Eyeing costs, lawmakers once again amend school voucher bill

  • gavel Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Thursday, March 01, 2018

An amended version of the controversial school choice measure Senate Bill 193 significantly restricts eligibility, caps enrollment in the program, and makes major changes to the way schools would be reimbursed for losses.

When it was first pitched to the Legislature, SB 193 envisioned the most expansive, voucher-like program in the country. But in the face of growing concerns about the cost of the proposal, lawmakers have considerably narrowed their ambitions. 

The newest iteration of SB 193, drafted by House Education and House Finance committee leadership, would restrict eligibility to students within 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which aligns with criteria for free and reduced lunch. Students would also need to spend at least a year in public school to qualify; those about to enter first grade or kindergarten could no longer apply. It has not yet been formally adopted by the committee.

The bill would establish an “education savings account” program in New Hampshire. Under the proposal, eligible families who decide to pull their child out of public school in favor of private options would receive 95 percent of the per-pupil grant their school district would have gotten to educate their child. For low-income students, the state grant is about $5,500.

The new eligibility criteria still mean thousands could benefit. In the fall of 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, just under 44,000 children – 27 percent of the state’s public school population – were on free and reduced lunch. 

The new bill also caps enrollment based on how large a district is. Districts with over 300 students, for example, could only lose 3 percent of  their free and reduced lunch population in a single year. Old versions of the bill also reimbursed school districts for any amount over one quarter of one percent of their budget. The newest amendment gives schools a flat, one-time $1,500 “adjustment grant” per student who leaves.

The bill is right now in a House Finance Committee subpanel. Lawmakers have been hearing different financial analyses of the legislation, and expressing anxieties about difficulties in projecting costs – to schools and the state – largely because knowing how many students could ultimately partake has been impossible to pin down. Committee members had also been worried about the bill’s implications for special education students, and about how the bill, which was repeatedly – and in some cases hastily – amended  was generally written.

At a committee hearing last week, House Finance chairman Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, called the bill one of the most “poorly drafted” pieces of major legislation he’d seen.  But on Monday, Kurk said the new changes were a big step in the right direction.

“That amendment does a very good job at taking a bill that was somewhat incoherent and making it a more effective piece of legislation,” he said.

The bill isn’t quite out of the woods, he added. The state’s Legislative Budget Assistant has yet to crunch the numbers on what the newest version of the bill could mean financially for the state’s general fund and for local school districts. 

“The financial analysis that the LBA is doing I think will play a large role in what happens,” he said.

The House Finance subcommittee will next take up SB 193 on Wednesday.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that the amendment has not been formally adopted by the committee.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)