NH House rejects broad expansion of school choice program but OKs income cap increase

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu signs a school choice bill on Thursday, June 29, 2017, at the Croydon Village School in Croydon, N.H. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu signs a school choice bill on Thursday, June 29, 2017, at the Croydon Village School in Croydon, N.H. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jovelle Tamayo

By HOLLY RAMER

Associated Press

Published: 02-08-2024 3:03 PM

CONCORD, N.H. — The New Hampshire House defeated two bills that would have significantly expanded the state’s popular school choice program while giving preliminary approval to a third that would further raise the income cap associated with the voucher-like grants.

The Education Freedom Account program created in 2021 provides families with the same amount the state pays per student to public school districts, starting at $4,100 per year, to be used for private school tuition or other education expenses. About 4,200 students are participating this school year, at a cost of $24 million, according to state officials.

The original law limited the program to families earning up to 300% of the federal poverty level, which amounts to $93,600 for a family of four today. Last year, lawmakers increased the cap last year to 350%, or $109,200 for a family of four. On Thursday, the House voted 190-189 to raise the cap to 500% of the poverty level, or $156,000, sending the bill to its finance committee. All but four of the Republicans in attendance voted in favor of the bill, while all but one Democrat opposed it.

“We are going to expand education freedom. We are going to support parents. We are going to support all New Hampshire kids getting the best education,” said Republican Rep. Glenn Cordelli of Tuftonboro.

The House rejected a bill, however, that would have removed the income cap altogether and another that would have eliminated the cap for what proponents described as “vulnerable” populations, including bullied students, those concerned with the spread of contagious disease, LGBTQ+ students and those living in districts with contaminated water.

Republicans hold a narrow majority in the 400-member House, but in both cases, a handful of Republicans joined all Democrats in opposing the bills. Under one of the defeated bills, the program would have been open to students in nine categories regardless of family income. Others would be eligible based on the recommendation of a school guidance counselor.

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Supporters argued that expanding the program would help more students succeed. Rep. Joe Alexander, a Goffstown Republican, described when he was in high school 10 years ago and realized he was gay but felt uncomfortable coming out to his peers.

“I believe students like me should have the choice to attend a school they feel more comfortable at,” he said. “Students who identify as LGBTQ or may not be comfortable enough admitting it yet should be able to attend a school that works better for them and their family, and our state government should support that.”

But opponents called the nine categories for vulnerable students vague and unverifiable, creating what would essentially be a universal voucher program.

“We should be focusing on making sure all our neighborhood public schools have well-trained staff and resources to support all students who may be struggling with mental issues, eating disorders, bullying, sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Rep. Linda Tanner, a Democrat from Georges Mills. “Instead of spending money to pull vulnerable students out of public schools, we should be looking for ways to make funding more equitable. Stop passing bills that put unreasonable stress on teachers and students and fully fund programs that will support students rather than deflecting our legislative responsibility.”