Senate pushes back on House proposal to expand school voucher program 

On Tuesday, May 7, a Senate panel pushed back on House Republicans’ effort to sharply increase eligibility for school vouchers in New Hampshire. The Senate Education Committee recommended amending House Bill (HB) 1665 to narrow the school voucher program expansion that the House passed in April. 

If adopted by the full Senate, the bill will go back to the House. The House has three options: vote to pass the Senate’s amended version, vote to kill the bill, or enter into a committee of conference and hash out a compromise. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill within the next two weeks.

New Hampshire’s school voucher program has been marred by its lack of transparency and accountability and concerns that it diverts funding away from public schools. Since the voucher program began in 2021, it has cost New Hampshire taxpayers nearly $50 million, the vast majority of which went to students who were already enrolled in private school or were homeschooled. 

A legislative oversight committee urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would make the program more transparent, including alignment of application requirements with other state programs and more stringent reporting requirements. 

Differing approaches to school voucher expansion

Since its start in 2021, the statewide school voucher program has been expanded once. In 2023, lawmakers passed a moderate expansion, and they are setting their sights on an even larger one this year. 

Efforts to pass a universal program open to all school-aged children in New Hampshire failed this year, but the Senate passed SB 442, which would expand eligibility to about 50% of students. That same month, the House passed HB 1665, which would extend eligibility to about two-thirds of students.

The House quickly killed the Senate’s proposal, sending a clear message that House Republicans favored the larger increase. National lobbying groups like EdChoice and Americans for Prosperity have also been pressuring lawmakers to pass the larger expansion despite strong opposition from Granite Staters. 

However, the Senate has pushed back on the expansion due to concerns about how it would impact the state budget. While budget writers touted a large state surplus this past week, experts are quick to warn that it’s largely driven by the Interest and Dividends (I&D) tax, which will be nearly eliminated next year, and investment interest on the state’s cash reserves. Sharply increasing the cost of vouchers could have significant long-term impacts on the state. 

At the same time, New Hampshire has been found to be underfunding its public schools by over $500 million per year, every year, and has been ordered by a court to rework its school funding formula to meet its constitutional obligation to fund schools. 

HB 1665 is lawmakers’ only remaining shot at school voucher expansion this year, and it will likely go to the full Senate floor within the next two weeks. 

Increased state funding for special education 

The Senate Education Committee also recommended, along party lines, to recommend holding onto a bill that would increase state funding for special education by $12 million next year. The committee recommends sending HB 1656 to interim study, meaning that the committee will study it in the summer and fall and issue a recommendation prior to next year. If sent to interim study, the bill has no opportunity for passage in 2024. 

“I think that this is a pretty hefty budget and policy move, and it should be taken up during the budget year, but I’d like to use the interim study time to see how best to serve the special education community as a whole, whether it’s through updating this one line, or by looking at catastrophic aid,” Senator Tim Lang (R-Sanbornton) told the committee when he proposed the motion of interim study. 

“In my mind, why wouldn’t we pass this on and send it along to [the Senate Finance Committee]?” Senator Sue Prentiss (D-Lebanon).

“We’re hearing that there’s not enough funding for special education services,” she continued. 

If the Senate accepts the recommendation to send HB 1656 to interim study, the bill effectively dies. Lawmakers may study it through the summer and fall, but a lawmaker would have to craft a new bill for it to be considered in 2025. 

No vote on increasing public school funding

The Senate Finance Committee opted not to take up HB 1583 at its meeting on Tuesday. The bill would send about $61 million in state funding to high-need schools and reinstate two targeted aid programs for school districts based on town property valuation and the percentage of students who qualify for school meals.

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