Three bills that would usher in a universal school voucher program will go to the House floor in the coming weeks. The House Education Committee couldn’t agree on a recommendation for the bills, signaling just how polarizing the state’s school voucher program has become.
The fate of the bills will be determined on the New Hampshire House floor. With a close party break — 200 Republicans, 195 Democrats, 3 Independents, and 2 vacancies — every vote will matter.
“We’re dealing with a program here that is a very costly program that frankly takes money away from public education. It’s unfortunate that this kind of a program does not have any guardrails,” Ranking member Mel Myler (D-Contoocook) said in opposition to the voucher expansion bills.
“I’m not going to speak any more on vouchers, because you know where we are. We know where you are. My sense is to just move to a vote, and fight it on the floor,” Myler continued.
“I concur with that,” replied Chairman Rick Ladd (R-Haverhill).
According to the state’s registry, 93% of Granite Staters who submitted testimony oppose school voucher expansion. New Hampshire residents have been opposing school vouchers since the current program was proposed in 2021, where, to avoid further scrutiny, lawmakers had to pass it as part of the state budget package.
The bills that the House will vote on include:
- HB 1634, expanding eligibility to every school-aged child in New Hampshire, regardless of income (universal eligibility).
- HB 1561, expanding eligibility to every school-aged child in New Hampshire by creating loopholes in 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 on statewide tests and to students whose school reassignment requests were denied.
- HB 1665, expanding eligibility by increasing 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).
- HB 1652, which creates a locally-funded school voucher program.
It’s unclear yet when the House will vote on the bill, but it is scheduled to be in session on February 8 and February 15.
The nose under the camel’s tent
When proposed in 2021, the statewide school voucher program was marketed as a way for low-income families to pay for alternatives to public school. Chairman Ladd told the Senate Education Committee that spring that he supported the income cap as a way to help low- and moderate-income families.
“[The income cap] cuts down many of the folks that send kids to these private schools. These are families with lower to median income that just don’t have support,” he told the committee at the public hearing in March 2021.
Representative Myler pointed out the bait-and-switch, with Representative Ladd and others now advocating to expand the program to all families, regardless of income.
“This basically changes the intent of the original program, and frankly, when it was initially advocated, we said this was just the camel’s nose under the tent. Now, the camel is now within the tent. It’s no longer the nose of the tent, it’s in the tent,” Myler told the committee on Tuesday.
It’s a timeline that has been pushed in other states, as well. School voucher programs in Arizona and Florida started as relatively limited programs for targeted student populations in order to gain support — or at least lessen opposition. But once passed into law, voucher supporters pushed universal eligibility programs, which ballooned the programs’ budgets, increased the possibility of fraud, and hurt student outcomes.
A third “bite of the apple” for locally funded school vouchers
The House Education Committee also couldn’t come to a consensus on a recommendation for HB 1652, which would create local school vouchers that are directly funded by local school district budgets. The local school vouchers would give parents between $8,364 and $13,668 per student in FY2025 to use on private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, and other education-related costs.
The program would likely decimate local school district budgets, and once the school voucher program is adopted, the school district is on the hook for funding the enrolled students — even if they repeal the program. Learn more about locally funded school vouchers with Reaching Higher NH’s 10 things to know about HB 1652, the local school voucher program.
About school vouchers in New Hampshire
New Hampshire’s school vouchers are personal accounts that can be used to pay for certain education-related expenses, including private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, tutoring, books and materials, and transportation. Eligible families receive the base amount of state funding per student plus any additional aid for which their student qualifies (eligibility for school meals, special education services, English Language Learner program, or the third-grade reading aid). When participating in the program, families agree not to enroll their child full-time into their resident district school or public charter school; however, families may enroll their children into public and charter schools part-time, depending on the policies of the school.
Currently, students are eligible for participation in the program if they are eligible to enroll in a New Hampshire public school and meet the income eligibility guidelines at the time of application. Students only need to qualify in the first year of the program and do not need to meet the income eligibility guidelines in subsequent years.
Independent studies have found that outcomes for participation in similar school voucher programs in other states are, at best, mixed. However, 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. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, 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.