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Sununu pushes tighter limits on ESA eligibility in school choice bill

  • Chris Sununu GEOFF FORESTER



Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Gov. Chris Sununu is pushing for an amendment to tighten eligibility for educational savings accounts in a school choice bill – hours before the bill faces a key vote in the House Education Committee.

In remarks at an event touting the bill Tuesday, Sununu said he had requested that Committee Chairman Rick Ladd add an amendment that would narrow the availability of the program to select categories of residents.

The legislation, Senate Bill 193, would establish education savings accounts (ESAs) in New Hampshire, allowing qualifying parents to use state adequacy funds to offset private school tuition. It would allow parents withdrawing a child from the public school system to receive 95 percent of the state aid their local public school would have received for educating their child – a base amount of about $3,300.

Under the latest version of the bill – which passed a recent House subcommittee, 6-3 – students falling under a broad range of categories could qualify for the program, including those who are just starting out in first grade and those whose parents determined that attending public school is not in their best interest.

The amendment championed by Sununu would narrow that range to four categories, Ladd explained at the event: those in families with income at or below 300 percent of the household poverty level; those in underperforming schools; those in an individualized education program; and those who have unsuccessfully applied for tuition assistance at a charter school lottery.

Though some critics have called for a strict income cap at the 300 percent poverty level, Ladd clarified Tuesday that the four eligibility categories would operate independently – as long as a student qualified in one of the other areas, the income level is not necessary.

But Ladd argued the categories are narrowly tailored enough to achieve the same effect.

“Those are not caps as we’d like to see in the traditional mode,” he said. “But they serve to limit and reduce students that are eligible for the program.”

Ladd did not provide copies of the amendment; the language is still being written by the Office of Legislative Services and will be made available at the meeting of the full education committee at 9 a.m. Wednesday, he said.

But according to Ladd, the amendment does not include any percentage caps to limit the number of students who could leave any single school, a provision some Republican committee members said they want. Opponents of the bill have said that without caps, an exodus of students could imperil public school budgets for children who choose to stay.

On Tuesday, Sununu countered with a prediction that the total number of students who would avail themselves of the ESAs would be small and targeted.

And speaking before a backdrop of children and parents, Sununu touted the bill as a means to offer new avenues in education.

“Where we start these kids and the opportunities and the pathways that we have them go through is not just about their education,” he said. “It’s about where they can end up in life, and the opportunities and the doors that we are going to open up for them through that process.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)