Granite Staters make it clear: No school vouchers for NH

Members of the Senate Finance Committee listen to public testimony via Zoom at a hearing on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

The public came out in force to speak out against Senate Bill (SB) 130, the statewide voucher bill, in back-to-back public hearings on the state budget on Tuesday, May 4. More than 135 people, including elected officials, educators, activists, and community members, testified before the Senate Finance Committee at the virtual hearings, each of which lasted about four hours. 

While the hearings included input on all aspects of the proposed budget for the 2022-23 biennium, a large percentage of testimony centered on education-related issues, particularly opposition to the school voucher bill, which would allow taxpayer funds to pay for private school tuition.

Key themes of public input on education issues included: 

  • Rejection of the Senate’s plan to hide the school voucher proposal in the budget, a move that would effectively eliminate debate on the issue. Instead, speakers urged lawmakers to keep it on its own bill (SB 130) and vote on it on its own merits;
  • Overwhelming opposition to the school voucher proposal and to diverting taxpayer funding to voucher programs, which will downshift costs to local school districts and increase local taxes;
  • Support for restoring the targeted aid programs and fully closing the $89 million gap in state funding that public schools are facing next year; and,
  • Rejection of the “divisive concepts” language that was added by the House and would prevent schools from teaching about, or offering trainings on, systemic racism and sexism. Speakers also testified against hiding it in HB 2, and urged lawmakers to keep the bill (HB 544) separate. 

Concerns over SB 130

Granite Staters have overwhelmingly rejected school vouchers this legislative session: Of the nearly 8,000 people who turned out at the public hearings, six out of seven opposed the proposal. Public polling also shows strong opposition: A recent UNH Granite State Poll showed that of those who had an opinion, 55% opposed the voucher bill. 

During this hearing, every person who testified on the issue urged Senators to leave it out of the budget, where it wouldn’t receive the same amount of scrutiny and would prevent lawmakers from tackling it as a single issue. 

The bill, SB 130, would create taxpayer-funded accounts that parents could use for  private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, and other education costs. The bill was originally introduced in the House, where it was retained over concerns that it shifts public dollars to unaccountable private education providers that lack oversight, guardrails, and monitoring, as well as over the burden it would place on local property tax payers. 

“This committee should not wrap into [the state budget] such a complex bill for all its unintended consequences, unless and until they can do the kind of multi-month deep dive into the specifics of the bill that House Finance did in 2018 and fix it,” David Doherty, a former state representative from Pembroke, said during his testimony. “Throwing it in the budget at this stage of the process rather than allowing for a detailed study of it by both House Finance and Senate Finance as a stand-alone bill during a non-budget year would be irresponsible and a disservice to the people of New Hampshire.”

Doherty served on the House Education Committee in 2018 when the legislature was considering a similar voucher bill, and said that even through 13 work sessions, the Republican-led committee couldn’t work through the issues and nuances of the bill — and that those unresolved issues remain in this year’s voucher bill. 

Other testimony echoed that sentiment.

“Embedding school vouchers in the budget is forcing Granite Staters to accept vouchers without the public scrutiny they would normally receive,” Manchester School Board member Leslie Want said. 

Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess, and several other local leaders penned a joint letter to the Senate Finance Committee voicing concerns over SB 130 and its cost to local school districts. 

“Should this bill be placed into the budget as was announced on the senate floor last month, our NH House of Representatives will only ever get the chance to vote on this as one item among dozens of others, depriving them of the chance to make the determination they did from a few years ago on SB 193, and whether they feel comfortable in adopting a program that could have such a tremendous financial impact at the local level,” the letter reads. Read the full letter here.

Lawmakers don’t know how much the latest version of the voucher bill will cost. The budget office hasn’t done an updated fiscal note on the bill, but Reaching Higher NH’s conservative estimates indicate that if only half of the eligible students enroll in the program, it would cost the state nearly $70 million in new spending. 

Read RHNH’s district by district analysis on the cost of SB 130 here. And read our analysis that showed that the program would cost the state $70 million in new state spending in its first three years here.

Addressing school funding shortfalls

Members of the public also expressed dissatisfaction with the education portion of the state budget and lawmakers’ efforts thus far to address pandemic-related funding gaps.

“The state is once again reneging on its responsibility to provide an adequate education,” said Claudia Istel, a retired public school teacher from Acworth. 

“The proposed budget put forth in this bill does not meet the needs of Manchester schools or taxpayers,” Want said. “We all know we can do better than that.” 

Want said Manchester schools are confronting a $7.4 million shortfall next year due to a loss of adequacy aid in the budget, a large increase in retirement expenses, and a tightening of the city’s tax cap. She urged lawmakers to fully address pandemic-related funding gaps. “The children of Manchester have already suffered enough during this pandemic,” she said. 

Somersworth City Councilor Matt Gerding presented the Senate with a letter signed by 80 community leaders, calling for increased education funding in the school budget. “After more than two decades of inaction, many NH communities, students, and taxpayers are still being neglected by the State,” it reads. “With the recent conclusion of the Commission to Study School Funding, as well as the ongoing 2022–2023 biennial budget discussions, we find it critical to encourage action by the State regarding education funding disparities that harm our communities.” Read the full letter here

HB 544

A large number of people also spoke out against HB 544, a bill that would limit dialogue around systemic racism and sexism at any business or institution that receives funding from the state. 

“I feel that this vaguely worded bill of HB 544 is a Trojan horse for the limiting of academic and professional judgement through censorship,” said Christopher Becker, a social studies teacher at LEAF Charter School in Amherst.  “The idea that teaching history in a way that accurately reflects the historical record is somehow divisive reveals that the actual divisiveness stems from certain people’s inability to accept and integrate the harsh realities of history.”

Next Steps

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to begin its work sessions next Monday. There is not expected to be another public hearing, but the Committee will accept emails throughout the next few weeks. Contact information for Committee members can be found here.  

After the Senate Finance Committee works through its proposal, the bill will go to the full Senate for a vote. Then, the House will have a chance to weigh in at a Committee of Conference, where legislators from both chambers come together to iron out a compromise before it heads to each chamber for a final vote.