Legislative Update: School voucher expansion will be major focus of lawmakers next week

Next week, the House Education Committee is scheduled to hold four public hearings on bills that would expand the state’s school voucher program, most of which would result in universal eligibility regardless of income. New Hampshire’s school voucher program gives parents state funds to pay for private school tuition, homeschooling costs, or other education-related expenses with little to no accountability or oversight, and has been criticized for siphoning millions of dollars from public schools since it was created in 2021. 

The school voucher expansion bills are being introduced just as the House Education Committee heard hours of testimony this week on how inadequate state funding is hurting students in public schools across the state. 

“The lack of funding from the state is a heavy burden on local taxpayers, particularly in our small, rural districts,” Dr. Sydney Leggett, superintendent of the Plainfield and Cornish school districts, told committee members on Wednesday. “There is nothing fancy, or frivolous, in these budgets; we are simply trying to do the best we can with basic educational needs for all our students.” 

Since 2021, the school voucher program has siphoned $45 million from the Education Trust Fund, which pays for public and charter schools in the state. An expansion could cost the state an additional $82 million in state funds in FY2025, for a total annual cost of $104 million. 

Also on the schedule: a bill that would allow high school students to test out of high school through a proficiency test created by the NH Department of Education. This is different from the HiSET or GED, which gives students a high school equivalency diploma: students who pass the state-created test could choose to receive a diploma from their high school or one that would be created by the state. 

The hearing for HB 1128, which creates the high school proficiency test, is scheduled for Tuesday, January 16 at 1 p.m., while the school voucher expansion bills are scheduled for Wednesday, January 17, starting at 10:45 a.m.

School voucher expansion could cost state $82 million in new state spending in FY2025

Next week, the House Education Committee will hold public hearings on four bills that would expand eligibility for the state’s school voucher program. According to Reaching Higher NH’s analysis, the universal expansions could cost the state an estimated $105 million next school year. 

The bills on the docket include: 

  • HB 1634, expanding eligibility to every school-aged child in New Hampshire, regardless of income (universal eligibility) 
  • HB 1561, effectively expanding eligibility to every school-aged child in New Hampshire by creating loopholes around the current income threshold, including concerns about the common cold. 
  • HB 1677, expanding eligibility to students who live within the “geographic boundary” of a public school or district that score below 49% proficiency in statewide tests and to students whose school reassignment requests were denied. According to the NH School Boards Association, the school reassignment laws have been diligently updated since 2018 to be effective for students and families, and having an eligibility category for it would render the law “completely meaningless” for the students and families who truly need it. 
  • HB 1665, which would increase the income eligibility threshold from 350% of federal guidelines ($105,000 for a family of four) to 500% ($150,000 for a family of four). 

Note that for HB 1561 and HB 1677, students already qualify for a school voucher if they meet the income threshold. This would expand the program to allow wealthier families to receive a school voucher for private or homeschooling costs. 

Independent studies have suggested that outcomes for participation in similar school voucher programs in other states are, at best, mixed, but more recent studies have suggested that these programs have had significant negative effects on student outcomes for the students who participate in them and have diverted funding from public schools. Researchers have stated that school vouchers “cause catastrophic academic harm” and have had a worse impact on student outcomes than any other policy or event in public school history, including the global pandemic. 

These proposals come after a state oversight committee raised questions about the transparency of the program and diversion of public funds. Read more about the report and the committee’s concerns here. 

The public hearings are scheduled for Wednesday, January 17. 

High school equivalency & assessment

There are several bills dealing with state assessments in the House next week:

  • HB 1402, allowing for a student to take and pass a state-crafted high school proficiency exam to receive a high school diploma — with a choice of a diploma issued by their school or by the state. The exam would be “chosen or developed” by the NH Department of Education, and there’s nothing in the law that would require it to align with local or state academic standards, competencies, or learning expectations. It’s also unclear whether the bill would waive other graduation requirements, like community service, internships, or capstone projects. 
  • HB 1160, which would require local school boards to test students in areas that aren’t included in the statewide assessment (which are currently math, English Language Arts, and Science in some grades), and would require those assessments to be aligned with statewide academic standards. Under current law, the state recommends, but does not require, academic standards — those decisions are left to the local public school boards. Also, academic standards for the vast majority of subjects are out of date: the Social Studies standards haven’t been updated since 2006

The hearings are scheduled for Tuesday, January 16. 

Recapping this week: School funding in the spotlight

Fair and adequate school funding was in the spotlight this week, as the House Education Committee held hearings on three bills that would increase state funding for public schools:

  • 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. 

Over 350 people signed in support of the bills altogether, with 9 people opposing. 

Pittsfield students wrote a letter to the committee highlighting the importance of equitable and sustained school funding:

In Pittsfield, a small, property poor town just a half hour or so from our capital; students have lived through the inadequate funding formula everyday. We have had our school budgets slashed some years, resulting in losing valuable courses that provoke thought and prepare us for the real world. We don’t have the money in our school budget for foreign language teachers, which most colleges and universities require two years of just to submit an admissions application. We don’t have a music teacher, as our district cannot compete with larger school districts who can offer candidates much higher pay. We need more support staff, to assist our special education students who require support to help ensure their academic and personal growth. We have so many needs, yet so little money to meet those needs. Our taxpayers have to draw a line somewhere, and cost of living has already increased so much over the years, forcing the hand of residents of Pittsfield to vote down important measures for our school. 

For too long, the state has not fulfilled its promises made in the initial Claremont lawsuit before we were even born. It is time to make right on the promises made to our future generations for an adequate education. Our education should not be defined by the zip code in which we live. 

Parents also testified in support, with one Barrington parent writing: 

“…The experience of each child varies by school district, in part, because the state has abdicated its responsibility to adequately fund special education, leaving it up to the districts themselves… I know too many parents who have felt the need to pull their children from public schools because of the lack of adequate resources. Pass this bill because ALL of New Hampshire’s students deserve the excellent education my boys already enjoy.” 

A subcommittee will study the bills over the coming weeks to study the bills and recommend a motion. The next meeting of the subcommittee is scheduled for Friday, January 19, at 10 a.m.

State Board of Education to offer new remote option for public comment

On Thursday, January 11, the State Board of Education voted to start offering a remote portal on their website to submit public comments. 

Public comments are still accepted in person at the State Board of Education or submitted to Angela.Adams@doe.nh.gov. Drew Cline, the State Board of Education Chair, expects to have the remote option available at their next meeting on Thursday, February 15.

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

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Senate Education, Legislative Office Building, Room 101

  • 9:00 AM SB343 relative to school based health services.
  • 9:15 AM SB374 relative to the licensing of part-time teachers.
  • 9:30 AM SB376 relative to establishing a corrections education and vocational planning group.
  • 9:45 AM SB441 relative to establishing an advisory group to examine potential funding sources for career and technical education (CTE) construction and renovation.
  • 10:00 AM SB338 relative to the education professional standards board.

House Education, Legislative Office Building, Room 205-207

  • 9:30 AM HB1128 relative to the definition of a scholarship organization for purposes of the education tax credit.
  • 10:00 AM HB1402 establishing a procedure for a high school proficiency exam waiver of mandatory school attendance.
  • 10:45 AM HB1212 relative to eligibility for free school meals.
  • 11:30 AM HB1516 relative to enrollment in public schools by children of school district employees.
  • 1:00 PM HB1165 relative to procedures for school facilities under the Department of Education.
  • 1:45 PM HB1153 relative to mandatory and elective public school curricula.
  • 2:30 PM HB1160 relative to school assessments of statewide academic areas.
  • 3:00 PM HB1019 relative to the interstate compact on educational opportunity for military children.

House Ways and Means, Legislative Office Building, Room 202-204

  • 10:00 AM HB1422 relative to the rates of the business profits tax, business enterprise tax, communications service tax, and meals and rooms tax.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

House Education, Legislative Office Building, Room 205-207

  • 9:00 AM HB1670 relative to including all special education costs under state education grants.
  • 10:00 AM HB1678 establishing a New Hampshire farm-to-school local food incentive pilot program.
  • 10:45 AM HB1634 relative to universal eligibility for the education freedom account program.
  • 11:30 AM HB1167 relative to the math learning communities program.
  • 1:00 PM HB1677 relative to participation in education freedom accounts based on school or school district proficiency scores.
  • 1:45 PM HB1561 relative to qualifications for student eligibility in the education freedom accounts program.
  • 2:30 PM HB1665 relative to student eligibility for the education freedom accounts program.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

House Education, Legislative Office Building, Room 205-207

  • 9:30 AM HB1419 relative to prohibiting obscene or harmful sexual materials in schools.
  • 10:45 AM HB1570 relative to administration of school building aid funds by the Department of Education and making an appropriation therefor.
  • 12:45 PM HB1216 relative to cross-district bullying and cyberbullying.
  • 1:30 PM HB1164 relative to criminal records checks of teacher credentialing applicants.
  • 2:00 PM HB1058 relative to school employee and designated school volunteer criminal history records checks.

Friday, January 19, 2024

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.