The legislation is now facing resistance in the GOP-controlled House. At a hearing last week, there were questions about inferior accommodations for students with disabilities at private schools. But parents wouldn’t be forced to withdraw their kids from public schools. If they like their local public school, they can keep their child in it. Some Republicans worry about the fiscal impact on rural school districts. But these districts have to rationalize labor and overhead costs eventually due to demographic changes.

State Board of Education Chairman Tom Raffio has argued that ESAs are unnecessary because New Hampshire’s public schools rank among the best in the nation. That’s partly an artifact of the state’s predominantly well-to-do population. Still, only 31% of low-income fourth graders in 2015 scored proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a seven-point decline since 2013. Parents unhappy with results like this should be able to seek alternatives.

Meanwhile in Nevada, a state Supreme Court decision overturning its funding mechanism has their program and about 8,000 parents on hold. GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval ought to veto new spending bills until his Democratic legislature funds ESAs.

It is hard to justify one-size-fits-all-public education in an era that increasingly allows people to exercise choice in most aspects of their lives. Republicans in New Hampshire would be fortifying the state’s motto to live free or die by embracing the freedom to learn.

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