Analysis finds that new provisions in voucher bill could complicate implementation

Today Reaching Higher New Hampshire released an analysis of the latest version of SB 193, as put forth by members of the House Education Committee on November 8th. The newest version of the bill includes a number of additional provisions related to eligibility and stabilization funding for districts. However, with both the eligibility criteria and the stabilization funding, there are components of SB 193 which could complicate implementation.

First, the newest version of the bill extends eligibility to any student “who was not admitted to a chartered public school…” By not including any requirement for students to have applied to a chartered public school, this clause opens up eligibility to the 98% of New Hampshire public school students not currently admitted or enrolled in a chartered public school, irrespective of family income or disability status. This appears to be a technical oversight, but one with notable practical implications as it would create a statewide, nearly universal voucher program.

Second, there are key details missing which would be necessary to successfully implement the stabilization funds proposed for districts that lose state funding in excess of one-quarter of one percent of their budget. Specifically, under the latest version of SB 193, students can sign-up for a voucher at any point during the year (i.e., there is not a specific window of time during the year when students must sign-up for a voucher). The proposed stabilization funds are required to be disbursed by September 1 and so local communities would not receive any stabilization funds for students who sign-up for a voucher after September 1. It is not possible to predict how large a number that will be, but the impact will be felt most discernibly by property-poor communities as they will need to raise taxes or cut educationally programming at much greater rates to compensate for such loss in state aid.

It is relevant to consider the points raised in the 2016 Performance Audit by the Arizona Auditor General on that state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program. The audit underscores the critical importance that key implementation details, such as eligibility criteria and spending controls, play to successfully safeguarding public funds while supporting students’ educational advancement. For example, the audit highlights over $100,000 in inappropriate spending by program participants between August 2015 and January 2016 and calls for improved oversight on the part of the Arizona Department of Education (which oversees Arizona’s program). In this and other examples, the audit provides a cautionary tale as Arizona’s controls for its program are significantly more robust than what is proposed in SB 193 (e.g., Arizona requires program participants to use debit cards that only work for approved purchases and do not enable cash withdrawals) and still were insufficient to prevent abuse.

Click on the image below to view the Policy Analysis: