New Hampshire School Choice Scholarship Act: Good for Students and Parents

D.J. Bettencourt
D.J. Bettencourt

By: DJ Bettencourt – December, 2013

The vast majority of Granite Staters know from experience that New Hampshire public schools offer an outstanding education for most students.

But while many flourish in their assigned school, some students need a different educational environment. Every child learns differently, and all children hold within themselves their own particular genius. This potential can best be realized when children and their families have the ability to choose what school they believe will best engage, prepare and educate them for the future.

Unfortunately, other than the choice to uproot and move to a different school district, most middle-class families lack choice in education, which is a barrier preventing many children from achieving their full potential.

The New Hampshire School Choice Scholarship Act (NHSCSA), of which I was the primary sponsor, was passed in 2012 to allow businesses to make tax-deductible donations to K-12 educational scholarship programs. Such programs offer up to $2,500 scholarships to disadvantaged and special needs students toward the cost of out-of-district public schools, independent schools, and even certain home-schooling expenses.

With these scholarships, students and families can investigate and select the educational forum that best suits their needs.

The best school for a child may offer smaller class sizes or a vocational technical program or a “move on when ready” system for gifted students, or a particular expertise with a child’s special needs. In addition to better serving our students, choice will empower their parents to get engaged in their children’s education. These reforms will create better accountability in education – the single biggest factor in improving academic performance.

Scholarship programs like NHSCSA is a low-risk first step in educational innovation. Similar programs have been tested as successes in eight other states. Moreover, studies from Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Arkansas have shown that school choice programs have positive impacts on academic performance.

As for school choice in general, 18 of 19 studies in Milwaukee, Florida and Washington, D.C., showed improvements in educational outcomes directly related to school choice.

Sadly, certain special interests have aggressively resisted the NHSCSA and other attempts to alter the status quo in education. Despite the careful manner in which the program was crafted, it hasn’t stopped the public school lobby from scare tactics and putting forth outrageous claims.

More dishearteningly, they have initiated a careful and manipulative litigation strategy this spring to challenge the legality of the NHSCSA. Currently their legal challenge is pending before the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

These critics fail to appreciate that school choice is neither an indictment on public schools nor a battle of public vs. private schooling. It’s about giving disadvantaged and special needs students and their families the opportunity to excel in an education that fits their needs.

Facilitating scholarships to disadvantaged and special needs students should not be a partisan issue. After all, few object to scholarships to attend colleges and universities. Why should we wait that long to offer students a chance for educational success? The foundation for a child’s academic career is built in the early years. We cannot afford to keep him or her locked into an unsuitable educational environment until adulthood – it’s just too late.

The 2011-2012 legislature was sensitive to church-state separation concerns should a family choose to apply a scholarship at a church-affiliated school. We didn’t want taxpayer dollars supporting religious activities any more than we want churches to become dependent on government money.

That’s why scholarships under the NHSCSA are entirely privately funded. Any choice to use scholarships at a religious institution is entirely the choice of parents. As affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, such programs give families choice without entangling the government in religious affairs. It’s a fair and sensible solution. New Hampshire students and parents can only hope that the New Hampshire Supreme Court will reach the same sound conclusion.

The NHSCSA is about looking to the future in education, a future starkly different from today. We know the 21st century school must be different than the 19th- and 20th-century system we’re still living with. But how?

That’s the role of innovation, a process that is, by its nature, incremental, testing for successes while leaving behind what proves ineffective. Choices in education will kick-start that innovative process.

Sadly, this important innovation for our students could be lost to union and special interest initiated litigation. We can only hope the New Hampshire Supreme Court does the right thing for students. Every student deserves the best.