On Thursday, February 18, the House Education Committee unanimously voted to retain HB 20, the statewide voucher bill, delaying further action until next year. Moments later, the Senate announced a public hearing for SB 130, a nearly identical bill, on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Both bills would create the most expansive voucher program in the country, and SB 130 would cost the state $100 million in new state spending in its first year alone.
The public fiercely opposed HB 20 during the public hearing, noting that the bill included no protections for students, less transparency and oversight of taxpayer dollars, and almost no accountability for ensuring that programs funded by taxpayer dollars would be used appropriately or effectively.
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 February 2 and had to continue the following week due to unprecedented turnout.
SB 130 is nearly identical to the original HB 20, and would give families between $3,700 and $8,400 per student per year in taxpayer-funded “Education Freedom Accounts,” or vouchers, to pay for private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, computers, and other education-related costs.
“Our communities continue to struggle under the weight of an inequitable and inadequate school funding system, but this legislature continues to pursue an agenda that will divert resources away from our public schools and communities,” said Christina Pretorius, Policy Director at Reaching Higher NH.
“Granite Staters have made it clear that they would rather be talking about expanding opportunities for all of our children, offering property tax relief, and investing in our communities, instead of siphoning off state funds for private education and downshifting costs to cities and towns,” she said.
The public hearing for SB 130 will be held on Tuesday, March 2, 2021 at 9 AM. Members of the public can register their support or opposition, and register to testify, using this link.
HB 20: Historic Opposition and Last Minute Amendments
During a day-long executive session on Wednesday, House Education Committee members combed through a new amendment to HB 20 that attempted to address concerns that were brought up in the public hearing, but did not go far enough and in many cases, made the bill worse, according to Committee members.
The amendment included income eligibility requirements and accountability measures, but did not address broader concerns with regard to discrimination against students and famillies, the potential for fraud and misuse of funds, and the fundamental concern with diverting public tax dollars to fund private and home school programs.
The marathon executive session also revealed critical technical errors in the bill, particularly around the funding of the program.
“A bill of this significance needs to be right. This Committee [is] the folks to do that, this is a good move to pause and reflect and get this done the way it should be,” said Representative Jim Allard (R-Pittsfield).
Proponents of the bill are quick to point out that this doesn’t mean the conversation around HB 20 is over. Committee members will take the rest of the year to work on the bill, and have the opportunity to re-introduce it next year.
“I think that if it’s going to be done, it’s going to be done correctly, we have to have bipartisan support and it has to be proven it has to be beneficial to everyone, to taxpayers, children, mostly for the children,” said Committee member Barbara Shaw (D-Manchester).
About the amendment
The amendment created an income cap for eligible students, stating that only families with household incomes at or less than 375% of the Federal Poverty Limit would be eligible. For a family of four, that number would be about $99,375, which is higher than the median household income in New Hampshire.
Even with the change, HB 20 would be the most expansive voucher program in the country, and could cost New Hampshire roughly $50 million in new state spending its first year alone.
The new version also required participating students to submit an annual record of academic achievement to the scholarship organization. Parents could choose between the statewide assessment taken by NH public and charter school students, a norm-referenced assessment of their choosing, or a portfolio evaluated by a certified or nonpublic school teacher.
During the executive session, the Committee wrestled with the limits of the bill. The bill was designed to free parents, students, and education providers from government control, according to Representative Glenn Cordelli (R-Tuftonboro), but the annual record would impede on that freedom.
However, the amendment did not address other issues that Committee members and the public raised about HB 20. For example, the bill had no provisions to protect students and families from discrimination.
Advocates defended the bill, pointing out that private schools must adhere to federal and state anti-discrimination laws. However, federal anti-discrimination laws, like Title IX, apply only to schools that accept federal funds; and private schools that are run by religious organizations are exempt to the extent that the laws “would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.” There are also no federal protections for LGBTQ students.
State laws specify protections for public school students, but neither the bill, nor its amendment, extended those protections to voucher recipients.
The Committee can continue to work on HB 20 through the remainder of the year, and can reintroduce it next year. Committees usually meet over the summer and fall to work on retained bills.
However, the debate about voucher programs will continue. SB 130, which creates an almost identical program, was introduced in the Senate last month and was scheduled for a public hearing almost immediately after the vote on HB 20. Lawmakers moved quickly in response to the House vote and in less than two weeks this dialogue will resume.