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Lightly revised school choice bill moves forward



Monitor staff
Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A bill that would establish one of the most expansive school-choice programs in the country has received the green light from a panel of lawmakers and is headed to the House Education Committee.

With certain Republicans skittish about including religious schools in the program, Senate Bill 193 was retained last session for lawmakers to mull over the details during the summer. But bolstered by legal research and lobbying efforts by national school-choice advocates, a House subcommittee voted, 6-3, on Tuesday to bring forward a proposal that allows for sectarian schools and near-universal eligibility for students.

SB 193 would create an education savings account program. ESAs function a little like traditional school vouchers, but with some key differences. With ESAs, money can be spent on more than just private school tuition. And because the money doesn’t go directly from public coffers to a private school – it goes into a scholarship fund controlled by a parent – proponents argue that constitutional prohibitions on public money in religious schools are circumvented.

Families who partake in the program would receive 90 percent of the state aid their local public school would have received for educating their child – a base amount of about $3,300.

There are ESA programs operating in five states, but all have significantly restricted eligibility – participants are typically on special education plans, low-income or in underperforming schools.

The bill in New Hampshire, on the other hand, would allow any student that’s been attending a public school for at least two consecutive semesters, or who is about to enter kindergarten, to participate. Lawmakers took out a provision that would have allowed current home-schoolers to use the program, although nothing would preclude families from using the money on home-schooling expenses once they withdrew from a public school after the prescribed period of time.

The legislation does include new provisions regarding accountability. Families would have to submit annual evaluations about their children’s progress to the scholarship organization administering the ESAs, and the bill creates a legislative oversight committee to oversee the program’s implementation.

SB 193 will likely be one of the most hotly debated bills of the session. For school-choice proponents, the legislation would be the movement’s most consequential win yet in the Granite State. But public school advocates fear the bill could drain millions from public schools, ultimately becoming a subsidy mostly for the rich and middle class.

In Manchester and Dover, school choice advocates had planned phone banks for Tuesday night in partnership with the New Hampshire branch of Americans for Prosperity. Meanwhile, Tuesday’s subcommittee hearing opened with Monadnock United, a group of concerned citizens, submitting a petition opposing the legislation.

Discussion in committee largely rehashed longstanding arguments for and against giving students public dollars to pay for private education.

Rep. Mel Myler, a Contoocook Democrat, argued that only relatively well-off families would be able to afford the difference between the ESA and a private school’s tuition. And the state shouldn’t help pay for people to segregate themselves, he said.

“I think there is a value question here that we’re not addressing,” Myler said.

And Rep. Rick Ladd, a Republican from Haverhill, responded that certain students just needed an out.

“The value is the student might be attending a failing public school,” he responded.

The House Education Committee next meets Nov. 8.

(Ethan DeWitt contributed to this report. Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)