The most expansive voucher program in the country released as top priority in NH this session

A new bill that would create the country’s first nearly universal voucher program has been introduced as the top priority for lawmakers in the 2021 session. House Bill 20 (HB 20) would require the state to use state dollars currently allocated for public education to fund “Education Freedom Accounts.” Parents could then receive between $3,786 and $8,458 per student in state dollars, depending on eligibility and fees, to use for private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, and other school-related expenses. 

The bill creates the same voucher program that lawmakers originally introduced in 2017 under SB 193 (though they were called “Education Freedom Savings Accounts” then), which was killed because of the deep inequities it would cause for students, as well as the steep costs to the state and local towns. The current version of the bill, HB 20, has no accountability requirements to ensure that students are receiving an adequate education or that public funds are being spent for the stated purposes, aside from self-reporting by the independent scholarship organization. 

“Our communities are struggling under an inequitable funding system which will culminate in an $89 million cut in state funding next year. However, lawmakers have stated that one of their top priorities this session is to enact the most far-reaching voucher program in the country,” said Christina Pretorius, Policy Director at Reaching Higher NH.

“A question that I think our state leaders should ask is, what kind of state do we want 5, 10, 15 years from now? Will this program help to strengthen our state, our economy, and prepare our students — current and future — for life in the 21st century? This proposal, along with the funding crisis, presents a reckoning for our state, that I think we all need to grapple with,” she continued.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • HB 20 would create a nearly universal voucher program, where students attending both public and private schools would qualify for a voucher. Students who enroll in the program must disenroll full-time from their public or charter school. 
  • There are no provisions in the bill that would protect students from discrimination, but the bill does protect educational service providers from being discriminated against based on their religious affiliation. 
  • Parents could receive between $3,786 and $8,458, minus administrative fees, depending on the student’s eligibility for state aid programs. The funding would be placed in an “Education Freedom Account,” or voucher, managed by an independent scholarship organization and funded from the state’s Education Trust Fund.  
  • Parents could use the voucher for various education-related expenses, including private and religious school tuition and program costs, homeschooling costs, tutoring services, computers and software, summer programs, college tuition, or other approved expenses. Recipients are permitted to “roll-over” unused funds from year to year. 
  • Students with disabilities might waive their rights under federal and state disability laws, including the right to an IEP, the right to services, and the right to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. 
  • There is little public oversight for state funds. There is no financial audit requirement for the scholarship organization to ensure that they are appropriately using public funds, nor are participating students required to take, or submit, the statewide assessment that public and charter school students are required to take. There is no requirement that participating students take any assessment of any kind, in order to ensure that public dollars are going towards programs that provide the opportunity for an adequate education.
  • HB 20, as proposed, would be the most far-reaching voucher bill in the country. Other states with voucher programs are targeted to low-income students, students with IEPs, and other identified or discrete student cohorts. HB 20, however, would be a nearly universal voucher program that is not targeted and is open to nearly all New Hampshire children. 
  • Voucher programs have been shown to hurt student outcomes. Long-term studies of voucher programs have shown that participants in voucher programs have significantly lower math and reading scores than those who do not, and that those dips persist for years after the initial study. Other, short-term studies by independent research organizations and universities suggest that voucher programs hurt, or have an insignificant impact, on student outcomes.

Eligible students and amount of voucher

The eligibility requirements are the widest in the country: at least 95% of children in New Hampshire would qualify, though there are some technical questions that remain about the bill.  

Eligible students must be residents of New Hampshire, eligible to enroll in a public elementary or secondary school, and:

  • Currently attending a New Hampshire public school, public charter school, public academy, or nonpublic (private) school; or,
  • Are in kindergarten or first grade; or, 
  • Have a sibling with a voucher. 

There are two other factors that qualify a student; however, they have significant technical questions:

  • Currently attend a New Hampshire school that is remote or hybrid.
    • If all students who currently attend a public or nonpublic school already qualify, who would this eligibility requirement benefit?
    • Does this have other consequences in terms of eligibility?
  • Currently assigned to a New Hampshire public school with assessment proficiency below 40 percent. 
    • To which “assessment” is this eligibility requirement referring? Is it the statewide assessment? And if so, what year(s), subject(s) and grade(s) should be considered when determining eligibility? 
    • What constitutes “assessment proficiency”? 

It is not immediately clear whether current homeschooled students would qualify for the voucher program. They are not clearly listed under the “eligible student” category as they were in SB 193; however, they would be eligible if they met one or more of the other eligibility requirements. 

The amount of the voucher would depend on the student’s eligibility for state aid and the amount retained by the independent scholarship organization. The scholarship organization may retain “up to” 10% of the voucher for administrative expenses, which is our assumption in the amounts below. 

All eligible students would receive base adequacy. In 2022, that amount is currently set at $3,786. Minus the administrative fee, that would give parents $3,407 in public funds. 

Students from low-income families who qualify for school meal programs (Free and Reduced Lunch program) would receive an additional $1,893. Minus the administrative fee, eligible parents would receive an additional $1,703. 

Students with disabilities (either an Individualized Education Plan or a 504 Plan) would receive an additional $2,037. Minus the administrative fee, eligible parents would receive an additional $1,833. 

Students enrolled in English Language Learner programs could receive an additional $741. Minus the administrative fee, eligible parents would receive $667. Note: the eligibility for this aid category is unclear. Public and charter schools receive this aid for students who are enrolled in English Language Learner programs, but those who have advanced to the monitoring state are not included. Thresholds are not specified in HB 20. 

Therefore, students who qualify for both the Free and Reduced Lunch program and have an IEP or 504 plan could receive $6,944, and the scholarship organization would receive $771. 

Under the current version of the bill, the scholarship organization determines eligibility for additional aid categories. They also collect up to 10% for these additional aid categories for administrative expenses. 

Protections against discrimination

There are no provisions in the current bill that protect students from discrimination. The bill does not prohibit educational service providers from discriminating against students based on gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or any other federally protected category. 

The only reference to anti-disrimination in the bill prohibits scholarship organizations from discriminating against educational service providers based on the provider’s religious affiliation:

“The scholarship organization shall not exclude, discriminate against, or otherwise disadvantage any education provider with respect to programs or services under this section based in whole or in part on the provider’s religious character or affiliation, including religiously based or mission-based policies or practices.”

The United States Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a Montana voucher program’s use of public funds for religious education. Read more about that topic here

Acceptable uses for funds

Parents could use the voucher for various education-related expenses, including:

  • Private and religious school tuition and program costs, including out-of-state schools and programs; 
  • Tutoring expenses provided by an individual or tutoring facility; 
  • Textbooks, curriculum, or other instructional materials; 
  • Computer hardware and software, Internet connectivity, and other tech services and devices; 
  • School uniforms; 
  • Fees for standardized tests and prep courses, including AP exams, SAT exams, and university admissions examinations;
  • Summer program tuition and/or fees; 
  • Transportation costs; and,
  • Any other educational expense recommended by the scholarship organization and approved by the Department of Education. 

Schools, programs, and tutors are not required to be approved or accredited by any state, regional, or local accreditor. Education providers are not required to be licensed. 

Special Education

The bill states that when a family accepts an education freedom account, it acts as a “parental placement” under federal disability laws, meaning families might waive their rights under most federal and state disability laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 

State and federal laws require that schools provide students with disabilities the services and supports they need to receive a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment at no cost to the family. This could mean anything from the support of a paraprofessional in the classroom, to hearing assistive devices. Families are guaranteed certain rights, including the right to be present in an IEP meeting or the right for their child to be evaluated by a certified professional.

When a child accepts an education freedom account under the bill, these protections might be waived. Typically, under a “parental placement,” students receive a service plan that outlines supports the local public school will make available to the student. Services are not required to be individually tailored to the student, and families are not guaranteed input regarding the services and supports provided. When the funding for the service plan runs out, the school is not obligated to continue to provide support, even if the school year is still in session.

Academic Accountability

HB 20 does not contain any requirements for ensuring that students are meeting the academic requirements set forth in the bill, or those that lawmakers have determined constitute an adequate education. 

Participating students are not required to take any kind of annual assessment, nor are they required to meet any sort of academic benchmarks like the state’s minimum academic standards. Education providers are not required to administer or report the content, materials, services, delivery, or details of their educational programs to either the scholarship organization or the state. 

Public Oversight

Public oversight for state funds is limited to an annual report created by the scholarship organization, a periodic and limited audit of individual education freedom accounts, and a 13-member commission, most of whom would be appointed by the director of the scholarship organization, and which would include the director of the scholarship organization itself. 

There is no stated provision where the scholarship organization must complete a comprehensive financial audit, submit proof or records of fiscal management, or any other oversight to ensure that the organization, or families, are using public funds for their stated purpose. The scholarship organization is required to “conduct random independent audits” of accounts on an annual basis, but the bill does not specify the number, proportion, or breadth of the audits. 

The scholarship organization would be the sole qualifier of eligible students and the acceptable programs, would determine eligibility for the program and state aid, and would be responsible for ensuring that students are notified of their rights and responsibilities under parental placement. 

Finally, the bill does not prohibit scholarship organization staff members from having financial interests in education providers, including private schools, tutoring programs, or online programs, for which the education savings account would be used. The bill allows the scholarship organization to accept gifts, grants, and donations “of any kind from any public or private entity,” presumably including the education providers that may accept the voucher.

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