Ep. 54: NH Private School Survey with Drew Catt & Jason Bedrick

June 28, 2018

How many New Hampshire private schools know about the state’s current and proposed school choice programs? Are there even seats available for new students? And can families afford private school in New Hampshire? The answers to these questions might surprise you. Click below to listen to the authors of our latest brief, Exploring New Hampshire’s Private Education Sector, discuss their survey’s findings with Jason Bedrick, a member of our team who was once a New Hampshire legislator.

Drew Catt: Hello, I’m Drew Catt-

Mike Shaw: And I’m Mike Shaw-

Drew Catt:  … and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. Today we’re discussing a new EdChoice brief, Exploring New Hampshire’s Private Education Sector. Mike and I surveyed leaders of New Hampshire private schools on a range of topics, which we are excited to discuss today with Jason Bedrick, EdChoice’s director of policy.

Jason previously served as a legislator at the New Hampshire House of Representatives, and was an education policy research fellow at the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. So, Jason, would you say you know a little bit about New Hampshire?

Jason Bedrick: A little bit, yes. Thanks for having me.

Drew Catt: Yeah, thanks for being on. Before we get into this new research, Jason would you tell our listeners what educational choice options New Hampshire currently provides parents?

Jason Bedrick: Absolutely. In addition to charter schools and intra-district choice, there are two private school choice programs in New Hampshire. One, which was recently clarified in law, but essentially has been operating for more than a century, is what’s called town tuitioning. What that means is in districts that don’t have a public school for certain grades, often because they’re very small towns and they just simply can’t sustain it, usually they would contract with another public school, but in this case the town allows the students to use public funding that they otherwise would have allocated for that student to attend a public school, instead to attend a private school of the parents’ choice. That’s a program that, again, was recently clarified in law.

The other program that they have is the Education Tax Credit, or what we call a tax-credit scholarship program. In this case businesses, and as of this year individuals, can receive 85 percent tax credits against the business profit tax in the case of corporations, or against the interests and dividends tax in the case of individuals, when they make a donation to a nonprofit scholarship organization.

These scholarship organizations can aid families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line, which is about the median income in the State of New Hampshire, to attend the school of their choice, or actually to cover certain homeschooling expenses. New Hampshire is the only tax-credit scholarship program in the country that’s that expansive in terms of the uses.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and that’s awesome. I’m sure parents love having that flexibility. We did ask private school leaders about their awareness of tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts. About half of New Hampshire private schools know about the concept of education savings accounts or ESAs, and about half are familiar with tax-credit scholarships, the type of program you mentioned New Hampshire already has.

How would you say awareness is locally of these types of School Choice options among both schools and families? Could you maybe describe some of the efforts on the ground to educate both school leaders and parents about choice programs?

Jason Bedrick: Right, so in terms of the education savings account, again, that’s not a program they have yet, but there was legislation this year, so it was in the news very often. That’s, I think, a lot of the awareness of the program was driven primarily by the media coverage.

I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed with the finding that only about half of the schools were aware of the tax credit program. It has been around for five years. It was enacted in 2012, and then went into effect in 2013. There are only two tax-credit scholarship organizations operating in the state, but I was hopeful that there would be greater penetration in terms of the number of schools that’d find out about it.

I know that those scholarship organizations are doing their own outreach among the schools, I know that they’ve held events. I know that there was actually at the time quite a bit of media coverage, both then and this year because of the expansion of the program. So it is a bit frustrating and shows that there’s certainly an opportunity for activists, school choice groups and the scholarship organizations themselves to raise awareness among the schools about the options.

Mike Shaw: That’s really interesting context, Jason, and I know that numbers probably seem low, especially considering the schools are the ones who get the students for these programs, but it is worth noting that at least these numbers were twice as high on the awareness levels as, Drew, I believe your voter polls showed in 2017. So there may be even more work to inform voters, parents and families about these options.

Jason Bedrick: Certainly, then again voters include folks that don’t have school-aged children, and you would expect that the schools that are in this field would be more aware of the programs. But again, there are 51 participating schools in the past year, and all of the tax-credit donations that were collected were used for kids. So it might make sense that the scholarship organizations are trying to spend more time raising funds at this point than they are raising awareness among schools that they then would not have the funds to fund those scholarships. So, of course, there’s this allocation of resources issue.

Mike Shaw: Definitely. Getting back to the data and this survey, they show high percentages of New Hampshire’s private schools saying they probably would participate in both these types of programs, the tax-credit scholarships, or the ESAs. Definitely a positive finding for school choice advocates.

One thing that does hold private school leaders back is the potential burden of certain regulations that come with these programs, though I know they differ from state to state. But I’m curious Jason, what are you hearing from private school leaders in New Hampshire, in terms of their concerns with choice programs in general, both potential new ones and the existing ones that take hold in New Hampshire?

Jason Bedrick: Well first, just to give a bit of a national perspective, this is something that school leaders across the country in survey after survey have expressed concerns with, and legitimately so. We’ve seen, for example there was a survey a few years ago by the American Enterprise Institute in three different states. And we saw that in Louisiana, which was a very highly regulated state, there were a lot fewer school leaders that were willing to participate in the program for that exact reason, whereas in Indiana and Florida, which did not have the same level of onerous regulations, many more schools were willing to participate.

This, I think, is the same pattern in New Hampshire. The concerns are more about the potential for regulation than the actual regulations in the program. The three types of regulations that school leaders tend to be concerned about nationwide are first, price controls; there are no price controls here. Second, testing, especially mandating the state tests. Most of these schools are already providing one of a variety of different nationally norm-referenced tests, but they have one that’s already aligned to the curriculum that they’ve decided to go with. They don’t want to feel like they’re stuck, basically, going with the state curriculum, in terms of sequencing, and the types of things that are taught. They don’t want to have the state test mandated. There is no mandated test here.

Third, they’re often concerned with regulations that would affect the character of their school. They want to be able to choose students that are the right fit for their school, and there’s nothing in this law that requires, say, open enrollment as we’ve seen in some voucher programs in others states.

So the types of regulations that schools tend to be concerned about do not exist in New Hampshire, and so I think that’s why we see very high rates of private school leaders saying that they’d be willing to participate in the program.

Mike Shaw: I’m glad you explained it that way because those sorts of regulations you listed were also the ones that private school leaders in New Hampshire listed as well, even though they don’t necessarily pertain to the tax-credit scholarship program as it holds, but they always have to be wary of potential future regulations. For those interested, you can check out the full survey at EdChoice.org and see the listing of all sorts of regulations that were listed by private school leaders.

One of the lowest ones, actually, lowest rated regulations on that list was pertaining to enrollment. What I found interesting about that finding, at least in relation to the open comment sections in the survey, is a lot of private school leaders want these sorts of programs to be open to all students, not simply low-income or special needs as the proposed ESA got into this past session. So that’s an interesting look for full expansive school choice.

Jason Bedrick: By the way, in that regard, they matched the general public, which is always in survey after survey much more supportive of a program that, like the public school system, is open to all children, as opposed to one that is narrowly tailored to certain segments of the population.

Mike Shaw: Right, and people tend to argue about those sorts of eligibility criteria nationwide. We hear people say there’s not enough space in private schools to fill the demand choice programs create, and that’s even with smaller-scale programs, nevertheless a totally universal program. Do you hear some of those same claims locally? And could you give us a sense of the local sentiment before we talk enrollment numbers?

Jason Bedrick: In terms of the arguments against school choice that we heard in the past year, it’s everything. They just throw up a bunch of spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks, so certainly you did have some of these arguments that, “Well, this is only going to help students that are already going to private school, it’s not going to help new students.”

You can get into the data yourself, but our survey finds actually there are a whole bunch of open seats already, and that’s before you get into the supply-side effects, where there’s an expansion of supply in response to the school choice program. So even if that weren’t to occur, right now you only have about 330 students participating in the program, in the tax-credit scholarship program. But I believe you found more than 2,500 open seats just among those people who participated in the survey. Is that correct?

Drew Catt: Yeah, actually when it comes to the question of whether there’s enough supply to meet demand, we did find that they have at least 2,063 open seats, and a caveat to that, is that’s only the schools that responded to the survey.

Now if we look at some overall state projected enrollments from the Private School Universe Survey through the National Center for Education Statistics, and looking at those enrollment numbers compared to the enrollment of students that was signified by the survey responses, we can project that there are about 10,500 open seats across the entire state in private schools.

Now Jason, how did you react when you first learned about these numbers?

Jason Bedrick: I was shocked that there were that many open seats available. I think that is something that most policy makers … I certainly wasn’t aware of it, I imagine most policy makers weren’t aware of it, and there hasn’t been any research like this before in the state, so it was all just speculation, but just the fact that there are so many open seats already just goes to show that if they were to enact an education savings account, it’s a program that actually could scale up rather quickly, much faster even than in many other states that I’ve seen.

Mike Shaw: Definitely. I’m really glad Drew talked about the variance in the estimates. This survey of ours, as far as a response rate, was a little on the lower end as far as percent of schools responding. We think that three or four nor’easters or so during the late winter, early spring, may have had something to do with that. Good old New England, but nevertheless, we had a very, very high completion rate within that so we’re pretty happy with those results related to garnering open seats and other data points.

Pivoting to questions of inclusiveness in private schools, we found that 70 percent of New Hampshire private schools serve students with special needs. At least one serves students with special needs exclusively. So Jason, how does that mesh with what you experienced with families on the ground?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, that sounds about right, and actually I’m aware that there are a bunch. There are about a dozen, at least, schools that focus on students with special needs in New Hampshire. I know that we only had one exclusive in the survey, but there are a number of them. There are many schools that provide opportunities for students with a wide variety of different special needs to attend. And yes, it’s 70 percent, so some say, “Well, what about the other 30 percent?”

Well, the question isn’t whether every single school is the right fit for every single student. What we want is that every single student has access to a school that is the right fit. For that matter, even public schools aren’t always the right fit for every type of student with various special needs. You may have public schools that can handle students with relatively mild special needs, but students that have cerebral palsy, let’s say, or Down Syndrome, some schools are not equipped to handle it.

Already, this is a longstanding practice in New Hampshire, that a school district would pay either another public school district, or a recent Granite Institute report found that there are longstanding contracts that districts have with private schools, including religious schools, to educate students with special needs when that district is not able to meet that child’s needs. So this is a longstanding practice in New Hampshire, and it’s gratifying, I would say, to see that there are so many opportunities available for students with special needs.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and also I’d like to point out that it’s not to say that the 30 percent of schools that don’t currently enroll students with special needs wouldn’t. It’s just that they don’t at the moment.

Mike Shaw: That was a really good way of contextualizing inclusiveness regarding special needs students in these private schools, but as I’m sure parents know, attending schools and being included in private education also can cost money, so we try to survey schools about tuition.

We see a lot of people were surprised to learn what median tuition rates are for their state’s private schools. There’s often this general sense that private schools are only for the super wealthy, and our data showed that there are some outlier schools that definitely would fit that mold, costing upward of $40 grand a year, but the median cost to attend a private school in New Hampshire is actually only $7,500 dollars a year.

On top of that we found 82 percent of private schools offer their families financial assistance, things like scholarships and the like, in addition to the existing tax credit scholarships to attend their schools. Jason, I want our listeners to have some more context on these financial numbers. How much do New Hampshire schools spend per pupil each year? We’re talking the public district schools.

Jason Bedrick: In terms of current expenditures, not total expenditures, for fiscal year 2015 it was just under $15,000 dollars per pupil, and it’s probably higher than that now. In other words, the median private school tuition in New Hampshire is about half of what the operational costs are at the district schools. And as you noted, a lot of these schools do … that’s the sticker price. A lot of these schools offer financial aid.

You mentioned schools that cost in excess of $40,000 dollars a year. I can think of two of them, for example, Phillips Exeter and St. Paul’s. These are world renowned private schools. Both of those schools offer a benefits package that means that anybody earning … from a family where the parents earn less than $150,000 dollars a year, don’t pay a dime in terms of tuition.

So really, if you’re talking about low-income families, if you were to rerun these numbers and factor in all of the financial aid that these schools are providing, instead of those being outliers on one end of $40,000 dollars, which is raising the median tuition, it would actually be outlier on the other end, because for a low income or even a middle income family, it’s going to be zero dollars in terms of tuition, so that would further drive down that median.

There are a number of schools that do that, or provide, obviously less generous, but also still quite generous financial aid packages. So the combination of the financial aid and either an education savings account or a tax-credit scholarship means that even for your average low-income family, these schools are within financial reach if they have access to the school choice programs.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that was really surprising to me Jason, about those two schools. That makes me really think about potentially moving to New Hampshire in six years or so when I have a child that’s entering the K–12 system. Yeah, so before we sign off is there anything else that you would like to add?

Jason Bedrick: Well look, this has been a big year for New Hampshire. A gratifying year in some ways, a disappointing year in other ways. They did expand their tax credit scholarship program. It’s a very popular program in terms of how the voters perceive it, and also the year, after year, after year, when they do a survey of the participating families, usually it’s north of 95, sometimes even 98 percent, saying that they’re satisfied with the school that they have chosen with the scholarship.

This is a very low-income population, and a very high percentage of them say that if not for the program their child would be attending their local assigned district school. So it’s gratifying to see that there’s been some movement.

It was disappointing that the ESA did not pass. It did pass the Senate. It passed the House Education Committee. It passed the full house once. It had the support of the speaker, it had the support of the governor, lots of key legislators, it just at the end, after coming out of the finance committee they voted interim study.

So they didn’t kill it but they’re going to be looking at it further and coming up possibly with new legislation next year. But that’s the furthest that an ESA bill has ever gone in the state. This is just the beginning of the journey and it’s clear that New Hampshire voters, and especially New Hampshire parents, want more educational opportunities for their children.

Drew Catt: That’s awesome. Thank you so much Jason.

Jason Bedrick: Thanks for having me.

Drew Catt: Well that’s all for this episode. Thanks again to our listeners for tuning in. As always, be sure to subscribe for more EdChoice Chats and we’ll catch you next time. Take care.