This week, the House and Senate Education Committees are scheduled to vote on a number of key privatization bills, including SB 130, which would create the most expansive voucher program in the country. Other proposals would allow districts to contract with religious schools, and would allow parents to pursue religious school options under the state’s Manifest Education Hardship provision at the expense of the school district and taxpayers.
There was strong public opposition to all of the proposals, which had public hearings last week.
“All these bills that we have been talking about the past few weeks all seem designed to avoid dealing with the real problem. The real problem is the structural inequities built into our system of funding education here in New Hampshire,” said Rye School Board member Scott Marion at a public hearing last week.
Schools are facing an $89 million drop in state funding this fall, due in large part to the loss of targeted funding for communities that have a low property base and those that have high concentrations of students navigating poverty. In 2020, the state infused nearly $60 million into those communities, alleviating their property tax burdens and allowing them to expand opportunities and support for their students. Many districts that have received funding through the programs are facing budgetary collapse, substantially higher tax rates, and slashed budgets as a result of the funding drop.
That funding is not included in the Governor’s proposed budget. At the same time, programs like SB 130 would cost the state an estimated $100 million in new state spending, to pay for vouchers for families who have chosen private and homeschool options. Other proposals, like the “Public School Choice Act,” have also received pushback as an attempted distraction from the real issue of inequitable school funding.
SB 130: Universal Vouchers for New Hampshire
Senate Bill 130 would require the state to create taxpayer-funded “Education Freedom Accounts,” giving parents between $3,700 and $8,400 per student in state funding to use for private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, and other school-related expenses.
At the public hearing, public opposition far outstripped support: 3,317 (opposed) versus 506 (support). Most of the testimony centered around the public’s desire to reinvest in our public schools and expand opportunities and access for all children, as well as the proposal’s lack of protections for students and families against discrimination on behalf of education providers.
“Our public schools already have trouble supporting our minority communities, like mine in Milford. I don’t see the benefit of taking money away from public schools when our schools are already suffering,” Representative Maria Perez (D-Milford) told the Senate Education Committee last week.
New Hampshire’s public schools are beacons of innovation, but suffer under the weight of a flawed funding system, Kearsarge Regional School District’s Assistant Superintendent Michael Bessette told the Committee:
“It’s important to understand that… almost every district values school choice. The strong difference of opinion, though, is that school choice should come through public schools. ELOs [Extended Learning Opportunities], alternative learning, internships, distance learning… New Hampshire prides ourselves on education innovation,” Bessette said. “Public education is a great equalizer; we shouldn’t be taking money away.”
Barrett Christina, executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association noted that the hearing did not cover the technical language of the bill, which funds programs with limited accountability or oversight.
“There is nothing in this bill relative to student safety, or a modicum of ensuring that people providing educational services have to pass background checks… It does not [prohibit] criminals, convicts, child molestors… They were at least in the Ed 1400 [Learn Everywhere] rules, but these do not have them,” Christina said.
“If there are any other places in law where we’re sending public money with no oversight, I’d love to see it,” he continued. “If [they’re] going to take state money, hold these private entities to the same standards in terms of reporting, standards, etc.”
The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to vote on a recommendation for SB 130 on Tuesday, March 9.
Public School Choice Act
House Bill 455, named the “Public School Choice Act,” would allow students to attend the public school or academy of their choice, and would require districts to accept students from other districts as long as they have the capacity. New Hampshire already allows schools to accept students from outside their district bounds, but HB 455 would mandate that schools participate in this proposal.
At last week’s hearing, the sponsor, Rep. Glenn Cordelli (R-Tuftonboro), fielded a number of questions about the proposal from Education Committee members, including how the program would be funded, who would determine “capacity” and how it would be defined, and how the Act would impact local decision making and budgeting.
Under the proposal, a student could attend an out-of-district school, and the receiving school would get roughly $3,700 in state funding. The receiving school would not receive local funding from the student’s home district, as they typically do now under tuition agreements. Local taxpayers from the receiving school would be responsible for the additional costs.
“This is a complex initiative when coupled with all the other choice legislation that’s being proposed, and this session would drastically change NH’s educational landscape,” Dr. Carl Ladd, executive director of New Hampshire School Administrators Association, told the House Education Committee last week.
There was strong opposition to the bill: 479 people opposed, while 17 people supported the bill. The House Education Committee is scheduled to vote on a recommendation for the bill on Thursday, March 11.
Expanding Contracts to Include Religious Schools
The House Education Committee also held hearings last week on a pair of bills that would expand public options to include religious schools.
HB 388 would allow parents to pursue a placement under Manifest Educational Hardship (MEH) to include religious schools. Manifest educational hardships allow families to send their children to schools outside of their assigned district school if their assigned school cannot meet a student’s academic, physical, or personal needs. The tuition is paid for in full by the child’s home district.
In some cases, a family may pursue a Manifest Educational Hardship placement to a private, nonsectarian school. However, HB 388 would allow families to pursue a placement in religious schools as well, and would require the local school district to pay the full tuition.
Similarly, HB 282 would allow districts to expand town tuitioning programs to religious schools. Under current law, school districts may contract with private, nonsectarian schools if they don’t operate their own district schools.
The House Education Committee is scheduled to vote on a recommendation for both bills on Thursday, March 11. HB 388 had strong opposition: 120 people opposed, and four people supported the bill. The Committee did not note the public participation on HB 282.
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