Accountability concerns arise over education savings account bill

  • The State House in Concord, N.H., is seen on May 18, 2017. Sarah Kinney / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Thursday, September 07, 2017

The bill’s objective is clear: allow New Hampshire parents to withdraw children from the public school system and provide state adequacy funds to offset private school tuition.

But exactly who should administer and control the program outlined in Senate Bill 193 is still being hammered out. As currently drafted, the program would be operated by a private scholarship organization, rather than the state’s Department of Education.

At a House subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Democratic representatives expressed concern over the oversight mechanisms in place.

“Where’s the responsibility to make sure the funds are in fact being utilized with the legislative intent here?” asked Mel Myler, D-Contoocook, noting that “there would be tighter control” if the program were administered in the Department of Education.

Republicans pushed back, saying that private and nonprofit organizations would increase efficiency.

The proposed law, a version of which passed the Senate Education Committee last session, carries major potential changes to New Hampshire’s school system. Eligible parents interested in transferring their children to another school could make use of a savings account that would contain 90 percent of the per-pupil state adequacy money that would have been paid to their public school. That account, referred to in the bill as an “education freedom savings account,” could be used toward tuition at private or public schools.

SB 193 is the latest lightning rod in a debate that has spread across the country: whether public money should be used for the sole betterment of public school systems, or whether some money can be used to allow families access to private and charter schools.

The bill passed the state Senate on partisan lines in March, with Republicans championing its service to “school choice” and Democrats heatedly opposing its potential effect on public school budgets. It was retained in the House Education Committee in March, to be voted on next legislative session.

On Wednesday, four months before the full Legislature reconvenes, representatives on the subcommittee sidestepped the political firestorm, tinkering instead with the present draft around the edges. They removed from eligibility children who are currently home-schooled and do not receive adequacy funding, and they added trade and career schools to the list of qualified institutions to receive money.

But addressing the management of the funds themselves, legislators said more work is needed to ensure oversight. In pointed questioning, Myler raised doubts over whether taxpayer money should be trusted with private organizations holding sway over educational outcomes.

“I’m concerned about our fiduciary responsibility as a Legislature,” Myler said.

Speaking from the audience, one person in the room pushed back citing her experience.

Kate Baker, executive director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund in Concord, has for six years run an organization that fills the role outlined in the bill. Her fund administers scholarships from the education tax credit program, a 2012 initiative allowing businesses to claim tax credits from the business profits tax and put the money toward education.

At present, the Children’s Scholarship Fund serves 300 students statewide, according to Baker, who added that her organization’s model could be scaled up to meet demand if SB 193 passes.

Baker said that oversight is already built into the state’s education system through the Department of Education’s unique pupil identifier program. That system already closely tracks individual students both within and outside public schools, with regular updates and high accuracy, she said.

Committee vice chairwoman Terry Wolf, R-Bedford, pointed out that the contains an oversight committee that would analyze biennial reports assessing the savings account program.

Democrats on the subcommittee raised other concerns.

Rep. Linda Tanner, D-Georges Mills, questioned the cost-effectiveness of the programs, whose administrative costs are set to be covered by 5 percent of the adequacy allotment; Baker argued that contracting with scholarship organizations would be cheaper than running the program through the Department of Education.

Myler questioned whether provisions should be included to protect those leaving public schools for private ones from being discriminated against for disabilities. Wolf said that the broadened choice afforded by the bill would offset difficulties gaining admission at any particular school.

And committee chairman Rick Ladd, R-Grafton, broached another thorny topic: whether the bill’s implicit inclusion of religious education institutions – which some say could breach separation of church and state – can pass constitutional muster. A report released Wednesday by the right-leaning Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy determined that the present draft of SB 193 would hold up against legal challenge. Ladd passed out copies of the report, conducted in conjunction with the Institute for Justice, at the hearing.

But speaking after the hearing – months ahead of what could be a fiery floor fight if the bill makes it through committee – Ladd said many options remain to be explored in future hearings, including whether to include religious schools, to add caps on departures from individual schools to prevent a plummet in enrollment, and to establish a poverty level governing eligibility for the program.

“As it stands right now, (the bill) hasn’t been developed as thoroughly as it needs to be developed,” he said.