Voucher bill debate heats up at hearing

  • A parent testifies against Senate Bill 193 before the House Education Committee at the State House in Concord on Tuesday. Lola Duffort / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/4/2017 11:40:57 PM

A new fight over education is brewing at the State House.

This time, it’s over “education freedom savings accounts” – essentially, school vouchers.

Senate Bill 193 would allow families to take 90 percent of the money their local school district receives from the state to educate their children and, after funneling it through a scholarship organization, put it instead toward other education expenses – including home-schooling or private school tuition. The bill cleared the Senate in a 14-9 party-line vote on March 16.

SB 193 flew mostly under the radar at the start of the session. But on Tuesday, a line out the committee door of people coming to testify about the bill led House lawmakers to relocate their hearing to Representatives Hall at the State House.

Deerfield Republican Sen. John Reagan introduced the bill he sponsored by telling House Education Committee members there was a disconnect between how much public schools were spending and the outcomes they achieved.

“The American education system has substantially failed to produce what they’re charging for,” he said.

Reagan said that research showed that school choice programs in other states had saved taxpayers money and that competition had improved outcomes at nearby public schools. And he dismissed arguments that public schools couldn’t afford to lose any funding.

“The argument we hear is, if we take all this money from our public schools – and this is what our public school administrators tell us – they tell us they won’t know what to do. And I can believe they won’t know what to do. They can’t explain what they do with the money now anyway,” Reagan said.

The last comment in particular drew the ire of multiple superintendents, many of whom argued in their testimony that unlike private schools, public schools have to account publicly for every penny spent.

“I have been asked a question at a public hearing – what is the difference between the price of cobalt blue paint per tube and cadmium yellow per tube. And it was 7 cents in a $48 million budget,” said Brian Lane, the superintendent of the Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District.

Over nearly four hours of testimony, proponents and critics of the bill repeated familiar arguments for and against school choice. Choice advocates argued that not all children do well in traditional public schools and that competition drives improvement. Public school administrators argued that research showed that vouchers often make school segregation worse, don’t substantially improve outcomes, and undermine public schools.

Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican who chairs the House Finance Committee, encouraged lawmakers to put some sort of cap on the number of students who could use the vouchers in any one year. It isn’t always possible for schools to reduce staffing to match decreased enrollment, he said.

“If two kids leave first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth, there is no reduction in expenses that the school can possibly have but it loses all of that revenue,” he said.

Anne Edwards, an attorney with the state’s attorney’s office, warned lawmakers they would need to tweak the bill in order to make it stand up to legal and constitutional challenges, adding that she was particularly worried about the bill not excluding religious schools.

But Kate Baker, the director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, told lawmakers not to let threats of litigation keep them from passing this legislation.

“I believe this will be in the courts, no matter what you do,” she said.

Baker would know. The law that allows businesses to give tax-deductible donations to the CSF, which provides scholarships to religious schools, was challenged in the courts.

The suit went all the way to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which ultimately declined to rule on questions of the program’s constitutionality but said the plaintiff didn’t have standing.

“Parents want to go to court and fight for their right to make these choices for their children,” Baker said.

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

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