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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: 'School choice' bill hitting head winds

April 22. 2017 8:14PM
Sen. John Reagan pitches SB 193 at a State House hearing on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. (DAVE SOLOMON/UNION LEADER)

THE ATMOSPHERE at the Upham-Walker House, across Park Street from the State House in Concord, was festive as parents with children of all ages gathered inside and outside the Federal-style home in downtown Concord.

But they were there for a serious purpose on Thursday afternoon.

They'd come to tell stories of how school choice had made a big difference in the lives of their children at an event organized by the supporters of Senate Bill 193, which would enable parents to receive state funding to send their children to any school they choose, including religious schools.

The bill cleared the Senate in February, 13-10, but is hitting headwinds in the House, where it could very well end up stuck in committee for the rest of 2017.

Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, prime sponsor of the legislation, tried to pump up the crowd, but his outlook was far from optimistic.

"We've run into the same resistance we always get when we try to improve choice and opportunity in education," he said. "Unionized teachers and well-organized administrators who don't want to lose a dollar no matter who it goes to come out in force."

Reagan bemoaned the lack of broad support for the bill, and urged the crowd to "hang in there."

"Make the phone calls to your representatives, and we'll see if we can get this done," he said.

Rep. David Bates, R-Windham, was unequivocal about the expected fate of the bill when it comes up for a vote before the 19-member House Education Committee at 10 a.m. on Tuesday.

"It's going to be retained," he said, referring to the process by which the committee decides to sit on a bill and prevent it from going to the House floor for a vote. "There was some hope we could at least get it out of committee, but that now looks unlikely."

Senate Republicans were able to hold ranks and pass the bill despite concerns about the constitutional implications of directing state funding to private schools, including religious schools. But the House is not as inclined to just toss the matter to the courts, which is widely viewed as inevitable should the bill become law.

The House Education Committee's chairman, Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, echoed that theme.

"Without amendments, right now, this has a real long shot of passing," he said. "When you get into the weeds and ask how this money is going to be handled, there is a lot of concern."

During the Senate debate on the bill, Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, said it could draw as much as $80 million from the state's education fund based on the number of students currently attending private schools or being home-schooled.

"It's going to take a lot of work to get this right," said Ladd. "Every amendment we consider creates problems somewhere else. There's a good chance it'll be retained or a study committee will be created."

If those predictions hold true, the defeat of HB 193 - at least for now - will take place against the backdrop of a Republican governor who ran on a school choice platform with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, and a school-choice advocate as education commissioner.

Gov. Chris Sununu himself sounds ambivalent about the concept. In an interview on Wednesday, after the Executive Council meeting, he was asked if he agreed with Finance Committee Chairman Neal Kurk, R-Weare, who told the education committee in hearings that the bill would have to exempt religious schools to pass constitutional muster.

"I think when it comes to using state money for schools, and I think a lot of people know I'm a big believer in school choice, that whatever we do, we have to make sure we're not harming public schools," Sununu said. "I do have concerns when you start using state funds, whether it be a voucher program - or all the different terms that you want to put for it - to schools of a non-public nature."

In answer to a follow-up question, Sununu made clear that he was alluding to all nonpublic schools, not just religious schools.

"I think the point is that you don't want to jump in too big too fast," he said. "You have to understand what the repercussions to the public school systems might be and make sure that you're doing it in steps, so that you understand the pros, cons, negative effects and unintended consequences of any program you put forward."

Rape shield law battle looming

Family members of murdered college student Lizzi Marriott are expected to be on hand Tuesday when the House Judiciary Committee votes on SB 9, a Senate-passed bill that clarifies the state's rape shield law to protect a victim's "sexual past, interests and predispositions" from being introduced as evidence at trial.

The bill clarifies that the state's rape shield law, on the books since 1975, applies at all stages of the criminal justice process, including appeals.

Last fall, the state Supreme Court ruled that information about Marriott that was kept out of the public record during the trial of convicted murderer Seth Mazzaglia could now be made public because the rape shield law did not apply at the appellate level.

After protests from victims' advocacy organizations nationwide, as well as then-Gov. Maggie Hassan and the state's entire congressional delegation, the attorney general petitioned the court for a stay of its decision. The court decided to hear oral arguments on the question and reversed itself.

"SB 9 is imperative to insure that no other victims experience the uncertainty, fear and denial of rights experienced by Lizzi's family," said Jessica Eskeland, public policy specialist at the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Eskeland says the bill has run into opposition in the House.

The House amendment removes the definition of the kind of previous "sexual activity" by an alleged victim that would be protected from disclosure at trial, "including but not limited to, previous or subsequent experience of sexual penetration or sexual contact, sexual predisposition, thoughts or expressions related to sexual issues, use of contraceptives, sexual activities reflected in medical and counseling records, living arrangements and lifestyle."

"Without this language, the protections provided by the state's Rape Shield Law will be ambiguous, and we will be setting another family up to go through the painful and lengthy legal battle the Marriotts have had to undertake in order to protect their daughter's privacy," said Eskeland.

Judiciary Committee Chair Claire Rouillard, R-Goffstown, who proposed the amendment, was unavailable for comment on Friday.

SB 9 is the first item on the agenda for the House Judiciary Committee at 10 a.m. on Tuesday.

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