N.H. lawmakers set to pick which school choice bill will go to Sununu

Monitor staff
Monday, March 27, 2017

A bill allowing school boards to tuition students to private schools will almost certainly land on GOP Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk this session. But exactly what kinds of schools would benefit is still up in the air.

The Legislature is considering two competing versions of the so-called Croydon bill: one passed by the House, one by the Senate.

Senate Bill 8 would allow towns to tuition students to basically any private school, including religious ones.

But lawmakers have made amendments to House Bill 557, the other Croydon bill, in an attempt to head off constitutional challenges they were warned could arise. One tweak makes religious schools ineligible, and the other attempts to reconcile the bill with the state’s definition of an adequate education.

Axing eligibility for religious schools is crucial for keeping the law out of the courts, House Education committee chairman Rep. Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican, told House lawmakers before they greenlit an amended HB 557 earlier this month by a vote of 188-163.

“We’ve also had counsel, attorneys indicate to us that if we want to eliminate extensive, extensive litigation costs, you just put down the nonsectarian private school, and you will avoid that,” he said.

A lawyer with the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office had also warned lawmakers that, as originally written, both the House and Senate versions of the bill didn’t fulfill the state’s constitutionally mandated responsibility for funding an “adequate education.” That’s because the bills allowed public dollars to go to schools simply “approved for attendance” by the Department of Education, a minimal standard that allows private schools to operate in New Hampshire.

HB 557 does include tweaks that define the “approved for attendance” standard using language from the adequate education law. But it wouldn’t require private schools either to be accredited or to submit the kinds of reports that schools currently accountable under the adequate education statute do.

Ladd said he couldn’t say whether the AG’s office would consider the rewrite satisfactory.

“Who knows?,” he said. “I know it has been received positively by several (other) attorneys.”

Many private schools – especially smaller, less wealthy schools – aren’t accredited by agencies recognized by the Department of Education, or aren’t accredited at all. About half of all private schools in the Granite State operate with an “approved for attendance” status, though they might, in fact, have an accreditation they haven’t bothered to report to the state.

HB 557’s sponsors include both House and Senate leaders and is the most likely to move forward to the governor for a signature. But a version of the Croydon bill closer to the Senate version did pass both chambers last year before being vetoed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat.

The Senate Education Committee will hold a hearing on HB 557 Tuesday.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort.com.)