Legislative Update: School voucher expansion bill would render hardship laws “completely meaningless”; Senate passes teacher recruitment bill

The 2024 legislative session kicked off on January 3, with the House and Senate voting on the retained bills of the last session. The Senate passed Senate Bill (SB) 217, a critical teacher recruitment and retention bill that would provide a loan forgiveness program for teachers who work in rural and underserved areas. The bill heads to the Senate Finance Committee and is one of the key recommendations of the Legislative Committee to Study Teacher Shortages and Recruitment Incentives. 

The Senate Education Committee began the session with public hearings on three bills that were proposed, and failed, last session: 

  • SB 341, a rebranded Parental Bill of Rights creates sanctions for teachers and school staff. 
  • SB 342, an overhaul of the school building aid program to create a per-student Construction Allocation Program (CAP) Fund.
  • SB 442, expansion of school voucher eligibility based on school reassignment requests school voucher expansion, the mandatory disclosure element of the Parental Bill of Rights, and an overhaul of the state’s school building aid program. 

Next week, lawmakers in both chambers will hold hearings on public school funding, educator indoctrination, curriculum frameworks, and oversight of the minimum standards for public school approval. The State Board of Education is also scheduled to meet on Thursday, January 11, although the agenda hasn’t been posted as of January 5. 

Register for Reaching Higher NH’s webinar, Looking Ahead: Education Policy in 2024, scheduled for Wednesday, January 11!

School voucher expansion: SB 442 would render hardship laws “completely meaningless”

SB 442, which would expand school voucher eligibility to any student who was denied a school reassignment request, would render the manifest education hardship law “completely meaningless,” according to Barrett Christina, the Executive Director at the NH School Boards Association. 

Christina is the state’s leading expert on the manifest education hardship law, which is an essential relief valve for students who need a school reassignment because their assigned school does not meet their physical, academic, or personal needs. 

“[SB 442] would render the manifest education hardship completely meaningless, saying that the House, Senate, and NHSBA have put countless hours into making that law work,” Christina said at the hearing, noting that the law has been changed several times since 2018. 

He also said that it would eliminate the parent’s responsibility to document a manifest education hardship, complicating the process for students who truly need a reassignment and for school boards that work to make sure the process is fairly and legally applied. 

SB 442 would expand school voucher eligibility to any student who was denied a school reassignment request, regardless of family income. Currently, all students — regardless of reassignment request — are eligible to receive a school voucher if they meet the income requirements. 

Others brought up questions about the mechanics of the program and how it would work in practice. 

“The point in the process for a denial makes a significant difference in what this eligibility expansion could result in. Does SB 442 mean that if a parent simply requests a change of school assignment to a private school because they prefer the school’s sports or athletic program, and they’re denied because a superintendent does not feel that meets the standard set out in the law, does that mean the student is now eligible without any income limitations?,” asked Megan Tuttle, President of NEA-NH, to the committee. 

The committee is expected to vote on a recommendation for SB 442 at a future hearing. 

Mandatory disclosure: “This would put students at risk of harm, abuse, and neglect”

SB 341, which would impose sanctions, including termination, to any school employee that does not respond “honestly and completely” to written requests for any information by parents, faced sharp public backlash during its hearing on Thursday, January 4. 

Introduced by Senator Tim Lang (R-Sanbornton) as a way to require honesty and transparency from teachers and school staff, LGBTQ and parent advocates and students themselves, strongly opposed the bill, saying it would put youth in danger. 

“It was critical to me to feel safe in high school. I felt supported by my teachers, and if my teachers would have had to disclose, I wouldn’t have felt as safe and wouldn’t have had as positive of a high school experience,” Jordan, a public high school graduate, told the committee. 

“The question really boils down to whether parents have the right to put school employees between intimate family affairs,” said Chris Erchull, an attorney at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). He also noted that there are federal and state laws already in place that require schools to disclose certain information when requested, including education records, health records, and student discipline files. 

NH Education Department (NHED) Attorney Diana Fenton also brought up concerns with the administration of the bill, underscoring that the NHED doesn’t take positions on legislation. Among the concerns:

  • The standard of “honestly and completely” seems objective and may be difficult to interpret
  • It is unclear whether the sanctions fall outside the agency’s purview, as the NHED only has authority over licensed school employees, but the proposed bill gives authority for the State Board of Education to rule on terminations for non-licensed employees (including janitors, school bus drivers, etc.)
  • The bill gives the NH State Board of Education the authority to create rules for the administration of the program, but there is concern that it might not be the right entity for rulemaking given that it might not have authority

SB 341 singles out one of the most controversial elements of last year’s proposed Parental Bill of Rights, a bill that was indefinitely postponed, meaning that it couldn’t be brought up again in the 2024 session. However, supporters have found a workaround by splitting up the elements of the bill and introducing them individually. 

Hearings next week: Educator indoctrination, school funding, and higher education consolidation

Next week, the House Education Committee will meet four times to hold hearings and work sessions on bills ranging from school funding, educator indoctrination, and higher education:

School Funding

  • HB 1583 would increase the per-student adequacy amount to $10,000 per student, an increase of nearly 150%. The bill comes shortly after a Superior Court Judge ruled the state’s school funding formula unconstitutional, saying that the current amount of $4,100 per student is insufficient to provide an adequate education, and provided a “threshold” figure of $7,356 — but acknowledged that the actual cost was likely much higher. 
  • HB 1586 proposes a new school funding formula that aligns with the Commission to Study School Funding’s recommendations, which increase state funding for public schools and targets resources to school districts with the most need. 
  • HB 1656 increases the state portion of special education funding to $27,000 per eligible student, an increase from the current $2,100 per student. 
  • HB1686 requires that all of the proceeds of the statewide education property tax be spent by municipalities on the funding of a constitutionally adequate education or be remitted to the state for deposit in the education trust fund. Also prohibits the Department of Revenue Administration from setting negative local or county tax rates.

These four education funding bills will be introduced in a  House Education Session on Wednesday, January 10. And will meet again on Thursday, January 11, for a House Education Subcommittee Worksession.

Educator Indoctrination

Representative Alicia Lekas (R-Hudson) will introduce HB 1206, named “Education Not Indoctrination,” which prohibits educators and administrators from “push or assert, advocate for, or compel students” to support “any particular theory or ideology.” It also prohibits professional development on “any particular theory or ideology.” 

Violations would be considered a violation of the state’s Code of Conduct for Education Professionals, which could result in the state revoking the teacher’s license. 

Lekas proposed similar legislation in 2022, when her bill on teacher “loyalty” caught national media attention. And, similar laws like the state’s divisive concepts law that was passed as part of the state budget in 2021 have had chilling effects on the classroom and have impacted teacher recruitment and retention both within New Hampshire and nationally. 

The hearing for HB 1206 is scheduled for Monday, January 8 at 2:30 p.m.

Higher Education Consolidation

The consolidation of some of the state’s colleges and universities has been a topic of debate for the past several years. In October, Governor Chris Sununu announced the creation of the Public Higher Education Task Force, whose charge is to evaluate the “strategic alignment” of public higher education in the state, given declining student enrollment and increased costs per student. 

On Tuesday, January 9, Representative Rick Ladd (R-Haverhill) will introduce HB 1450, which creates a commission on higher education consolidation to develop a plan for the strategic alignment of the state’s community colleges and universities. 

Reaching Higher NH studied higher education consolidation in other states, including a webinar featuring state and national experts on higher education access and workforce development. Learn more about institutional consolidation and its impact on higher education: Higher Education Roundtable addresses key questions around workforce development, access, and institutional consolidations

A full schedule of upcoming events is available below, or access RHNH’s bill tracker here. 

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and join the New Hampshire Education Network (NHEN), our network of New Hampshire parents, educators, business leaders, and community members to stay up to date on the latest developments in education policy.

Next Week

Monday, January 8, 2024

House Education, Legislative Office Building Room 205-207

  • 9:30 AM HB1008 relative to the authority of the commissioner of the department of education to grant extensions for the filing of school expenditure reports.
  • 9:45 AM HB1009 relative to the submission of annual town reports to the commissioner of the department of education.
  • 10:00 AM HB1014 relative to the registration of high school students to vote.
  • 10:30 AM HB1048 relative to the commission on Holocaust and genocide education.
  • 11:15 AM HB1163 relative to review of public school minimum standards by the legislative oversight commission.
  • 12:45 PM HB1107 relative to public school curriculum frameworks.
  • 1:15 PM HB1066 relative to the graduation requirement of filing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • 2:00 PM HB1471 declaring the total solar eclipse a school holiday.
  • 2:30 PM HB1206 relative to prohibiting educator indoctrination.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

House Education, Legislative Office Building Room 205-207

  • 9:15 AM HB1288 relative to establishing certain due process rights for students, student organizations, and faculty members facing disciplinary actions by state institutions of higher learning.
  • 10:15 AM HB1305 relative to freedom of speech and association at public institutions of higher education.
  • 11:15 AM HB1657 relative to prohibiting hazing at educational institutions.
  • 1:00 PM HB1450 relative to establishing a commission on higher education consolidation.
  • 1:30 PM HB1436 relative to requiring institutions of higher education to maintain certain statistical information on their website.
  • 2:15 PM HB1690 relative to hiring, promotion, graduation, or admission in higher education.
  • 3:00 PM HB1534 relative to establishing a program to earn tuition credits for state of New Hampshire higher education institutions through community service.

Senate Education, Legislative Office Building Room 101

  • 9:00 AM SB377 establishing the Achieving a better life experience (ABLE) savings account program administrative fund.
  • 9:15 AM SB379 relative to emergency action plans for sports related injuries.
  • 9:30 AM SB444 relative to the public posting of board of education agenda items and meeting materials.
  • 9:45 AM SB528 relative to trustees of the university system.
  • 10:00 AM SB529 relative to the definition of “teacher.”

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

House Education, Legislative Office Building Room 205-207

  • 9:00 AM HB1583 relative to the per pupil cost of an opportunity for an adequate education.
  • 9:30 AM HB1656 relative to increasing the adequacy grant for pupils receiving special education services.
  • 10:30 AM HB1586 establishing a foundation opportunity budget program for funding public education.
  • 1:00 PM HB1675 relative to adjusting education adequacy grants based on pupil proficiency.
  • 1:30 PM HB1555 relative to special meetings for changes in education funding.
  • 2:00 PM HB1686 relative to requiring excess revenues raised through the statewide education property tax to be remitted to the education trust fund and prohibiting the department of revenue administration from setting negative local and county tax rates on real property.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

New Hampshire State Board of Education,  10:00 AM, 25 Hall St., Concord, NH

House Education (Subcommittee Work Session), Legislative Office Building Room 205-207 beginning at 10:00 AM 

  • 10:00 AM HB1583  relative to the per pupil cost of an opportunity for an adequate education.
  • 10:00 AM HB1586 establishing a foundation opportunity budget program for funding public education.
  • 10:00 AM HB1656  relative to increasing the adequacy grant for pupils receiving special education services.
  • 10:00 AM HB1686 relative to requiring excess revenues raised through the statewide education property tax to be remitted to the education trust fund and prohibiting the department of revenue administration from setting negative local and county tax rates on real property.