Ep 4: NH K–12 & School Choice Survey with Kate Baker

April 19, 2017

More than two decades ago, the “Live Free or Die” state was an early school choice adopter. It enacted a charter school law, granting schools more autonomy and empowering parents with more choices. In 2012, it enacted a tax-credit scholarship program, the first of its kind in the nation to include homeschoolers. Last year, the program provided 178 private school and homeschooling scholarships to New Hampshire students. And this legislative session, state policymakers are considering a proposal to enact a pioneering education savings account (ESA) program that would be open to nearly all K–12 students.

In our latest state research, the New Hampshire K–12 & School Choice Survey, EdChoice researchers and policy experts Drew Catt, Jason Bedrick and Paul DiPerna analyze the responses of a representative sample of New Hampshire voters on K–12 education issues, including school choice reforms and the current ESA bill.

One of the authors of the poll report, EdChoice Director of State Research and Policy Analysis Drew Catt, sat down to discuss this new survey with long-time school choice advocate and Executive Director of Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire Kate Baker. Listen to that interview below to learn more key takeaways and what they mean for school choice advocates on the ground in New Hampshire.

To learn more about this research or to download the full report, visit www.edchoice.org/NHpoll.

Hello! EdChoice’s Director of State Research and Policy Analysis Drew Catt here. We’re back with a new EdChoice Chat. In this episode, we’re discussing our latest EdChoice polling brief: the New Hampshire K–12 & School Choice Survey.

The purpose of this New Hampshire survey project was to measure public opinion on, and in some cases awareness or knowledge of, a range of K–12 education topics and school choice reforms. This survey of a statistically representative statewide sample of adults (ages 18 and up) who are registered to vote in New Hampshire was funded and developed by EdChoice and conducted by Braun Research, Inc.

We encourage our listeners to review the report—complete with easy-to-read charts—at www.edchoice.org/NHpoll.

Here to discuss the findings from the poll is Kate Baker, executive director of Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire (formerly executive director of Network for Educational Opportunity). Thank you for joining us, Kate.

Baker: Thanks for having me.

Catt: New Hampshire has a reputation for being open to innovation in education. What options do families in New Hampshire have now?

Baker: New Hampshire has charter schools, which do a great job. We also have an education tax-credit scholarship program, where a business can donate to the scholarship program and then take a tax credit against their donation. We have about 178 children in that program right now.

Catt: Very nice. According to our poll, 46 percent of New Hampshire voters said they would prefer to send their children to a private school option if given the choice AND money weren’t obstacle. In that same line of questioning, 10 percent said they prefer charter schools, and 12 percent, homeschooling. Only 30 percent said they prefer regular public school if expense is not an issue. Yet estimated New Hampshire enrollment data today tells us 87 percent of kids attend regular public schools. Why do you think there is such a wide gap between what folks are getting what they prefer?

Baker: Well, it was interesting when I looked at the data from the poll—it did state that as income went down, families were more in favor of having an education savings account or school choice option. So I think it might be that exactly. The families that are contacting us at Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire are looking for education opportunities for their kids, and also looking for help to be able to afford those education options. So I think perhaps the information/that data is so high is because families can’t afford to choose the schools they might want their children to go to.

Catt: Speaking of ESAs, or education savings accounts. Could you tell us more about the current educational choice legislation and what it could mean for the many families who say they prefer more diverse schooling options?

Baker: Sure. Here in New Hampshire, the education savings account would make it so that any family looking to customize their children’s education, looking to homeschool, choose tutoring, get their child with special needs the appropriate special ed classes, courses or therapies; or private school tuition—a family would really be able to do any of those things with 90 percent of their dollar amount of the state adequacy.

So, in essence, it would make it so that the money was following the child to where the parent directed it. So then again, the parent can customize their education. But the really exciting concept and time discussing this: So many people are calling us wanting to do these things. Our scholarship average is about $2,200. We do everything we can to help a low-income family to afford the tuition at a school or things that they want to do, but there’s always a challenge there where we’re limited by the dollars that we can raise.

If this ESA were to exist in New Hampshire, or when it exists, there would really be no families that would be turned away. They would be able to do what they need to do for their children.

Catt: Yes. Before seeing our poll results. How aware did you think New Hampshire voters were of ESAs?

Baker: I don’t think that New Hampshire voters are very aware. In the poll results, I think it’s interesting to find. I actually thought fewer people would be aware. Education savings accounts are fairly new nationwide. They do exist in several states, but even I had to teach myself what was an education savings account and how does it work. And I work with parents and teachers and schools and education providers every day, right?

And so it’s a new idea that I did need to learn about, and when I figured out what it was it was really exciting to me because it really does open all the doors to all the buildings and all the online providers and all the tutors and all of the therapeutic providers rather than saying you can get this or this. It’s really exciting that a parent now could customize their child’s education and get them what they need.

I mean, it’s 2017, right? It’s a time when we have the capability to really individualize education for children. And I think that education savings accounts really do that. So, it’s very exciting to me.

Catt: It’s amazing to see that increase in favorability once New Hampshire voters are informed not just on what ESAs are, but what the current proposed legislation would create in terms of an ESA program. 

Baker: I thought it was also interesting what it said: That 71 percent of people with school-aged children found it favorable, which makes good sense. I mean, like the data showed in lower income people they were more favorable. That makes sense. They are the ones with the barriers to being able to do what their children need. So it makes sense they would say, “Yes, this is a great idea.” And also again, parents with school-aged children at 71 percent.

That is saying to us that people want to be able to customize their education for their children now, right here, in black and white data. I know it because people contact us here at Children’s Scholarship Fund looking for assistance and saying, “I’d love to be here. My child has this challenge. What can we do?” And we help them as best we can. But this really would open up all the doors for children, and that’s really exciting to me.

Catt: Are there any other findings from this poll you found notable?

Baker: I thought it was interesting when the poll asked about the satisfaction with where we’re moving in education. It was interesting that higher income earners and families in suburban areas seemed like they were more satisfied. And again makes sense, right? In New Hampshire public schools, you can move somewhere if you have enough money to get a school that’s high-performing.

And so, it might make sense that those people are more satisfied, whereas urban families and low-income families were not as satisfied. Our scholarship recipients in New Hampshire are 75 percent free and reduced-price lunch kids, so ultimately when these programs are put into place, it really is for families that have high need, and those are the families that come and find us. So I thought that was very interesting that satisfaction level had such a disparity.

Catt: School choice advocates across the country are always seeking advice from other successful states. As one of the leading advocates in New Hampshire, can you tell us how these findings could be useful for you on the ground?

Baker: Sure. Understanding where people are in knowledge is always important. For example, it was important for me as a person whose boots are on the ground here to know how much people understand or don’t understand education savings accounts and how they work. And so I think for me, it’s going to be important to really explain that an education savings account is the opportunity to really customize education different from what we’re doing now, which is just providing a scholarship to homeschool or choose a private school.

This is much more multi-dimensional, and I think that does provide an on-the-ground challenge, but is really important to understand where families in New Hampshire and voters in New Hampshire are at and how much they know about school choice options in New Hampshire as well as where we’re going and what’s available to them.

Catt: We’ve been talking about the parents that could potentially use an ESA and what some voters think in terms of why they’re favorable toward ESAs or what they think of the current state of education in their state—but what would you say to critics of educational choice and ESAs in particular who say these programs drain money from public schools?

Baker: I thought that was interesting piece of data that points to that. When the people were asked how much public schools cost, the respondents really underestimated it. The average cost is about $15,000–$15,500 (per student) here in New Hampshire, but the people responding to the poll thought it was more like $8,000. So I think that critics might say that public schools don’t have enough money, and that if a child moves to a different school it would negatively impact them.

But I think that might be skewed by the understanding of the general public about what’s spent actually on a public school. I know, for example, I live here in Manchester, New Hampshire, and I pay my property taxes whether or not my children go to the school. And so, if my child went to a school here in Manchester and then moved to a different school, I would still be paying those same property taxes to the town, so I don’t really see it like that.

For me, I think it’s more important that we focus on children. It’s 2017. Shouldn’t we be giving every child the opportunity to have a great education and the right fit for them?

I know as a taxpayer that I want to help my neighbor’s children get a great education, and I don’t care what building they’re in. I’m willing to help them get a great education, whether they take an online program or they’re homeschooling or they go to a private school or public school or charter school, as long as it’s a great education that my tax dollars are paying for and the right fit for that child.

So I think some of that is like people who don’t really understand what an education savings account is, I think they may not exactly understand what their tax dollars are going to and what it’s funding and how much that really is.

Catt: And it’s amazing how opinions can change when people receive more information about something. 

Baker: Yes, another thing I thought was interesting in this poll was the number of people who thought that ESAs should be available to any family, regardless of income or ZIP Code. In New Hampshire, that number was very high. The people in New Hampshire think that families should be able to have access to an ESA regardless of their income or ZIP Code, and that was a really exciting piece of data for me to see because that is really how I feel.

I feel like our current system of assigning children by ZIP Code is frankly kind of socioeconomic discrimination because you’ve got to buy an expensive how to get into a good district. And I was really happy to see that the people of New Hampshire believe that families should be able to choose the education regardless of their income or ZIP Code. That idea of just throwing open all the doors to all the buildings and the online programs and the tutors. That was an exciting piece of data for me. Hard to get excited about data, but if you’re going to, that’s the piece to be excited about.

Catt: You are talking to researcher, so getting excited about data is definitely a real thing. 

Baker: That was cool. I’m so glad that people in New Hampshire feel that way, that voters feel that way. That they understand that children should be able to make a choice no matter where they live or their level of income.

Catt: Is there anything else you’d like to add, Kate?

Baker: No, that’s it really. I think we covered it. Again, that really interesting piece to me was how, when the family income decreased, they were more in favor of ESAs. That was really interesting to me and really shows that when we implement a program like this in New Hampshire, those are the people that we’re going to be looking for. Thanks so much.

Catt: Thanks again for joining us, Kate. Where can our listeners find you?

Baker: We’re Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire, and again, we have scholarships available for families to be able to partly customize their education already—to choose a private school or choose homeschooling—and we help them with that. Our website is www.csfnewhampshire.org. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter.