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House Republicans add income caps to ‘school voucher’ bill; Dems push back

Monitor staff
Published: 2/17/2021 4:21:16 PM

Lawmakers clashed Wednesday over a bill creating “education freedom accounts” allowing parents to withdraw students from public schools and take state education money with them. 

After an information session before the House Education Committee laden with critical and at-times heated questions from Democrats, the committee put off a vote on whether to recommend the measure, House Bill 20. The latest version of the legislation has some major changes, including new income limits and expansions of  the program.

The bill would allow parents to receive the “adequacy funds” that their local public school would normally get for their child – the state portion of the cost to educate a child in the public education system. That money is determined by a formula determined in part by the number of low-income residents in any given school district; it can vary from $3,700 to around $8,000 per student. 

For each participating parent, the state would transfer the money that would go to the public school into a savings account run by a nonprofit scholarship organization, which would allow the parents to use it toward a number of expenses, from private school tuition, to transportation costs, to school supplies, to homeschooling costs. The scholarship organization would be responsible for making sure that the money was used for an approved expense.

The proposal – the broadest version of its kind in the country – has proven controversial, with proponents saying it would provide long-awaited relief for low-income families whose local public schools don’t work for them, and opponents arguing it would divert taxpayer money from public schools and make it difficult to track the results. 

The new version of the bill would put an income cap on who is eligible for the savings accounts.

Whereas the original bill allowed anyone to participate, the new bill would limit the accounts to those who make under 375% of the federal poverty line. That adds up to about $98,250 in total household income for a family of four, or $81,450 for a family of three.

“That would mean that approximately half the families in the state would qualify,” said Rep. Glenn Cordelli, the Tuftonboro Republican who has spearheaded the bill. 

The amended version would also expand how the education savings account money could be used. The new version would allow parents in one public school district to send their student to another public school district and take the adequacy money with them. That adequacy money would then follow the student into the new public school district. 

The latest version mandates that students who benefit from the savings account comply with the same attendance requirements that home schooled students do currently. 

It also adds new accountability provisions for parents who use the money. Those parents that participate would need to make sure that their child’s education included instruction in a range of subjects from English to history to mathematics. 

The new version would also create a higher bar for an education freedom account to be ended on account of misuse by parents. Not only would there need to be “substantial” misuse of funds, but the misuse would need to be “intentional” as well.

Cordelli said that the revisions were a response to an hours-long hearing on the bill two weeks ago, in which public school advocates and teachers warned that the bill could drain funding from school districts.

“I think it addresses a number of the concerns and comments made at the public hearings,” Cordelli said Wednesday. “And we hope it will meet some of those criticisms, and we think it really improves the bill and will be more acceptable to school districts and still be accomplishing what we wanted to do in terms of helping students throughout the state.”

Democrats on the committee assailed the bill, asking questions through the afternoon over the transparency and oversight provided by the bill. 

Rep. Stephen Woodcock, a Conway Democrat, criticized the bill for the latitude it gives parents on how to spend the funds. The bill theoretically allows students to use the public school funds towards Uber rides to school, towards college credit courses when the student has not yet graduated high school, and toward summer programs, Woodcock noted.

Republicans defended those expenses as reasonable school costs already being borne by parents. And others noted that the amount parents could spend would be capped to the adequacy grant itself, meaning that they would have to choose responsibly.

Other Democrats raised concerns over the accountability of the scholarship organization tasked with distributing the funds. That organization would be responsible for picking the entities that could accept the funds – termed education service providers. Democrats have questioned whether the providers would meet the standards set up by the state for public schools under the “adequate education” requirement. 

Cordelli countered that the law would allow for concerns to be brought to the Department of Education, but said that the ultimate accountability would come from parents and whether they were satisfied with their child’s education. The bill, he said, was meant to empower them. 

HB 20 represents a potentially transformative change to New Hampshire’s education landscape, moving in the direction pushed for years by “school choice” advocates. A similar version of the bill appeared in 2017, but was struck down by the New Hampshire House then after some Republicans said it was too watered down. 

After hours of debate, the committee came to little agreement Wednesday. The vote on whether to recommend the amended bill was pushed off to an extra session Thursday. 

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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