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N.H. policy groups analyze school choice bill

Monitor staff
Published: 12/6/2017 2:41:03 PM

Two public policy groups provided closer looks Wednesday at the financial impact of a sweeping school choice bill under consideration at the State House.

Senate Bill 193 could cost the state $31 million in new spending over five years, an analysis by public school advocacy organization Reaching Higher New Hampshire has found, and the legislation could cost school districts nearly $6 million in state aid in its first year of implementation.

Meanwhile, the Josiah Bartlett Center For Public Policy, a free-market think tank, argued that districts have weathered far larger drops in enrollment in recent years, and even if 5 percent of students use vouchers, districts would still keep 98.7 percent of their budgets intact. It found that from 2010-15, the average change in enrollment was a decline of 7 percent.

“These figures show that the supposedly dire enrollment reductions projected by (Education Savings Account) opponents are actually within the normal annual variation for New Hampshire school districts,” the Josiah Bartlett Center said. “The data further show that even without the stabilization grants provided in the House version of SB 193, a district that loses as much as 5 percent of its student body could nonetheless be expected to retain more than 98 percent of its operation budget.”

SB 193 would give parents to 95 percent of the state aid their resident school district would have received to educate their children to spend instead on private educational expenses. Per-pupil state aid starts at $3,600 but goes up depending on the student – schools receive an extra $1,800 for pupils on free and reduced lunch, for example.

The money would be disbursed into “education savings accounts” administered by an outside scholarship organization.

A recent amendment to the bill restricts eligibility to special education students, low-income students, students who weren’t admitted to a charter school or students who were denied an education tax credit scholarship for lack of funds.

It’s impossible to calculate exactly how many students would qualify using available state data, but using numbers on students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, Reaching Higher estimated that 40,000 students, at a minimum, could use the program.

“Total eligible populations are not entirely knowable, but they are significant,” Dan Vallone of Reaching Higher said during a press conference Wednesday. He added that, according to the group’s analysis, the highest concentrations of eligible students would come from school districts that were property-poor.

The bill also includes so-called “stabilization grants” to partially reimburse school districts for lost funding. Schools would receive any amount over one-quarter of 1 percent of their budget that was lost when students left the district to use the program.

The state could expect to spend a little under $2.2 million in stabilization grants in the program’s first year, Reaching Higher found, and $10.1 million in its fifth year, for a total of $31 million over five years.

Still, the unreimbursed amounts could add up. If 40 low-income students use the program in Concord, Reaching Higher calculated, the school district would lose $213,000 in state aid – without getting any money back from the state.

According to Reaching Higher’s analysis, the Concord school district would suffer a net loss of about $500,000 over five years if 3 percent of its eligible students – about 50 a year – were to use the program.

The Bartlett Center’s calculations weren’t far off from Reaching Higher’s. If 43 students used the program in Concord, the district would lose $195,000 in state aid, they projected. But they cautioned against worrying too much about the headline numbers.

“People can become alarmed if they hear that their school district could lose tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. It can sound frightening, which is why so many political activists like to use raw numbers instead of percentages,” the group said in its report.

Reaching Higher highlighted other concerns with the bill surrounding accountability and special education rights. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released last week reviewed private school choice programs across the country and found that parents of students on special educations plans typically weren’t told their children would lose the bulk of their special education protections by moving to the private sector.

“SB 193 does not obligate anyone to disclose that information,” Vallone said.

SB 193 will be one of the most hotly contested bills of the session. Organizations representing public schools universally oppose the measure, but local and national private school choice advocates have put their lobbying weight behind the proposal. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu came out in support of the legislation in November, after it was amended.

The House will take up the bill in January.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)

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