Commentary

What K-12 Scholarships Would Mean for N.H.

The New Hampshire legislature is considering a bill to cut taxes on businesses that help families pay independent school tuition. Florida enacted a similar bill a decade ago, and so it’s useful to see how their program has worked.

Florida businesses that donate to a non-profit k-12 scholarship organization receive a tax credit covering the full cost (the N.H. bill would cover only 90%). That money brings the option of independent schooling within reach of poor families. Two studies of this program have been carried out. The first found that it improves academic achievement for students who remain in the public schools. The second concluded that students who use scholarships to attend independent schools also enjoy an academic boost.

But at what cost? An official analysis by the Florida legislature’s accountability agency found that the program saved taxpayers $1.49 for every dollar it reduced revenues. The reason is simple: on average, private schools spend thousands less per pupil than public schools. And in N.H., public schools spend about $15,000 per student—far more than in Florida.

While the precise short term fiscal impact of the N.H. bill is difficult to predict, the basic math is the same: the more children migrate from public to independent schools, the more taxpayers will save.

A program that improves learning and lowers per-student costs has much to recommend it, but aren’t state-run public schools essential to building stable, cohesive communities? Whatever criticisms we may have of the way this or that public school is operated, the fundamental ideals of public education are deeply cherished. Americans want an education system that not only prepares students for success in private life, but also for participation in public life—and that fosters strong, harmonious communities.

As it happens, scholars have studied this question for years, and their findings were collected and summarized in 2007 by University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf. He found that students in freely-chosen (usually private) schools are more tolerant and civic-minded than those in state-run public schools. Just last November, a randomized experimental study by Harvard professor David J. Deming concluded that students able to choose their own school committed significantly fewer crimes than those assigned to a district school.

Much as this contradicts a common perception, it shouldn’t really surprise us. After all, many of this nation’s political leaders have been educated in private schools and sent their children to private schools, from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama.

Another key concern, the program’s constitutionality, was settled last spring by the U.S. Supreme Court. Rejecting a challenge to an Arizona scholarship tax credit program, the Court ruled that donations to charities are private funds, whether or not they qualify for a tax credit or deduction. No parent or taxpayer is compelled to participate in such a program, and both have many options if they do participate. The parent has a choice of schools and the taxpayer a choice of non-profit scholarship organizations to which to donate. Freedom of conscience is thus preserved.

With all its advantages, expanding educational choice seems a good fit for the Live Free or Die state. The one remaining argument against it is that perhaps New Hampshire’s educational performance is already so good that it needs no improving. Certainly it’s true that N.H. students score above average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests at the elementary and secondary levels. And its college-bound students score above the national average on the SAT.

But are these scores attributable to the state’s school system or to its demography? To find out, we can compare the average performance of white students in N.H. to that of white students in the nation as a whole. Doing so, we find that N.H. is only average in math and slightly below average in reading on the 12th grade NAEP test. We also find that N.H. is below average in both reading and math on the SAT—though much of that deficit is probably accounted for by the state’s higher SAT participation rate. New Hampshire’s apparent performance advantage seems largely due to its population rather than to its schools. So there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

With this education tax credit bill, New Hampshire thus has the opportunity to expand parental choice, and thereby to improve student achievement, boost civic-mindedness, reduce crime, and lower per-pupil costs. Why not Learn Free as well as Live Free?

Andrew Coulson directs the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and is the author of Market Education: The Unknown History.