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House lawmakers hit pause on sweeping school choice bill



Associated Press
Tuesday, April 25, 2017

House lawmakers hit pause Tuesday on a sweeping school choice bill over concerns it would improperly divert taxpayer dollars to religious schools and financially harm public schools.

“Our New Hampshire Constitution is clear that public funds cannot be used for sectarian purposes,” Democratic Rep. Mary Heath said. “This bill undermines public education.”

The House Education Committee voted to hold the bill, meaning it won’t be voted on until next session. Even Republican backers of the program supported the move, arguing it would give them more time to allay concerns and come forward with a passable bill next year. Republican Sen. John Reagan, the bill’s prime sponsor, called the House’s move “terrible.”

“This is a tragic loss for parents and students,” he said.

The bill would’ve given New Hampshire one of the nation’s broadest school choice laws, similar to a law passed recently in Arizona. New Hampshire schools receive a set amount of money per student, about $3,500 typically, and the bill would have let families turn that money into a personal “scholarship.” The scholarship dollars could go toward private school tuition, including at religious schools, or cover costs for home schooling, tutoring or other educational needs.

It put no restrictions on income levels for students using scholarships, which voucher-type programs in many states do.

While the bill breezed through the Senate, concerns bubbled up in the House, particularly around religious schools. New Hampshire’s Constitution says “no person shall ever be compelled to pay towards the support of the schools of any sect or denomination.” Still, Republican Rep. Glenn Cordelli said he’s confident the inclusion of religious schools could withstand a court challenge, based on rulings in other states.

Cordelli, a strong backer of the bill, said he plans to work with his colleagues to create something passable that includes religious schools.

“I believe that New Hampshire does have good public schools, but there are always children who do not fit,” Cordelli said. “This provides opportunities for parents to find the best education for their children.”

Other members of his party remain skeptical.

“Right now, our constitution says we can’t give money to support religious schools,” Republican Rep. Bill Grenier said. “I took an oath of office, for this state and this constitution, and I’m not going to support a bill that’s contrary to our constitution.”