Critics worry that a school choice proposal before the state Legislature would become a subsidy for the rich and come at the expense of public schools.
But Stephanie Alicea – who took on five jobs to help pay for her son to attend the private Tilton School – begs to differ.
“Not everybody’s wealthy that goes to a school like this,” she said.
Alicea stood alongside national and local school choice advocacy groups on Thursday during a press conference at the State House in support of Senate Bill 193, which would create an “education savings account” program in New Hampshire. The bill has already passed the Senate.
The voucher-like program would allow parents to use 90 percent of the per-pupil grant the state sends public schools and instead use it for private educational costs, like private school tuition or home schooling expenses. In New Hampshire, that grant can be anywhere from $3,600 to over $8,000, depending on the student.
Alicea’s son, Samuel, made headlines last year when he took a knee during the national anthem during Merrimack Valley football games to protest racial inequality and police brutality. She said the backlash led to his transfer to Tilton.
“I didn’t absolutely want to pull Samuel from the school he had been in since sixth grade,” Alicea said. “But his safety was at risk.”
Alicea said she borrowed money from her mother, took on five jobs, started a crowdfunding effort and tightened her belt. A program like the one being proposed would have been a big help, she said.
“What else can I say but ‘Wow’?” Alicea said. “I think that the stress of finding that money and relying on a GoFundMe (campaign). I mean, those things are amazing ... but to kind of offset that. Even if it’s $3,500 or $5,000 a year.”
If passed as is, SB 193 would be one of the most expansive school choice laws in the country. ESA programs have been passed by legislatures in five states so far – Arizona, Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida and Nevada – though three of those states have limited eligibility to students with disabilities. Straight voucher programs have traditionally been targeted to low-income students or students with disabilities.
Only Arizona and Nevada have opened up ESA eligibility basically to all – as the New Hampshire bill proposes to do – and Nevada’s program has been blocked by a state Supreme Court ruling from going into effect.
National school choice advocacy groups have been watching New Hampshire closely. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush submitted an op-ed urging passage of the bill earlier this month. EdChoice, an Indiana-based choice advocacy group, even conducted a poll and commissioned a report, whose findings were released Thursday. The group said 58 percent of New Hampshire residents support ESAs.
A common critique of voucher programs and ESAs is that typically only the affluent can manage to pay the difference between what the program will offer and what a private school will charge. And some research supports the concern that vouchers can segregate students along racial and socioeconomic lines.
Lawmakers in the House Education Committee are currently pondering whether or not to amend the bill to either cap the number of students or restrict eligibility, although choice advocates are pushing against those amendments.
As for Alicea, she said she wouldn’t want somebody wealthy to use the funds. But she said she didn’t have a “hard and fast answer” about how – or whether – the bill should change.
“I think with every system there are people who maybe take advantage,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s some kind of interview process or application process to kind of vet individuals. But then who makes that decision?”
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu hasn’t said whether or not he would sign SB 193.
“The Governor is a strong supporter of school choice. We’re taking a close look at this bill and tracking its progress,” Sununu spokesman Michael Todd said in an email.
The committee is slated to vote on the bill Tuesday.
(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)