As local school voucher bill goes to the full House, a look back at last year’s public testimony

HB 607, a proposed law that would create local school vouchers funded by school district budgets, drew strong opposition at a public hearing last February. A carry-over bill from the 2021 legislative session, HB 607 was recommended by the House Education Committee last month and is scheduled for a vote by the NH House on Wednesday, January 5. The proposed program would give families an average of $10,000 per student, based on the district’s cost per student, to fund private school and homeschooling expenses.

More than 650 people signed on in opposition to the bill prior to the hearing on Feb. 9, 2021, while 36 signed on in support and 16 signed on as neutral. About 15 people testified, with the overwhelming majority urging lawmakers to oppose the bill, citing concerns ranging from its effect on local public schools to its potential for discrimination and misuse. 

“We should be focusing on fair and equitable funding for all students,” said David Doherty, a former state representative from Pembroke and former member of the Pembroke School Board. 

Several other members of the public echoed Doherty’s sentiments about the program, which is likely to increase local school budgets in districts that adopt it as well as increasing the state’s budget for adequacy funding. 

“It’s just going to exacerbate the already woeful conditions around the state relative to school funding,” said Michael Bessette, assistant superintendent for the Kearsarge Regional School District. “I’d just ask all of us to be very cautious about applying long-term thinking around COVID-19 and the decisions districts have had to make to stay viable during the pandemic.” 

Many of the concerns raised about the program mirrored concerns raised about the statewide voucher program that was passed into law last June and went into effect this fall.  Several open questions remain around administration, oversight, and eligibility. 

“I just think there’s a lot of issues that arise that need a lot of clarity,” said Scott Gross, business administrator for SAU 19. “As a business administrator and someone who has to actually apply the law to formulas, I found it very confusing.” 

“There’s no objective data collected by the state about the performance of homeschooled or private schooled children,” said Mary Wilke, a Concord resident and former teacher, noting that the bill, like many school choice proposals, emphasizes trusting families to know what’s best. “This is money paid by taxpayers like me … That’s a lot of money to just base on trust.”

Opponents of the bill also pushed back against the notion that school choice programs open doors for more young people. “While we understand the intent of the bill is to expand opportunities, we really feel this bill is only providing opportunities for some, not all,” said Dr. Carl Ladd, Executive Director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association. 

Additionally, opponents explained that the bill could profoundly limit opportunities for some young people because private schools are not required to follow anti-discrimination laws. “It’s unconscionable that our state would allow public tax dollars to perpetuate discriminatory practices,” said Lisa Witte, superintendent of the Monadnock Regional School District. 

The public will not have another chance to weigh in on HB 607 prior to the House vote, but contact information for State Representatives can be found here

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