Valley News: N.H. School Voucher Bill Would Allow Funds for Private or Home Schooling

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The Valley News published their coverage of yesterday’s hearing on SB 193, the bill that would create a universal voucher system in New Hampshire: 

Upper Valley school administrators on Tuesday were among dozens of people who testified before the House Education Committee about a school voucher bill, a piece of legislation that proponents say will expand choice but that the educators fear will harm public schools in New Hampshire.

SB 193, as the legislation is known, passed the New Hampshire Senate last month in a straight party-line vote, 14-9, with all Republicans supporting the measure.

The proposal would allow parents wishing to remove their children from public school to create an “education freedom savings account” into which they could deposit up to 90 percent of the adequacy aid — state funding to help schools provide an adequate education to students — that the state otherwise would have paid to the public school for that student.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. John Reagan was the first to testify on Tuesday. Reagan, a Deerfield Republican who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said his proposal would give parents more choice and encourage competition, as well as bring more accountability to public school funding.

Parents could use the voucher money, which Reagan estimated at about $4,400 per student, to enroll their children at private schools, including religious schools. The bill also includes a home schooling option.

New Hampshire’s public schools “have substantially failed to produce what they’re charging for,” he said on the House floor, where the meeting finally convened after twice relocating due to high attendance. “We don’t have an explanation for where that money goes.”

Reagan also acknowledged that in Senate hearings he had heard school administrators speak out against the bill on the grounds that it might force them to cut vital services or raise local taxes.

“I can believe they won’t know what to do, because they can’t explain where the money goes now, anyway,” he said.

Several of the public school administrators who spoke later took offense at that remark.

“Really?” said Brian Cochrane, superintendent for SAU 86 in Barnstead, N.H., looking back into the audience for Reagan. Cochrane, who cited achievement results for New Hampshire that he said were among the best in the country, argued that public schools were already accountable for their spending.

“We’re accountable for every penny,” he said. “Every penny. … I’m absolutely baffled by that statement.”

Other school officials, such as Hanover resident David Sobel, vice chairman of the Dresden School Board, argued the bill would disproportionately affect students in cash-strapped districts.

“The students whose families are least able to access the reported ‘benefits’ of this program will fare the worst,” Sobel, whose panel covers Hanover-Norwich schools, said in a prepared statement.

Middleton McGoodwin, superintendent for Claremont schools, echoed that thought, saying his own district already was struggling financially.

“Where a child lives is determinant of their education,” he said, adding later that SB 193 “would further widen that gap.”

SAU 70 Superintendent Frank Bass testified that the Dresden School Board had voted to declare its opposition to the bill. He said the proposal would limit, not increase, accountability in that it would allow more money to go to nonpublic schools, and argued it would “decimate” public education statewide.

Officials for teachers unions, the New Hampshire School Boards Association, the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, and the New Hampshire Association of School Principals, among others, voiced their opposition. More than 100 people attended the hearing.

Dan McGuire, representing the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance, spoke in favor, as did the directors of several other nonprofits and political action groups.

“We feel that this bill is a win-win, both for students and for taxpayers,” said McGuire, a former state Republican representative from Epsom who moved to New Hampshire as part of the libertarian Free State Project.

Many parents came to the hearing, and they fell in roughly equal numbers on either side of the issue.

Katie Mclaughlin, of Hampton Falls, N.H., argued the bill would benefit parents who were unable to relocate to another educational district or pay for private school.

“They say, ‘Sell your house. Move to another town,’ ” she said. “That’s incredibly disruptive to a family.”

Mclaughlin also said opponents were focusing too much on their belief that public schools could suffer, and not enough on the children who already are suffering in public school.

“Fundamentally, education happens in the mind of a child, not in an institution,” she said.

On the other hand, Karen Hatch, of Salem, N.H., said private schools, since they don’t have the same oversight as public schools, are able to “discriminate” against her child, who has an intellectual disability.

“I am begging you not to pass this bill,” she said.

Although she did not explicitly take a side, Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards pointed out a few potential legal hiccups in the proposed legislation, including possible constitutional pitfalls if the bill allowed public money to go to religious schools as the current text does.

Tuesday’s event was a public hearing, and the committee did not take action on the bill.

House Education Committee Chairman Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, said his panel was likely to vote toward the end of the month. The Education Committee has an April 26 deadline to act on this legislation, he said, at which point the bill likely would go to the Finance Committee before reaching the House floor.

Read the full article here.