Opposition to HB 20 continued to outstrip support during a second day of public testimony on Thursday. Altogether, 5,218 people signed on in opposition to the bill and 1,107 signed on in support over the course of the two-part hearing, which began on Feb. 2 and was continued on Thursday due to unprecedented turnout. The House Education Committee heard from 38 members of the public during Thursday’s nearly five-hour hearing, with parents, educators, and elected officials presenting widely varying perspectives on the controversial bill, which would create the most expansive voucher program in the country.
HB 20, a top priority for lawmakers this session, would create taxpayer-funded “Education Freedom Accounts” that parents could then use to pay for private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, and other school-related expenses. With no income caps, the program would be open to nearly all NH families, providing between $3,700 and $8,400 per student in taxpayer dollars and costing the state up to $100 million in new spending in the first year alone.
Those who spoke in favor of the bill emphasized the need to offer options for children who don’t thrive in their public school settings.
“I believe if people truly care about children they would support this legislation,” said Rep. Leah Cushman (R-Weare), one of about 15 people who testified in favor of the bill, many of them homeschooling parents sharing their own experiences with the school system. “Children learn in different ways, and this provides an opportunity to give our kids what they need.”
Opponents of the bill highlighted the damaging effects on public schools already beleaguered by the pandemic.
“We’re doing everything we can to provide an education to all the children,” said Jim O’Connell, a member of the Manchester Board of School Committee and one of 22 people who spoke in opposition to the bill, many of them school and municipal leaders. “I just think that there’s such a lack of funding already in public education in the state, to divert money from that desperate need just does not make good economic sense for the state of New Hampshire. … We could hire 2,000 starting teachers for this amount of money.”
HB 20 opponents, some of whom dissected the language of the bill, also voiced concerns over potential discrimination and a lack of fiscal and academic accountability.
“How are we going to make sure that everyone’s treated equally, everyone has access, and everyone’s needs are met?” said Esther Kennedy, a Portsmouth city councilor and director of student services in the Gilford School District. “Who is going to evaluate these students to make sure they’re learning? Who’s going to make sure these students are safe?”
A particular point of controversy during the hearing was the use of public funds by religious schools.
Several lawmakers quizzed Mount Royal Academy Headmaster Derek Tremblay about policies and practices at the Catholic school, located in Sunapee, after he spoke in favor of the bill.
“I didn’t hear anything in your statement about students who are gay, lesbian, or transgender,” said Rep. Stephen Woodcock (D-Center Conway). “Would you accept my son or daughter who was transgender?”
“We will work with them to the extent that they believe in the mission of the school,” Tremblay said.
Kate Baker Demers, who spoke on behalf of the Children’s Scholarship Fund of New Hampshire, which provides Education Tax Credit scholarships to low income students, said she is unsure what percentage of current scholarships go to religious schools.
Members of the House Education Committee will accept written testimony via email until their vote on Thursday, February 18. Members of the public can contact the full committee by emailing HouseEducationCommittee@leg.state.nh.us
Learn more about the statewide voucher bill:
- The most expansive voucher program in the country released as top priority in NH this session
- A historic turnout over HB 20, the statewide voucher program, extends public hearing into next week
- WEBINAR: HB 20: A Primer on the Statewide Voucher Bill
- What else could $100 million fund? Putting HB 20 into context
- ANALYSIS: HB 20, statewide voucher bill, could cost state $50-$100 million in new state spending in first year alone