N.H. House likely kills education savings account bill, citing cost concerns

  • Gov. Chris Sununu speaks at the Radisson Hotel Manchester Downtown in Manchester on Tuesday during a celebration of National School Choice Week on Jan. 23, 2018. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 5/2/2018 6:07:04 PM

A controversial bill that would have allowed low-income students to put state education dollars toward private schooling was sent for further study Wednesday, likely killing it for the session.

Seventeen Republicans ultimately joined all but one Democrat present in the House to vote, 170-159, to recommend an interim study on Senate Bill 193, which would have established a school voucher-like “education savings account” program in New Hampshire.

In the last year of a biennium, such a vote is usually considered a polite death for legislation. Supporters could mount a last-ditch effort to rescue the bill tomorrow using a motion for reconsideration. The move is unlikely but not unheard of on high-profile measures.

Introduced last year, SB 193 originally envisioned one of the most expansive school choice programs in the country. But it went through several major overhauls as lawmakers tried to tackle concerns about the bill’s impact on schools, accountability and the cost to the state.

Supporters pointed out the bill’s long, winding trajectory through the State House and said the bill had been sufficiently debated, studied and tweaked.

“More study on education savings accounts? The study has already been done,” said Rep. Glenn Cordelli, a Tuftonboro Republican who worked on several revised versions of the bill.

But concerns about the bill’s cost to school districts, accessibility for special education students and accountability ultimately won out. Rep. Neal Kurk, the Republican chairman of the House Finance Committee, which spent months with the bill, argued SB 193 would divert millions from local school districts.

Schools won’t be able to cut spending to match losses in revenue, he argued, and the difference would be billed to local homeowners and businesses.

“Do we really want to make things worse for local property tax payers? I think not,” he said.

But supporters countered that the loss in revenue to districts over that period was dwarfed by how much public schools were set to receive from the state either way.

“Right now it is projected that the state will provide $26 billion – that’s with a B – for public education,” said Rep. Karen Umberger, a Kearsarge Republican.

SB 193 was a key priority for Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who has made school choice a hallmark of his education platform.

“Today’s vote is a loss for New Hampshire children and their families,” Sununu said in a statement. “A child’s ZIP code cannot and should not limit their opportunity to succeed.”

The bill enjoyed strong support from Republican majorities in the House and Senate early on. It cleared the Senate on a party-line 14-9 vote last year and won tentative approval by the House in January, 184-162.

But it ran into trouble as lawmakers began trying to address fierce criticism from public education advocates, who argued the legislation would hurt cash-strapped schools. Legislators at first amended the bill to reimburse schools any money lost over a certain threshold, but then balked at the additional cost. Meanwhile, conservatives grew angry about tightened eligibility.

In its most recent iteration, which supporters planned to bring to the House floor Wednesday if they succeeded in defeating a motion to send the bill to study, the legislation restricted eligibility, included new accountability measures and capped enrollment.

Only children who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch or who attended a school deemed to be failing by the state would have been eligible to apply, and enrollment was capped based on the number of eligible students in a district. Public schools would have been given a one-time, $1,500 “adjustment grant” for each student who exited for nonpublic education. The Legislative Budget Assistant had projected it would only cost the state about $5 million over 11 years in additional spending, but calculated revenue losses for schools at $99 million over that same period.

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



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