Heavily amended school choice bill clears N.H. House committee

Monitor staff
Published: 11/14/2017 7:11:02 PM

A controversial school choice bill has cleared the House education committee, squeaking by in a 10-9 vote after late amendments swayed some uncertain moderates.

As it was originally written, Senate Bill 193 would have created an education savings account program – known as ESAs – allowing nearly any family to take the state aid their local school district would have received to educate their child – a base amount a little over $3,000 – and instead spend it on private schooling expenses.

But partly at the behest of Gov. Chris Sununu, who came out in support of the measure this month, and also to convince swing voters on the committee, lawmakers in the past two weeks tightened eligibility, added a hold-harmless provision for local schools, and fleshed out accountability and oversight language.

Rep. Glenn Cordelli, a Tuftonboro Republican on the committee who sponsored the bill said before the vote that legislators “bent over backwards” to assuage concerns.

“I’m going to the chiropractor tomorrow, as a matter of fact,” he said with a smile.

The updated legislation now restricts eligibility to low-income students, students on special education plans, students who can’t get a spot at a charter school for lack of space, or students who get turned down for a scholarship with the state’s tax-credit program for lack of funds. The Children’s Scholarship Fund N.H., which administers the tax-credit program, received about 1,800 applications this year, said Kate Baker, the fund’s director. The organization had only enough money to fund 260 scholarships.

The bill also includes a provision to partially reimburse school districts for financial losses tied to the program. New language now provides that schools would be reimbursed for revenue losses greater than one-quarter of 1 percent of their appropriations.

A school district with a $20 million budget, for example, would be reimbursed for any amount over $50,000 in revenue losses.

The amendment was aimed at a key concern raised by public school advocates. One group, Reaching Higher N.H., had calculated that if just 1 percent of the state’s students participated in the program, the lost revenue would equal more than 100 teachers’ salaries.

Rep. Dan Wolf, a Newbury Republican, said he’d spent years on the Kearsarge Regional school board and that the new hold-harmless provision had been key in switching his vote from no to yes.

“A quarter of 1 percent. I would challenge most of you that are school board members to see if your district doesn’t have a quarter of 1 percent surplus, three out of every five years. So we’re protecting anything above that,” he told committee members.

The vote didn’t fall neatly along party lines. Democratic Rep. Barbara Shaw of Manchester crossed over to vote for the bill. And Republican Reps. James Grenier of Lempster and Bob Elliot of Salem voted against it.

Grenier objected to having an outside nonprofit run the ESA program instead of the state’s Education Department. That’s because the scholarship organization would receive money for each student in the program – at the same time as it was tasked with key oversight responsibilities.

“I hate to say this, as someone who is a fiscal Republican – I find that having the fox in the chicken-coop,” he said.

The updated bill also includes a sunset clause repealing the program in 2023 unless legislators renew it.

SB 193 heads to the full House in January.

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