Legislative Update: Lawmakers vote to expand school voucher program while rejecting public school funding increases

This week, the New Hampshire Senate voted on many of the most consequential bills this session: lawmakers voted to increase the size and cost of the school voucher program while killing efforts to increase state funding for public schools and for special education students.

The Senate also voted to waive certification and licensure requirements for teachers in public schools, a move that would have significant consequences for students, schools, and communities. 

This week, the Senate:

  • Approved expansion of school voucher program and cost: House Bill (HB) 1665 passed along party lines, with full Republican support. The expansion is smaller than the one proposed by the House, but is still expected to double the cost of the program to about $50 million per year. Since the Senate amended the bill to narrow the scope of the expansion, the bill now heads back to the House for a vote. 
  • Killed a modest funding increase for public schools: HB 1583 would have sent about $62 million to high-need schools in the state. The bill was sent to interim study, which means it can’t be passed this year. 
  • Killed an increase in state funding for special education: HB 1656 would have increased state funding for special education by an estimated $12 million. The bill was sent to interim study. 
  • Passed a bill that would allow uncertified teachers in public school classrooms: HB 1298 would allow individuals without a teaching license or certification to teach in public school classrooms, as long as they teach less than 30 hours per week. There is no educational or experience requirements — there isn’t even a requirement that the individual has a high school diploma or equivalent. The Senate voted to expand the bill along party lines, meaning that it will now go back to the House for a vote. 
  • Brought back mandatory reporting of school district budgets: The Senate approved a bill that would require school districts to post a mandatory spending report before school district voting days that includes information regarding the average cost per student and salary data. The original bill was killed earlier in the session, but it was tacked onto an unrelated bill on Thursday. The bill goes back to the House for a vote. 

Senate favors school vouchers over public school funding

This week, the NH Senate approved an expansion bill, HB 1583, along party lines that would increase eligibility for school vouchers to roughly half of New Hampshire’s children. The cost of the voucher program could increase to about $53 million per year if all eligible homeschool and private school students were to enroll in the 2024-2025 school year. 

In the same week, the Senate effectively killed HB 1583, which would restore about $62 million in state funding for high-need public schools, and HB 1656, which would increase state funding for special education by about $12 million. They sent both bills to “interim study,” meaning that lawmakers can meet to study them during the summer and fall, but they can’t vote to bring them back again. 

“In light of the [Youth Detention Center] settlement, and the fix to the Retirement Group II members, a majority of the committee members cannot justify appropriating more education funding at this time, and we’re currently in court with regards to education funding,” said Senator Lou D’Allesandro in his support of the vote to study HB 1583, noting the multi-million dollar lawsuit that the state is facing and the bill to fund retirement benefits for certain state employees. 

But when it came to school voucher expansion, lawmakers were split: the expansion passed with unanimous Republican approval and no Democrat support. 

Senator Debra Altschiller (D-Stratham) pointed out that the school voucher program, which was introduced as a way to help low-income families pay for private schools or homeschooling, serves fewer families in poverty, and the expansion would send even more taxpayer dollars to wealthier families. 

“We are siphoning money away from our public schools which educate all of our children who come through the doors, unlike private schools that can — and do — choose their students,” said Senator Altschiller in her opposition to HB 1583. “We are subsidizing religious schools that get to pick and choose which students they want in their schools, and they have far fewer restrictions on what they need to teach students. This bill would make it even more lucrative for those schools, and more expensive for New Hampshire taxpayers.”

“We are moving towards privatization of education faster and faster, with HB 1665 being the latest vehicle in this race,” she continued. 

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. Every bill that has been introduced since the report was issued has been killed. 

HB 1298 part-time teacher bill passes in senate

The Senate also approved HB 1298 along party lines, which would allow uncertified and unlicensed individuals to teach in public schools, as long as they work less than 30 hours per week in an individual school. 

The uncertified teachers would not be subject to educational requirements — in fact, there’s nothing in the bill that would require them to have even a high school diploma or equivalent. There’s also no training or professional development requirements, and no requirement that the individual has subject matter knowledge in the area that they would be assigned. 

Waiving certification and licensure requirements for teachers won’t solve long-term teacher shortages and could create even more barriers, according to experts. 

Underprepared teachers are more likely to leave the field, creating a revolving door of staff. And, eliminating entry requirements for teachers could hurt student outcomes for all students, especially students with disabilities. 

“Lowering standards and abbreviating training are stop-gap measures that will exacerbate attrition and contribute to poor student outcomes,” according to the CEEDAR Center at the University of Florida, an organization that provides technical assistance to states and districts. 

In addition, special education experts warn that HB 1298 could put $57 million in federal funding at risk, because  federal disability laws require teachers to be “appropriately and adequately prepared and trained” and “have the content knowledge and skills to serve children with disabilities.” 

Several states have already tried reducing teacher certification requirements but were warned by federal officials that they couldn’t do that with special education teachers. The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) contends: 

“…The [State Education Agency] may not waive the special education or related services personnel certification or licensure requirements on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis.”

Read the memo: Memorandum: OSEP 22-01 — Personnel Qualifications under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Oct. 2022 

Under IDEA, the federal law that governs special education for students with disabilities, special education teachers must obtain full state certification in the field and pass state licensing exams. 

Schools may hire teachers who are pursuing certification, but they must be in an alternate route while receiving mentorship and high-quality professional development. And, they must have at least a bachelor’s degree. 

Since the bill was amended, it will now go to the House for a vote. The House can kill the bill, accept the Senate’s changes, or send the bill to a committee of conference to come to an agreement on bill language. 

Special education bill passes after special education advocates voiced grave concerns

After a failed attempt to change requirements for special education reporting and data privacy earlier this month, Representatives Rick Ladd (R-Haverhill) and Glenn Cordelli (R-Tuftonboro) managed to pass their amendment at the House session on Thursday. 

SB 340, as originally proposed, would have simply allowed schools to send special education paperwork to parents via email. Ladd and Cordelli’s amendment would expand the scope of the bill to give the Governor-appointed Special Education Advocate more data and power to work through special education complaints. 

The amendment was initially introduced in early May, but included a section that would have prohibited the New Hampshire Department of Education from adopting rules that exceed federal and state law, which advocates said would have had dire consequences for the rights of students and families. That section of the amendment was removed, and was not included in the version that passed this week. 

Next steps

Both the House and Senate will meet on Thursday, May 3 to vote on the bills that were changed by the other chamber. Lawmakers will have the option to approve the changes, kill the bill, or form a “committee of conference,” where a small group of each will negotiate a final version to bring to each of their chambers. 

The education-related bills that Reaching Higher will be watching include:

  • HOUSE: HB 1656, voucher expansion: The Senate voted to approve a more narrow expansion than the House
  • HOUSE: HB 1298, uncertified teacher bill: The Senate voted to approve a much wider bill than the House
  • SENATE: SB 340, the special education advocate bill: The House fundamentally changed the bill to include language that gives the state’s special education advocate more power and data