DEERFIELD, N.H. — Bobby-Ann Dostie didn’t want her daughter to go to Concord High School. After seven months, she was able to get a hardship exemption allowing her daughter to attend the family’s school of choice: Coe-Brown Northwood Academy in Northwood, N.H.
But for Dostie, a Deerfield resident whose son’s high school years are ahead, the fight is far from over. So she’s joined a vocal group of Deerfield parents who are pushing for school choice, a longstanding debate in the town.
With about 4,900 residents, Deerfield is too small to have its own high school, so for the past 19 years the town has had a contract with Concord requiring Deerfield to send at least 90 percent of its students there. The other 10 percent can go to another district if they apply and are granted a hardship exemption. With the contract ending next year, the Deerfield school board has proposed signing a new one that would lock the town into 12 more years with Concord with the possibility to renew for another eight years.
It’s the most affordable option for the town, protects the budget for Deerfield’s K-8 school, and guarantees all students a high school placement, those in favor of the contract with Concord say. Before the Concord contract, Deerfield students would apply to high schools in other area towns, and some students weren’t accepted anywhere.
But parents pushing for school choice believe selecting a high school should be up to families, not the school district. A group of them are organizing to defeat the new Concord contract, which requires a majority vote to pass at the annual town election on March 28. And some, including Dostie, are running for a spot on the school board with the hope of bringing about change.
“We have to come up with an economical way to give at least a little more choice rather than being stuck with a school that’s over an hour away for some residents,” she said.
Deerfield buses students to Concord, and it’s unclear how the town would handle transportation under a school choice model. Deerfield is a sprawling town, and Coe-Brown is closer for some families, but not all. The school board considered sending students to Coe-Brown, but it would cost about $4,000 more per student and the school wouldn’t immediately be able to accept all Deerfield students, according to school board chair Zach Langlois. A school choice model could require the district to pay for students to attend the public or private school of their choice.
So when Dostie and other parents asked the state’s Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut to speak to residents about school choice, he agreed. Edelblut, who has championed school choice during his tenure, was sympathetic to their cause. The debate about school choice extends far beyond Deerfield.
“We’ve seen across the country, this idea of choice, it is a tsunami,” he told Deerfield parents and community members in February. “So it’s not like this little thing that’s happening up in New Hampshire.”
He touted several New Hampshire programs providing school choice to parents: charter schools, a scholarship program for low-income students, and funding for income-eligible students to customize their education called Education Freedom Accounts.
School districts can also choose to offer open enrollment, accepting students regardless of where they live. But House Bill 441, which would have removed the requirement that a student attend school in the district where they reside, was voted down by the New Hampshire House in March.
In his presentation to Deerfield parents, Edelblut argued that school choice isn’t about good schools versus bad schools but about allowing parents to place children in the right learning environment for them. It’s an idea that has the backing of the conservative billionaire Koch brothers and has prompted concern over taking funding away from public schools. But Deerfield parents say they’re primarily interested in having a choice among public schools. They note that towns like Barrington and Hooksett have agreements allowing them to send students to multiple high schools.
“People want public schools,” said Greg Whitmore, a Deerfield resident who supports school choice. “We’re not looking to siphon money out of public schools.”
New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu recently proposed doubling funds for Education Freedom Accounts, one of the state’s school choice programs, which allow some parents to spend public school money on a variety of education expenses, including private school tuition or costs related to homeschooling. In 2022, the state spent $14.7 million for the program. Sununu’s latest budget would boost funding to $30 million per year.
At his budget address in February, Sununu touted the success of the program. “Critics say these programs have grown too large. To them I say this: When a new door of opportunity is opened and our citizens race through it in record numbers, that is not an out-of-control system — that is government finally working,” he said. “That is government finally ensuring that the system works for families and that the system meets the needs of the child — not the other way around. And that is something we should always fight for.”
The program is facing a local lawsuit that argues it’s unconstitutional to send funds designated for public education to private schools. Still, it may serve Sununu well if he opts to run for President.
“School choice … is an issue where (Sununu) can assert his conservative credentials in a way that might appeal to conservatives in his party that are concerned about cultural issues,” said Dante Scala, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
But while it might generate political energy, this program doesn’t solve the problem for all people locally.
Dostie notes that she earns too much to participate in an Education Freedom Account program. Right now, only families earning 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $90,000 for a family of four, qualify, though the Legislature is considering expanding eligibility. The New Hampshire House tabled an effort to expand the program to all families in late March, after passing a more limited bill to allow those earning up to 350 percent of the poverty level to qualify for the program.
For Deerfield parents dissatisfied with Concord, the appeal of school choice is clear: They say it would give them more control over where their children go to school, weighing different schools’ academic, extracurricular, and athletic offerings. Kimberly Black, a mother of two young children who was a Deerfield student before the contract with Concord was in place, said she benefitted from being able to choose to attend Coe-Brown.
“The experience that I got at Coe-Brown is the reason I stayed in this town,” she said.
But the situation that allowed Black to attend Coe-Brown didn’t work out well for everyone.
“As a resident, it does concern me,” said Christina Pretorius, a Deerfield resident who also works for the education think tank Reaching Higher NH. She said that model could allow schools to select students based on ability.
New Hampshire is the most inequitable state when it comes to school funding, she said. According to the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute, the state ranks last in the nation for how much it contributes to the overall cost of public education: 31 percent of the overall cost. Vermont tops that list, with the state paying 91 percent of the cost of local public education.
Deerfield currently pays about $15,000 per student for them to attend Concord High School. Coe-Brown and other area schools would cost approximately $19,000 per student. With about 55 students per high school class, school choice could cost Deerfield $800,000 to $1 million more per year, according to the Deerfield school board’s calculations.
If taxpayers shoulder the bill, that’s around an extra $600 in property taxes for each family whose home is valued at $500,000, said Langlois, even though only around 30 percent of Deerfield residents currently have a student in school.
Some proponents of school choice suggest families pay the cost for whatever is above and beyond what the district currently covers. But the school board’s legal counsel has advised against such a “top off” agreement, warning it would be inequitable. The district wouldn’t meet its obligation to provide a free and adequate education to all students, Langlois said, and families who couldn’t afford the extra cost would not be able to send their students to the school of their choice.
Before Langlois ran for school board, his views weren’t so different from Dostie’s. He wanted more options, and he was angry about the contract with Concord.
“Eight years ago, I ran for the school board because I didn’t like the current contract that was being presented,” he told other Deerfield residents at the town’s deliberative session in February. “I was at a meeting and I was mad as hell. I spent eight years on the school board learning an awful lot of stuff. And I know a lot more now than I did back then.”
Having investigated all of the options, he’s now in full support of the contract with Concord.
His daughter will start high school there next year.
Amanda Gokee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amanda_gokee.