By Steve Mac Donald | Watchdog Arena
The small town of Croydon, N.H. found a way to bring school choice to its families using existing state law, upsetting the state school board chairwoman.
New Hampshire has a number of small towns that do not have school buildings or only educate younger children. To address education at higher grade levels, they contract with neighboring towns and negotiate area tuition agreements.
State law allows towns to pursue these agreements, sending taxpayer education dollars to any accredited school, public, charter, or private, even in neighboring states, with the exception of religious schools. The local board, at the behest of voters, negotiates contracts and approves taxpayer-funded tuition payments to those schools.
The money follows the student.
With this in mind, Croydon looked ahead to a time when their current contract with a neighboring district would expire. Rather than just renew the contract, they began a discussion about school choice. They looked at state law, spoke with the State School Board, and asked voters about their preferences.
The result was a program, legal within existing statute, which would allow public education tax dollars to follow every student.
Development of this uncommon program began in 2007 and will be implemented this coming school year. Although it is a unique opportunity for younger students, a nearby district has offered a similar choice option for high school students for more than 25 years.
(In the interview) Dr. Underwood also talked about how the school board collaborated with surrounding public and private schools, so schools are competing for Croydon students. This is bringing down the tuition costs – a savings to the town.
While Croydon had been researching their options as early as 2007, their discovery only became more widely known when they began implementing it in the 2014-2015 school year. State School Board Chair Virginia Barry—whose mindset is “the districts legal obligations must supersede parent’s demands”—announced that the plan violated state law and told Croydon they would have to stop. If they refused the state would withhold $39,000.00 dollars in statewide education money. But Croydon felt certain the law was on their side.
Last month, Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry wrote to Cynthia Gallagher, superintendent of SAU #43, and said the practice of sending pupils to private schools using taxpayer funds is unlawful; the state ordered the SAU to stop.
Underwood said state law supports school choice and that there is precedent.
“There are communities on the borders of Vermont and Maine who send their kids to Vermont and Maine private schools. They are not controlled by the state Board of Education at all,” Underwood said.
Lyme has tuition agreements with both Thetford Academy and St. Johnsbury Academy, both in Vermont, she said. And several communities along the Maine border have tuition agreements with Fryeburg Academy in Maine.
Croydon, along with former State Supreme Court Justice Chuck Douglas, sent a letter to Barry with regard to her incomplete application of state law as grounds to invalidate the tuition plan.
You cite RSA 193:1 and purport that it says that districts may only assign students to public schools. This is inaccurate. RSA 193:1 defines the duties of parents to ensure school attendance, and neither describes the duties districts have nor restricts the assignment ability of districts. In addition to your inaccurate interpretation, you cite to the portion of that statute that states: ‘A parent of any child at least 6 years of age … shall cause such a child to attend the public school to which the child is assigned.’ You fail to cite section (a) of the statute which clearly states that private school attendance is an exception to attending public school.
Croydon opted to challenge the State School Board, even take them to court, and why not? Schools from all over the state, including public schools, were lining up to compete for Croydon’s handful of students. That competition not only provided parents with a wider range of options, it was pushing the cost of tuition down.
So New Hampshire has effectively had a taxpayer funded school choice voucher program for as long as it has educated students with public money. If every district set a taxpayer funded tuition floor and engaged in similar programs, parents would be free to negotiate with any eligible school. To get those dollars schools and districts would respond like any other business. They would find ways to compete, lowering costs and improving outcomes.
A protracted legal battle would make this more widely known. Voters trapped with failing school systems, or parents looking for a better educational fit for their child, could point to the Croydon model as a way to give them more options.
If enough districts embraced the idea, it would change the way education works in New Hampshire. It’s doubtful the State School Board wants to see that happen.
This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.