The House Education Committee held a full committee work session on SB 193 on Wednesday, which would create “education freedom savings accounts” in New Hampshire. The Senate passed the bill in March, but the bill is meeting some resistance and has some still unanswered questions in the House.
Staff from the Department of Education were there to answer questions about the bill. Anne Edwards, New Hampshire’s Associate Attorney General, also attended to raise concerns about the bill and to answer questions from the committee.
Here’s a brief recap of the work session:
Students with disabilities
One of the larger questions around the education freedom savings accounts (ESAs) concerns students with disabilities.
In a traditional public school, students are entitled to a complete Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which is required by state and federal law.
SB 193 does not address special education services despite using public funds for private school tuition.
When a parent enrolls his or her child into a private school, they also waive the rights guaranteed to them by state and federal law and all entitlement to special education services and access to IEPs. There is no provision in SB 193, as currently written, that ensures that parents fully understand the consequences to their child’s education if they sign up for an ESA.
Watch the video to hear Thibedeau and Caitlin Davis, Director of School Finance, answer questions around special education:
Funding the savings account program
The current bill does not define the method in which the ESAs would be funded. Davis said that if they are funded out of the education trust fund (funded by the lottery and other revenue sources), the legislature would need to specify how that would happen. SB 193, as written, does not.
The statewide education property tax (SWEPT) funds about 28% of the total state budget, but that money is raised and kept locally. The legislature would have to create a method to collect that money, too–raising the question of how local property taxes can be spent without local input.
Here’s Davis explaining how the program might be funded:
Minimizing impact to local districts
Representative Glenn Cordelli (Tuftonboro) suggested a possible cap on the number of students that can enroll in the ESA program without severely impacting local districts.
As written, SB 193 does not include any provisions to protect districts. Supporters of the bill cite that in other states, 1-2% of students opt into ESAs. But many districts in New Hampshire are already on shoestring budgets, and any loss of revenue could be catastrophic.
SB 193 also doesn’t include an enrollment requirement, meaning that students currently enrolled in private schools could potentially find a way to enroll in the ESA program and receive state funding. Bill sponsors say that only current public students are eligible for the program, but without explicit language addressing this concern, the door is left wide open to interpretation. Private school students could theoretically enroll in their public school for one day to receive the ESA.
The questions that remain
House Finance Chairman Neal Kurk and Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards raised important questions regarding SB 193 that the House Education Committee tried to work through during the session. However, they were unable to craft an amendment that fully addressed the concerns, including:
- The constitutionality of public funds going to religious schools;
- The state’s constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education to New Hampshire’s children: it is unclear whether the state can delegate this responsibility;
- The impact on students with disabilities and their parents, and the responsibility that the state has in making sure that parents fully understand the services that private schools are required to provide;
- The mechanism for funding the program and any legislation that would have to accompany the bill to collect and distribute ESA funds;
- Measures to ensure districts do not experience excessive volatility in enrollment;
- Measures to address the use of local tax dollars (SWEPT) without any input from local taxpayers;
- And, public funds supporting scholarship organizations and not directly on education services.
Watch the full work session here: