In a column for In Depth NH, Rep. Marjorie Porter (D-Hillsborough) urged legislators to kill a bill that would create a universal voucher system in New Hampshire. Here’s an excerpt:
[SB 193], you may remember, is the bill that magically turns state education funds, which by the NH constitution cannot be used for funding religious education, into private “scholarship accounts” which parents CAN use to pay tuition at any private school, religious or not.
I substituted in the Education Committee on one of the days it was working on this bill, before it was retained. We heard from the Attorney General’s office, as well as experts on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and education law pertaining to the education of children with special needs. I learned a lot.
The Deputy Attorney General told us the language in NH’s constitution forbidding the use of public money to pay for religious education is stronger than that in other states or in the US Constitution. As the bill stood, she did not believe it passed constitutional muster, and would not survive a court case. She said this without qualification.
The ADA expert told us public schools are required to provide, and pay for, all services needed to educate children with learning disabilities. And if a child with an IEP attends one of our public charter schools, the sending district is required to pay for the services needed.
But this is NOT the case with private schools. Private schools are not required to provide services, and the sending district is not required to pay for them either. Children with special needs who enroll in private schools forfeit their right to these services. Period.
Parents of students with less complex issues might be willing to give up these special services, with the belief that a smaller school or a school which provides a different kind of learning environment will be able to meet their child’s needs.
But what about the children with very complicated needs? Those who require constant medical supervision, or help with toileting, or a one-on-one assistant, or have severe behavior problems?
I doubt many parents would be willing to sacrifice those vital, and expensive, services public schools must provide. They’ll keep their children right where they are, in the local schools. And with the cash-strapped local schools receiving less money from the state under the provisions of SB 193, who do you think will be asked to pay the bill? You got it—the local property tax payers.
Another concern was the issue of accountability. Public schools use testing and other strict measures to determine how well their students are learning. The state and the federal government require them to do so.
But private schools are private, and they are not required to use state or national tests, or any formal means of measuring how well their students are learning. RSA 77:G, the forerunner to SB 193, established the education tax credit program in NH.
It requires only the use of a “parent satisfaction survey” to measure the receiving school’s success. It appears as if the same holds true under this bill. This very non-scientific measure—if the parents are happy the school must be good—hardly seems enough to assure that our taxpayer dollars are being used wisely.
By all accounts, the issue of constitutionality and the needs of special education students have not yet been addressed. Neither has the issue of accountability.
I am truly hoping that common sense prevails, and the committee votes to kill this bill. Education “freedom” sounds very nice. But as always, the devil is in the details.
PS. Despite what you may have heard from the Commissioner of Education: “The average private school tuition is $10,530 for elementary schools and $29,145 for high schools.”
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