NH Education Roundup, March 22, 2021

The House Education Committee acted on several key bills last week.

In this week’s NH Education News Brief: Voucher bill likely to show up in state budget; House Ed passes contentious “period bill,” Dr. Jill Biden visits Concord, and some schools considering full reopening.

Tabling of Senate voucher bill suggests it will show up in budget — The New Hampshire Senate first passed, then tabled SB 130, a highly controversial school voucher bill, on Thursday, March 18, paving the way for the proposal to be rolled instead into the state budget. The vote caps weeks of debate over “Education Freedom Accounts,” introduced in both the House and Senate and met with unprecedented public opposition. The House retained its version of the bill, citing concerns over its effects on public school budgets. Tabling the bill and rolling the proposal into the budget reduces the amount of scrutiny it will receive going forward.

Reaching Higher released an analysis last week that finds the voucher bill as currently written would cost the state $69.7 million in new spending over a three-year period, while resulting in a $13.6 million loss of funds for public school districts. 

House Ed retains transgender sports bill, passes “period” bill, strikes down Blaine Amendment — The House Education Committee acted on numerous key bills last week. On Tuesday, March 16, the Committee voted to retain HB 198, which would have prohibited transgender athletes from competing in all-female sports. The bill drew strong opposition, and sponsors acknowledged that it needed further crafting. House Ed Democrats contended that the bill should be killed rather than retained for further study.

Also on Tuesday, the House Education Committee approved House Bill 458, which reverses a 2019 bill requiring schools to provide free menstrual products to students. The bill was vigorously opposed by numerous groups in a public hearing earlier this month. Bill supporters said that the requirement, which was signed into law with fanfare by Gov. Sununu, represents an unfunded mandate. Opponents argued that schools provide numerous other necessities such as toilet paper that, while not technically mandated, are understood to be an indispensable part of the budget. Further, schools are already saddled with much more expensive unfunded mandates. 

“This is a bogus argument. The state underfunds many things,” Rep. Mel Myler (D-Contoocook) told the Committee. 

 “I can’t believe how this bill is just dismissive of young women who really need this support,” said Rep. Linda Tanner (D-Sunapee) “We really need to solve the school funding issue so we’re not fighting over menstrual products.” 

On Thursday, March 18, the House Education Committee approved a proposal to remove the “Blaine Amendment” from the state Constitution through a Constitutional amendment. The 1877 Blaine Amendment states that “no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools of institutions of any religious sect or denomination.” Supporters of the repeal said the amendment is a relic of anti-Catholic sentiment and that preserving it invites lawsuits in the wake of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings. Opponents said removing it violates church-state separation. 

HB 282, which removes the religious school exception from the so-called “Croydon Bill,” also made it out of committee on Thursday. The “Croydon Bill,”signed into law in 2017, allows districts without a public school option to send students to private schools using taxpayer dollars. Under HB 282, those school districts will be able to create tuition agreements with religious schools as well. 
Senate presses pause on school funding — The Senate killed a bill that would have adopted the recommendations of the Commission to Study School Funding, which would distribute the statewide education property tax (also known as SWEPT) based on a new formula that targets funding based on community needs and student outcomes.  They sent a short-term school funding proposal back to the Education Committee, which would have preserved the additional funding for towns with lower property values. 

Senate considers “innovation schools” — The Senate Education Committee held a public hearing on HB 609, the “innovation schools” bill. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Glenn Cordelli (R-Tuftonboro), said that innovation schools would provide public schools with the flexibility to innovate by allowing them to opt-out of state regulations and rules. Public testimony noted that NH public schools can already request waivers on certain laws and rules, and that this bill is model legislation from a national conservative policy center that has been introduced in 12-14 other states. Testimony also mentioned that the bill is broad and vague in several sections, and recommended a study committee on the bill. 

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden visits Concord school — Dr. Jill Biden swung through the state last Wednesday to promote Pres. Joe Biden’s  American Rescue Plan, with a stop at Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Concord. “When schools like Christa McAuliffe are open full time, and childcare providers are safe and affordable, parents can focus on the careers they love and support their families,” Biden told a group of educators and guests after visiting classrooms in the K-5 school. Biden has a family connection to the school: Her son, the late Beau Biden, was a clerk for Judge Steven McAuliffe, Christa McAuliffe’s husband.

Teacher vaccinations, dropping COVID rates have some schools considering full reopening — With teacher vaccinations underway in the state and the COVID transmission rate steadily decreasing, many schools are re-evaluating their teaching models for the coming months. Some schools around the state are already back in person full-time, but many remain in a hybrid model to allow for social distancing and accommodate staff and students who prefer to be online. After surging in late fall, COVID numbers have dropped off in recent weeks, and the test positivity rate now hovers under 4%. Additionally, the CDC revised its guidelines for schools last week, recommending a three-feet instead of six-feet distance between students, as long as they are wearing masks.

CDC study finds virtual learning riskier for children’s mental health — New data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirms a growing suspicion that online learning has an adverse effect on children’s mental health. Of 1,290 parents surveyed for the study, a higher percentage of those whose children were learning virtually reported that their children’s mental health had worsened in the past year. Additionally, children who were learning virtually spent less time outside and less time engaged in physical activity. 

Timeline of college system merger questioned — Members of the House Finance Committee expressed concerns over the speed with which Gov. Sununu proposes to merge the University System of New Hampshire and the Community College System of New Hampshire at a meeting on Thursday. The proposal calls for forming a 15-member board of trustees who would develop recommendations for the Legislature by the end of 2021. In addition to questioning the pace of the process, several members of the Committee suggested creating a separate council that could continue discussing ways to make the two systems operate with more synergy even if the Legislature votes to dissolve the board of trustees. Four Committee members will present an alternate proposal to the Committee on Monday, March 22.

Advocates of the merger painted a different picture in a House Education Subcommittee meeting last Wednesday. Joe Morone, chair of the USNH Board of Trustees, told that group that with enrollments projected to decline sharply in the next few years, the state is running out of time to address to prepare for new financial realities.

Also last week, a group of former trustees from UNH and CCSNH sent a letter to the Legislature urging them to remove the “hasty proposal” from the budget and establish a committee composed of government officials and members of the public to conduct a more thorough study. “Public higher education drives the educational, economic and cultural vitality of New Hampshire,” reads the letter, which was signed by 11 former trustees. “The radical changes proposed in House Bill 2 deserve a thorough and comprehensive review, which is owed to our students, citizens and communities.

This Week’s Legislative Schedule

Monday, March 22, 2021

House Finance Division II Work Session 10:00 a.m.  
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Tuesday, March 23, 2021

House Education Executive Session 10:30 a.m.
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  • Bills to be announced

House Finance Division II Work Session 10:00 a.m. 
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Senate Education Committee 
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  • 9 a.m.: HB 194, relative to the release of student assessment information and data 
  • 9:15 a.m.: HB 442, relative to penalties for a school’s failure to file department of education reports
  • 9:30 a.m.: HB 320, requiring a civics competency assessment as a high school graduation requirement
  • 9:45 a.m.: HB 349, relative to certification requirements for school nurses
  • 10:00 a.m.: HB 432, relative to the offenses that prevent employment in a school

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

House Finance Division II Work Session 10:00 a.m. 
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Thursday, March 25, 2021

House Finance Division II Work Session 10:00 a.m. 
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House Education Public Hearing 10:20 a.m.
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SB 135-FN-L, relative to the calculation of the cost of an opportunity for an adequate education

Friday, March 26, 2021

House Finance Division II Work Session 10:00 a.m.
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Education Up Close

The teens who clean homes during Zoom classes: Juggling work and school in the pandemic
The Guardian, Linda Jacobson, March 16, 2021

Cardona Keeps Tough Stance on State Tests as He Focuses on School Reopenings
Education Week, Andrew Ujifusa and Evie Blad, March 17, 2021

11 questions about how the American Rescue Plan will affect schools, answered
Chalkbeat, Matt Barnum, March 12, 2021