School choice bills clear hurdles in Senate

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

Monitor staff
Published: 2/23/2017 1:34:39 PM

Two bills that could dramatically expand school choice in New Hampshire have cleared early hurdles at the State House.

The so-called Croydon bill – or SB 8 – cleared the Senate on Thursday in a party-line 14-9 vote. The bill, which would let school boards use taxpayer dollars to tuition students to private schools, will next move to the House, where a nearly verbatim version is under consideration and enjoys strong support from Republican leadership.

“There are many small towns in New Hampshire, like Croydon, that don’t have their own school systems, and parents should have the choice of where they believe their child fits best and can thrive,” House Majority Leader Dick Hinch, a Merrimack Republican, said in a statement.

The Croydon bill has become a flashpoint in the state’s conversation about school choice. But SB 193, a bill that would basically establish a statewide school voucher system, could be just as – if not more – consequential, despite having received little attention so far. Senators gave it a preliminary approval on Thursday, voting 13-10 to send it on to the Senate Finance Committee for review.

The bill would allow any parent whose child is currently enrolled in a traditional or chartered public school to sign up with a scholarship organization and open up an “education freedom savings account.” If the student then left their public school, the scholarship organization could request the state send them 90 percent of the funding the department of education would have sent to the student’s district if they had remained there. The student could then use that money for tuition at a private school, or on certain other educational expenses.

“To me this is probably the biggest piece of education legislation, other than the budget,” said Carl Ladd, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators’ Association. 

The NHSAA has testified against the bill, arguing that it would violate the state constitution both by allowing public dollars to go to private religious schools and to schools that the state can’t guarantee are providing an “adequate” education. 

But echoing critics of voucher programs nationwide, Ladd said it’s also about diverting funds from public schools in a manner that could leave the most difficult students to educate behind.

It’s more affluent parents who can afford to pay the difference between a private school tuition and what the state will pay, and more affluent parents who will be able to arrange transportation, he said. Lower-income students who can’t pay the difference, on the other hand, or students with disabilities that a private school won’t accept, won’t be able to use the program.

“They’re all going to be left behind in public schools that are going to be increasingly underfunded and under-supported,” Ladd said.

Some voucher programs are limited to low-income students, or, as in the case of a similar bill in the House, to special education students. But SB 193 would apply to any public school child, aged 5 to 20. The bill also doesn’t cap the number of students that could use the program in any one year.

“It’s hard to see how any system could be more extreme. Because this is essentially unrestricted in every possible way,” said Dan Vallone, the director of engagement for Reaching Higher New Hampshire, a public education policy nonprofit.

As for the Croydon bill, a similar piece of legislation was initially pitched by lawmakers last year following a lawsuit the state filed against the town of Croydon’s school board for tuitioning students to a nearby Montessori school. A superior court judge sided with the state, but the board has appealed to the state Supreme Court. That appeal is pending as the court awaits the outcome of this legislative session. 

Last year’s version of the bill passed the House and the Senate but was vetoed by then Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, on the other hand, championed the Croydon school board during his bid for the governorship and has pledged to sign the bill. 

“I applaud the Senate’s actions today, passing legislation that further promotes and protects local control in public education through providing parents greater choice and flexibility and empowering local school boards to make the best decisions for their communities,” Sununu said in a statement.

But while the Croydon bill has been cheered by school choice advocates, many – including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and the state Attorney General’s office – have warned the bill would be extremely vulnerable to a constitutional challenge.

Like SB 193, the Croydon bill doesn’t specify that private schools that could receive taxpayer dollars would have to be secular. It would also allow public dollars to go to schools that the Department of Education has only approved “for attendance,” which is different than the higher standard applied to schools who currently receive public funding.

It’s also unclear how many districts the Croydon bill would affect and how. As written, it could potentially apply in any case in which there is “no public school for the child’s grade in the resident district.”

Ladd said that might give license to boards to break existing tuitioning agreements with schools outside their district. Tuition agreements give security to both sides – they guarantee the sending district all of their students will be accepted, and it guarantees the receiving district it can count on and plan for all of the sending district’s pupils. 

“I think it could certainly create a lot of confusion and certainly would make budgeting more difficult,” he said.

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