NH: Lessons From Croydon’s 50% School Budget Cut
Well, you can't pretend that the Free Staters of New Hampshire are at all secretive about what they have in mind. Here's the story of how they just went ahead and axed a school district budget. But first, let me fill in the background.
The Free Staters are a bunch of folks who believe they can move into the Granite State, take over the levers of government, and then install their Libertarian dream state, which is to say a government-free land of do as you please. The book A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear is a fair and sometimes hilarious look at how it's going, but we have more progress to report in the education department.
Free Staters have gotten pretty open about the dream. In a Libertarian Institute podcast, one Free State Project Board member, Jeremy Kaufman, explained that school choice and vouchers are just "a stepping stone towards reducing or eliminating state involvement in schools." Rachel Goldsmith, head of a NH Moms for Liberty chapter (the one that put a bounty o0n teachers' heads) is a previous executive director of the Free State Project.
But some Free Staters prefer to be even less subtle. Meet Ian and Jody Underwood. They moved to New Hampshire in 2007 as part of the Free State Project. Before moving, Jody had worked for the Educational Testing Service, and before that a researcher for NASA and Carnegie Mellon University. Ian was a "planetary scientist and artificial intelligence researchers for NASA," a certified hypnotist, a "fourth generation wing chun sifu,"as well as director of the Ask Dr. Math program. These days Ian is a writer (find him at Granite Grok); he also ran an unsuccessful campaign for the state legislature (motto--I kid you not-- "the way forward is back"). Jody served for years as secretary of the board of directors of the Free State Project; she's also still working on games and learning simulations for Intelligent Automation, Inc. And you can read here her thoughts about why vouchers don't go nearly far enough.
The Underwoods, who have no children, are active in their community in other ways. They've settled in Croydon, NH (a small town just up the road from where I spent my childhood), where Ian is a selectman, and Jody is on the school board.
They are connected. In 2017, the Valley News raised a small flap over the discovery that Jody reached out to her friend Frank Edelblut (former legislator turned education commissioner, at whose confirmation hearing the Underwoods testified) about getting some consulting work for Ian. It's kind of a nothingburger, but the story illustrates how chummy Edelblut and the Underwoods are.\
The Underwoods have lots of ideas about cutting government spending. In 2020, Croydon made the news after the selectmen, including Underwood, decided to fire Croydon's only police officer. After twenty years of service, Richard Lee was told to turn in his uniform and equipment after the surprise motion; so he stripped down to briefs, boots and hat and walked home. He was not replaced; instead Underwood and the other two selectmen abolished the department.
Croydon still has old fashioned town meetings. At the most recent one, during the school portion, Ian Underwood offered a surprise motion from the floor to the school board where his wife sat as chair-- cut the school's $1.7 million budget to $800,000. The motion passed with a vote of 20-14, which represents about 3% of the town's eligible voters.
Croydon only serves about 80 students. 24 K-4 students attend in the one school building. Students in grades 5-12 have tuition paid at the family's choice of schools, private or public--most at nearby Newport School District, but also Sunapee and Claremont (where I started out life). Ian Underwood, who had written a blog post equating the school budget with ransom, said he based his figure on spending $10,000 per student.
That $10K does not come close to covering the tuition for the upper grade students. Newport's tuition rate is about to rise to $17,880. Private tuition costs are, with only two exceptions, also higher than the $10K. And of course the costs of special ed, transportation, and administration. So in the end, each student will not simply get a $10K pseudo-voucher from the school.
The Underwoods say it's all good. "This gives us an opportunity," said Jody. "This is going to force us to step back and figure out a good way to do this [based] on what we know about how people learn, so that we can keep costs down." Another board member cautioned against a "failure of imagination." Options like a virtual school or learning pods with new New Hampshire BFF Prenda were also tossed out.
People are pissed. The school board meeting two days later drew a crowd of 100 mostly-angry people, destined to be even more frustrated to learn that the budget passage was legal and binding and can't simply be reversed. And that's where things stand at the moment.
So what are the lessons here?
First, notice that this has absolutely nothing to do with school choice. Croydon had school choice; in fact, one of the angry citizens is Angi Beaulieu, a former school board member who worked hard to create a choice system for Croydon. But this budget cut will trash the choice system they had, with 5-12 grade families having neither the choice of a local school nor the choice of continuing with the public or private school. So this action by the Free State Libertarian crowd actual reduced the school choice options for the parents of their town.
It's almost as if, for some of these folks, choice is actually unimportant and the real goal is to get government out of education and leave parents to fend for themselves without any taxpayer support. There's no talk about improved quality through competition, or parent's right to choose the best fit for their kids--just "cut my taxes and get the government public education system shut down."
Second, 34 eligible voters out of just over 500 showed up. I don't know-- meetings are boring, politics are boring, nothing important was going to happen. I don't know. But if seven more people who wanted to save their public education system had shown up, this would not be a story. If all of the people who screamed bloody murder about the results after the meeting had shown up for the meeting.
Finally, having money follow the children is not a great way to create a sustainable school system. Funding children and not systems just gets you no system in which to place the child (which, as we're seeing, is the point for some folks).
I have no idea how much of Croydon is Free Staters; the Underwoods have been there for a while and have never made a secret of how they stand, so there's been ample previous opportunity to vote them out, and people haven't. So maybe the only lesson here is that if you have children to raise, New Hampshire may not be a good bet. Or maybe Croydon will follow the rest of the state in re-installing public education supporters. We'll see what the next chapter holds.