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Committee votes to bump controversial voucher bill to 2022

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Published: 2/18/2021 5:19:38 PM

A bill to create a school voucher-like system in New Hampshire is poised to be kicked to 2022, after Republicans on the House Education Committee said that it needed more time.

In a 20-0 vote Thursday, the committee recommended that the bill be retained, a move that if approved by the full House next week would put off any decision-making until next year’s session.

House Bill 20, named the “Richard ‘Dick’ Hinch education freedom account program” after the late House speaker, was a top priority for House Republicans this year. The proposal would allow parents to withdraw their children from public school and take the per-pupil state money with them.

Under the bill, that state funding, which amounts to $3,700 to $8,000 per student depending on the school, could then be used by the parents for a number of alternative expenses, such as private school tuition, college preparatory courses, school supplies, or transportation.

But a deluge of opposition to the bill from public school advocates and Democrats had slowed down its progress, resulting in contentious hearings and deliberative sessions that stretched through the day. Opponents argue the bill would drain resources from public schools and prompt cutbacks and increased property taxes; proponents say that it would provide new opportunities to families whose public schools aren’t working for their children.

In a statement Thursday, House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, an Auburn Republican, said that the bill was pushed back a year because of “a quickly approaching deadline that did not afford them the time they needed today.”

“HB 20 remains our number one priority for this legislative session,” Osborne said.

Deputy House Majority Leader Fred Doucette echoed that sentiment. “New Hampshire students do not fit into a one-size-fits-all education system, and we will continue work on HB 20 to ensure that we give students and families the choice to find the best situation that works for them.”

Democrats celebrated Thursday.

“HB 20 has too many serious flaws to list,” said Rep. Mel Myler, the ranking Democrat on the committee. “It contains no protection for students against discrimination, little oversight, and is ripe for fraud. When fully implemented, the program would act as a tax-dollar giveaway to wealthy families.”

The vote by the committee came after a day of intensive questioning by Democratic representatives of Republican Education Committee Chairman Rick Ladd and Vice Chairman Glenn Cordelli, who had introduced an amendment to the bill. Those deliberations took most of the day Wednesday.

In 2018, House and Senate Republicans attempted a different version of the bill, Senate Bill 193, which started out expansive but was slowly narrowed in scope as it worked its way through the process. That bill was defeated after some Republicans complained that it was too watered down.

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

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