By Cinde Warmington
Public education is at the edge of a precipice in New Hampshire right now. Our state has some of the best public schools in the country: U.S. News & World Report ranks our state third in the nation for pre-K to 12 education. But this year, a well-coordinated effort in our state government is poised to dramatically privatize education in our state. With a governor, Executive Council, House, and Senate all under Republican control, some of the most aggressive school privatization efforts in the United States are being attempted right here.
These efforts include the large-scale expansion of charter schools, the creation of a public-cash-for-private-school voucher program, and the appointment of state education leaders who, rather than advocate for public school students and schools, favor private alternatives.
Right away upon taking State House majorities, Republicans approved a federal charter school grant that, at a time when school enrollment has been steadily declining for a decade, would build 27 new charter schools in New Hampshire. Nearly all of these would be approved by the state Board of Education, costing local districts $17 million without the input of local school districts and taxpayers.
In the Legislature, they have put forward House Bill 20, a “school voucher” bill that would give public education funds to families who send their children to private, religious, or home schools. These funds, intended to be used for educational expenses but lacking in any accountability, would not be available to public school students, but could be claimed by a wealthy family with a student in private school out of state, or used for tuition at a religious school that discriminates against students who are LGBTQ+.
And in the state Department of Education, Gov. Sununu has nominated and renominated appointees like Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut and State Board of Education Chair Drew Cline, both outspoken advocates for vouchers and charter schools. It should be a minimum qualifier for the highest-ranking public education officials in our state to believe in and work to strengthen public education, but unfortunately, that is not New Hampshire’s current reality.
This is nothing less than an evisceration of public schools. And who will suffer the most? Public school students and local property-tax payers. When taxpayers’ money goes toward building new charter schools approved without local input, or is handed out to families sending their children to expensive private schools, our public school students lose. With lesser funding, the first programs to be cut are enrichment like foreign languages, specialized technology, or the arts. Extracurriculars are ended. Teachers are let go and classroom sizes rise. But even cuts like these cannot always make up the gap for the bare-bones essentials. It is then that taxpayer bills rise even further, and most sharply in the poorest communities in our state, when homeowners’, renters’, and small businesses’ backs are already breaking during this pandemic.
Public education is what makes our democracy work. It’s where future citizens learn what it means to live in a society with others from different backgrounds. It’s where they learn to debate and discuss conflicting beliefs on shared ground. It’s a place where, no matter where you live, what your family looks like, or how much money you have, there is always a place for you. That simply isn’t guaranteed in private, religious, or home schools that are by nature exclusive, socially stratified, and mono-perspective.
Efforts like HB 20 have failed before, because public education is not just supported by Democrats. It’s something nearly all Americans support. It’s part of our national identity, an idea held up by Founding Fathers John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. It’s a great unifier, a duty so important that it is enshrined in our New Hampshire Constitution.
After last November’s election, Republicans believe they have a mandate to enact this education privatization agenda. Now, their constituents have to prove them wrong. Contact your state House representative, senator, executive councilor, and governor, and tell them how important protecting public education is to you. There’s still time to stop this dangerous effort.
Cinde Warmington is New Hampshire’s executive councilor for District 2 and lives in Concord