Legislative Update: Public hearings on school voucher expansion this week, Department backtracks on minimum standards release

This week, the House Education Committee will hold public hearings on two bills that would expand the state’s school voucher program: HB 367, which would broaden the income eligibility requirement, and HB 464, which would extend eligibility to all students living in Manchester, Nashua, Newport, Franklin, and other towns, regardless of family income. 

The Committee will also hold public hearings on bills that would establish a committee to study a loan forgiveness program for teachers in the state, would expand funding for Running Start scholarships, and more. 

Reaching Higher NH is hosting a webinar on Wednesday, January 18 on this year’s key policy trends. Register here: bit.ly/edpolicy2023 

School Voucher Expansion by Geography 

HB 464 would significantly expand eligibility for the state’s school voucher program by allowing students from certain geographical areas to participate, regardless of family income. 

HB 464 extends eligibility to students who live within the geographic boundaries of a school that has been identified as a Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) School, even if they do not attend that school. Every three years, the New Hampshire Education Department designates CSI schools as schools that are showing the greatest challenges with academic achievement. 

Of the 23 identified CSI schools, 8 are charter schools, including the state’s online charter school, VLACS. There is no definition of “geographical boundary,” so it is unclear if all school-aged youth in New Hampshire would be eligible for a school voucher if they are eligible to participate in VLACS. 

Under HB 464, students from the following cities would be eligible, regardless of income: Manchester (West High School), Nashua (Dr. Norman W. Crisp School), Franklin (Paul A. Smith School)

Students from the following towns would be eligible, regardless of income: Barnstead, Farmington, Marlborough, Middleton, Milton, Newport (Richards Elementary), Groveton, Pittsburg, Pittsfield

It is unclear whether students who live in the following communities, which have a CSI-designated charter school, would be eligible: Concord, Keene, Lebanon, Derry, Conway

The bill would also create other eligibility categories regardless of income; however, there are concerns that students who qualify for those categories would lose their federal and state rights, protections, and benefits. 

For example, a new category would be created for students experiencing homelessness; however, private schools and homeschools do not have to comply with federal protections and services under the McKinney-Vento Act, including requiring staff to identify students who are experiencing homelessness, ensuring that they receive referrals to health, dental, housing, and other services, and other rights and protections. 

School Voucher Expansion by Income

Alternatively, HB 367 would expand school voucher eligibility by raising the income limit from 300% of the Federal Poverty Guideline, which is approximately $90,000 for a family of four in 2023, to 500%, which is $150,000 for a family of four. Currently, an estimated 36% of New Hampshire students are eligible to participate in the program. Increasing the income cap would expand eligibility to an estimated 64% of New Hampshire students. 

More analysis on both school voucher bills will be released in the coming weeks. 

Concerns With School Vouchers

The state’s school voucher program has been overwhelmingly opposed by the public in hearings, polling, and in the news due to concerns over the absence of accountability or transparency provisions, the cost to the state and to local school districts, and objections over using public tax dollars to fund private education. 

When the program was first introduced in January 2021, lawmakers had significant concerns over the technicalities of the bill. However, the bill was incorporated into the state budget, evading scrutiny from lawmakers and the public, without any work sessions to iron out the open questions and concerns. 

The state’s lawyers also raised legal concerns with the regulations of the voucher program, including that the NH Department of Education has “minimal oversight” of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which administers the program, and the school voucher program’s regulations may be an “impermissible delegation of authority” by the Department. 

Some lawmakers proposed legislation in 2022 that would address some of the concerns, but all of the bills were killed. Several of them have been reintroduced this session. 

Lawsuit against divisive concepts law will move forward

On Thursday, January 12, hundreds of people testified in support of HB 61, which would repeal the state’s “divisive concepts” law. The law prohibits teaching about certain topics, and has limited what students can learn about racism, sexism, and other topics in the classroom, according to New Hampshire teachers. Support for the law’s repeal vastly outweighed its opposition: 1,257 people signed in support of the bill, while 74 opposed it.

On the same day, a federal judge allowed a lawsuit challenging the divisive concepts law to move forward. Last year, parents, educators, the ACLU, and the state’s two teachers unions sued the state over the law, claiming that it violates teachers’ freedom of speech and is intentionally vague. The state requested that the court dismiss the case, but a federal judge rejected the request. 

In his ruling, U.S. Federal District Court Judge Paul Barbadoro said that “teachers could, in plaintiff’s words, be left with ‘an impermissible Hobson’s choice’: shirking their responsibilities under [state law] or teaching what [the law] requires and potentially violating the prohibition against teaching a banned concept.”

State Board pushes back against college’s inclusion efforts

At the State Board of Education meeting on Thursday, January 12, members pushed back on Keene State College’s request to reauthorize their teacher training programs that have been in existence since 2011. The State Board raised concerns about references to “social justice,” “equity,” and “diversity.” 

KSC’s application includes a vision statement that reads: “The vision of the EPP is to graduate professionals in the field of education who are advocates for social justice and equity, possess intellectual and personal integrity, and are responsive to the needs of all students in a constantly evolving world.” According to the application, the college also works to ensure that teachers who come out of the program “work for inclusion, diversity, and access of opportunity for all learners.” 

The discussion comes after State Board member Ryan Terrell’s op-ed in the Union Leader, which blamed low teacher salaries on diversity efforts in schools, criticizing DEIJ directors who work in some New Hampshire schools, and public schools’ “woke curriculum.” The article received pushback from many, including from James McKim, the president of the Manchester chapter of the NAACP. 

The State Board tabled the reauthorization request. 

Department backtracking on minimum standards release

The NH Department of Education (NHED) will not release the latest revisions to the Minimum Standards for Public School Approval before introducing them to the State Board of Education, as they said they would at a legislative oversight committee meeting last week

Dr. Nathaniel Greene, a Bureau Administrator at the NHED, told a legislative oversight committee that a draft of the rule revisions would be made available by Friday, January 14. However, Commissioner Frank Edelblut backtracked that statement in a meeting before the House Education Committee on Monday, saying that the NHED would not make the draft available before the revisions are introduced to the State Board. 

The minimum standards are the foundational rules for all New Hampshire public schools. There have been significant concerns with both the revision process and the proposed rules that were released in July 2022. 

The NHED denied a right-to-know request from Reaching Higher NH, asking for the latest version of the proposed document. Sources have said that the NHED has limited external input by only allowing reviewers to see snippets of the revisions, or only sharing a “screengrab” of the document. The NHED has not released any information on the input they’ve sought or received to date, or the extent to which they’ve incorporated it. 

The minimum standards are expected to be introduced to the State Board in February or March. 

Public hearings this week 

There will be key public hearings this week, including  two on school voucher bills and one that would create a committee to study teacher loan forgiveness programs. 

House Education Hearing

9:30 am- 4:30 pm 

Legislative Office Building Room 205-207

House Education (01/18/23)

  • HB419 This bill requires the community college system of New Hampshire to submit a report regarding the math learning communities program and makes an appropriation to support that program.
  • HB420 This bill amends the purpose and course eligibility for the dual and concurrent enrollment program within the regional career and technical education program and makes an appropriation therefor.
  • HB364 This bill requires the reimbursement of transportation costs for career and technical education students according to a formula adopted in rules of the state board of education.
  • HB267 This bill clarifies that a school administrative unit, school district, or chartered public school may require more frequent or reoccurring criminal history records check on its employees and volunteers than required in statute.
  • HB377 This bill requires additional dyslexia and related disorder screening and intervention for kindergarten through second grade students.
  • HB429 This bill requires school districts and chartered public schools to offer both breakfast and lunch programs to students.
  • HB424 This bill requires school boards that provide free or reduced cost meals to refrain from certain actions that could stigmatize a child who requests such a meal.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

House Education Hearing

9:30 am- 4:30 pm 

Legislative Office Building Room 205-207

House Education (01/19/23)

  • HB464 This bill expands the definition of who is an eligible student qualifying under the education freedom accounts program.
  • HB367 This bill increases the household income level based on the federal poverty guidelines for the eligibility of students to participate in the education freedom account program.
  • HB365 This bill encourages school districts to provide the department of education with long range capital improvement program outlines.
  • HB380 This bill makes changes to the requirements for school district or chartered public school policies governing the administration of non-academic surveys or questionnaires.
  • HB399 This bill requires the department of education to design and administer a high school diploma equivalency test which would except students age 13 or older who pass the test from school attendance requirements. The bill also provides a private right of action to enforce the provisions of the bill.
  • HB45 This bill establishes a committee to study student loan forgiveness in New Hampshire.

How to Testify

You can testify in person by attending the hearing at the specified time and date. All public hearings this week are scheduled to be held at the Legislative Office Building, 33 N State Street, Concord, NH, Room 205-207. Once there, register to testify by filling out a pink card, which are on the table by the door. 

You can also submit written testimony by emailing the House Education Committee at HouseEducationCommittee@leg.state.nh.us, or through this online portal: http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/house/committees/remotetestimony/default.aspx

You can register your support or opposition without submitting written testimony through the online portal: http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/house/committees/remotetestimony/default.aspx

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