Republicans push for bill allowing public education funds to go toward private schools 

  • The New Hampshire State House in Concord on Oct. 4, 2018 Sarah Pearson

Monitor staff
Published: 2/2/2021 4:11:42 PM
Modified: 2/2/2021 4:11:19 PM

Republican House leadership unveiled a bill Tuesday to allow Granite State parents to use public school funds toward private school tuition – the first step in what is expected to be a major legislative battle this year.

In a hearing that stretched deep into the afternoon, the House Education Committee took up House Bill 20, which would set up “education freedom accounts” in New Hampshire.

The bill, officially named “the Richard ‘Dick’ Hinch education freedom account program,” would create the most sweeping voucher-style program for education in the country.

Advocates for the program, who include a number House Republicans, said the program would help students struggling in public schools to find other options.

“I think that anybody in this state that wants to make sure that our kids have the best education possible should, and I hope will, support this bill,” said Speaker Sherman Packard, who invoked former Speaker Dick Hinch, who died in office in December and who originally had sponsored the bill.

Democrats, meanwhile, said the program would only hurt public schools by diverting tax dollars toward private and religious schools. Unlike public schools, which must educate all students, private schools can be selective, which could lead to discrimination, lawmakers said.

Presently, New Hampshire sends a certain allocation of taxpayer funding to each public school on a per-student basis. House Bill 20 would allow parents to withdraw their child from a public school and take their student’s state funding allocation with them.

Under the bill, a parent could withdraw their child and that allocation would go into an “education freedom account” run by a private scholarship program. The parent could then use the amount in that account to help pay for tuition at a private school instead – or use it toward tutoring or other expenses. Parents would receive at least $3,700 a year in base adequacy aid, in addition to potential fiscal capacity disparity aid given to low income certain communities.

According to the version of the bill presented Tuesday, the uses for those educational funds could be broad. Parents could spend the money on tuition; online learning programs; contracted services at public schools; computers or technology necessary for their child; software; school uniforms; fees for SATs and other standardized tests; career technical schools; and tuition for college courses.

The accounts would be available to all students currently enrolled in public schools, with no limitations on income.

HB 20 is Republicans’ second effort in four years to pass a voucher-like program for parents to access private education, and comes as the party holds a narrow majority over the House and a healthy majority in the Senate.

An attempt in 2017 and 2018, Senate Bill 193 narrowly fell in the New Hampshire House after some Republicans complained it was too watered down.

But HB 20 is more ambitious than SB 193 was, expanding the number of potential uses of the funds and dropping limitations that they be available only to lower-income families.

Democrats and public school advocates voiced strong opposition Tuesday, arguing the bill would drain state tax dollars from public schools and drive up local property taxes to compensate.

At a press conference Monday, Rep. Doug Ley, a Jaffrey Democrat and the president of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, blasted the bill, which he called a “radical reshaping” of New Hampshire’s education system with insufficient accountability.

“Public school budgets are developed in public by publicly elected officials,” he said. “Nothing is public in HB 20 except the fact that public monies are being spent.”

In addition, “education service providers” – the legislation’s language for schools, “shall be given maximum freedom to provide for the educational needs of … students without governmental control.” The bill adds that “No education service provider shall be required to alter its creed, practices, admissions policy or curriculum in order to accept payments from an (educational savings fund).”

Ley and other Democrats questioned whether that could mean funds could go to schools that discriminate in their admission process, for instance against LGBTQ students.

And they raised concerns about the fact that the funding could benefit schools that would be exempt from state laws guiding education curriculum.

Rep. Glenn Cordelli, a Tuftonboro Republican and a key sponsor of the bill, said that some federal anti-discrimination laws do apply to private schools, but said that the bill allows religious schools to carry out their own practices in keeping with their faith.

And he said that the accountability should come from parents.

“It has a better means of assessments: and that’s parental accountability,” he said. “A parent can walk, take their dollars with them, if their child is not getting a proper education.”

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