PODCAST: Return of the School Voucher Bill

In this episode of School Talk, Reaching Higher Policy Director Christina Pretorius discusses what’s coming up in education legislation, including a familiar-looking school voucher bill.


I’m Sarah Earle and this is School Talk. In this episode, Reaching Higher’s policy director, Christina Pretorius, will share what’s on her radar for the coming weeks. 

Thanks for joining me again this month , Christina. You’ve had a very hectic couple of weeks. For those in our audience who maybe haven’t been eating, drinking, and sleeping ed policy, can you give a quick recap of what’s been going on? 

Yeah! There’s a lot happening in Concord — and well, I mean, virtually now.  Lawmakers are debating more than 800 bills, and about 100 of those are education-related. So we’ve been really busy. Everything from vouchers, to school funding, college and career readiness, certification, and a whole lot more. We’ve been combing through the bills, and there are definitely a few that stand out as really impactful to public education and students. 

And then on the rule-making side, the State Board level, there’s a lot happening, too. The State Board has started their rule-making process for the minimum standards for public schools, which are basically what a public school needs to be an “approved” public school: what policies they need, what curriculum they have to offer, school culture, facilities — it’s just a big outline for what a public school needs and is. We’re following that pretty closely, and there are also two new State Board members that have been up for nomination. Last week, the Executive Council had considered nominations for two State Board members: Ryan Terrell and Richard Sala. So we’re following that as well. 

And what has it been like covering these developments?

The Legislature has started meeting, and it looks so much different than before. We won’t have packed committee rooms, we won’t have people with signs in the hallway, or really my favorite — those frantic, last-minute room changes that have everyone in the hallway, even the people who disagree — both sides of the issue of whatever bill — working together to find out where everyone should be. It’s just such a cool moment because everyone’s working together. Those are definitely my favorite moments, and unfortunately because of the pandemic we won’t be having that.

This year, at least for the near future, all testimony will be remote. I really do think it gives more people an opportunity to participate, since they don’t have to drive all the way to Concord. They can log on from wherever they are at the time and offer their testimony, be heard, whatever it is. 

Oh that’s true. So have you seen a jump in engagement? 

It’s still early, the House Education Committee had their first meeting last week, but we’re definitely seeing some shifts. During their first hearing that day, there were 400 people who registered their opposition to a bill. Those kind of numbers are just unheard of, and it shows the power of people’s voices. To be honest I really hope that lawmakers can find a way to keep participation more accessible because I mean to have 400 people on a bill — and this bill that I’m thinking of, it really wasn’t focused on in the media — and so to have the kind of involvement is just great, for opposition, for support, people are having their voices heard, and I think that that’s a real plus.  

So let’s take a peek at what’s coming up at the State House. 

We released our analysis of House Bill 20 this week, and the public hearing for it is scheduled for Tuesday, February 2. In what I hope is really basic terms, HB 20 creates a statewide voucher program, where parents and guardians can receive taxpayer-funded “Education Savings Accounts” for between $3,700 and $8,400, depending on their eligibility for state programs and fees and what have you. Parents can then use those accounts to pay for private school tuition, homeschool expenses, internet costs, computers, tutors… basically, anything that families might need for school. They would have to disenroll their student from public school — so that account is not to supplement their public school. You know, a parent can’t buy a computer for their kid who is enrolled in public school who might be remote. They have to withdraw their student fulltime from public school. That’s  actually a really important point that we’ve seen glossed over in some, to be honest, high-production advocacy materials for HB 20. 

Clip of HB20 advertisement: Thankfully, state lawmakers in Concord can support a solution that respects families: education freedom accounts. With EFAs, every child receives a grant from the state. Then parents can spend that money the way they know best, on the educational experiences their child needs to thrive…

It seems to be marketed as a program that’s open for everyone, but it’s really important for the public to know that these accounts are only open to those who are not enrolled full-time in their public schools. 

So that’s taking up a lot of our bandwidth — we’re getting a lot of questions, requests for information, the whole nine. A lot of our focus has been and probably will continue to be for the near future on providing timely, accurate analyses of that bill. 

So it sounds like people need to be kind of vigilant in examining this bill. What else did your analysis turn up? 

So combing through this bill, there are a few open questions and considerations. There are a few really highly technical questions that I won’t go into in the podcast because, I mean, it will put you to sleep, so if you need something to put you to sleep then we can do that. But one of the first questions that we had was there’s nothing that we could find in the bill that would protect students from discrimination. It’s in the law that public schools can’t discriminate against students or families based on gender, race, national origin, disability status, veteran status, and other protected classes. But HB 20 does not require the education providers that would receive public funding to adhere to the same nondiscrimination laws, and in fact, there’s language in the bill that specifically states that those laws don’t apply to them, that they don’t have to change any of their current practices in order to accept this public money. 

Okay. So in addition to answering to families, public schools are accountable to the state. How is accountability addressed in the voucher bill? 

Interestingly, there’s limited accountability for these public funds. With public and charter schools, students are required to take a test every year, and those results are sent to the state, and they compile them, and you can compare town to town, district to district, whatever it is. You probably see a lot of news coverage and reports about “proficiency” or school performance (Maybe it’s just me? Maybe it’s just news that I’m following very closely). But typically when there’s things like deliberative sessions or school board meetings those results pop up and are typically grounds for a lot of discussion. Families, school boards, and honestly, taxpayers, get a snapshot of the school’s performance based on those statewide tests. Standardized tests are by no means a perfect measure. There are a lot of efforts to accurately capture student and school performance that go beyond that standardized test, but it’s one tool to get an idea of how students are performing, where the gaps are, and where there are opportunities for improvement. So it’s one measure of accountability for public dollars. 

With this voucher bill, HB 20, there’s none of that. Parents who receive taxpayer dollars through the program aren’t required to submit anything — they don’t have to submit student records, they don’t have to tell the state what they’re doing. When they sign up they sign that they will offer an education that includes a certain number of subjects, but that’s sort of where it ends in terms of that. Students don’t have to take the same test as public school students. So at the core, there’s limited transparency, and it bakes in this ambiguity around how effective this program will be, if it’s in place. 

Okay, but advocates of the bill will say, ultimately, families should get a bigger say in matters of education — especially during these difficult times — and doesn’t this bill do that?

That’s a really great question. I think it’s one that will dominate the conversation for the next few months next for sure. As much as this is marketed as a pandemic relief bill, it’s not new — it was a proposal in 2017, though then it was known as SB 193: They were known as Education Freedom Savings Accounts. So they’ve changed the name, but not a lot has changed from the original version. That bill was defeated, albeit by a slim margin, because of the questionable effects it would have on student learning, and the costs it would downshift to towns, to communities, to local taxpayers. 

And that’s what we’ve been finding — since 2017, there have been a number of short- and long-term studies by independent organizations and universities, that have shown that students who participate in voucher programs actually have significantly lower math and reading scores. And, those drops persist for years after — they don’t bounce back, and they’re not attributed to reasons like the stress of changing schools, or a new environment — they really do persist for years. 

And so, I’ve been speaking to folks from a number of different viewpoints, to members of the media and on social media, and a question that keeps coming up is this: Why are lawmakers pursuing this privatization effort, which has not been shown to benefit student outcomes, and has actually been shown to hurt them — when our public schools are facing a budgetary collapse? 

More than 90% of our children attend public schools, which are buckling under the pressure of our current funding system. They’re facing an $89 million drop in funding next year. Some communities, like Dover had to cut 12% of its staff because of these anticipated budget cuts. Sarah, you did a fantastic piece on Thursday about communities making substantial cuts to their already lean budgets because they’re not counting on relief from the state this session. So in some respects, it’s a question of priorities. And in others, it’s a question about whether this is the right move — will this help improve student outcomes, will this help us get to where we want to be, as a state, as communities, as families and students, will this get us to where we want to be in 5, 10, 15 years? 

Thanks again to Christina for joining me today. School Talk is produced by our intern, Henry Lavoie. To stay up-to-date on education news, sign up for our newsletter at reachinghighernh.org and follow School Talk wherever you get your podcasts. Stay tuned in the coming days for a special podcast that tells the story of one community’s struggle to maintain its top-notch schools amid growing frustrations over tax bills.