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School choice bill fails in key committee vote

State House Bureau

April 25. 2018 9:21PM

CONCORD — Call them private school vouchers or freedom scholarships, but either way the school choice bill, SB 193, is going to the full House next week with a negative vote from the House Finance Committee.

The Senate-passed bill has been worked and reworked by committee members for months in the hope of reaching a compromise that would attract the votes of all 15 Republicans on the 26-person House panel.

But when the vote was taken Wednesday, three Republicans, including Chairman Neal Kurk, R-Weare, voted with all 11 Democrats to send the bill to the full House with a recommendation of “interim study.”

The 14-12 vote comes as a disappointment to school choice backers, foremost among them Gov. Chris Sununu, who made the bill a centerpiece of his education policy initiatives for 2018.

A vote by the full House next week in support of interim study would be the end of SB 193, and a new bill would have to be introduced in 2019.

The public education advocacy group, Advancing N.H. Public Education, said the vote in Finance became “the face of unremitting pressure from the governor and House leadership,” as Kurk joined fellow Republicans Frank Byron, R-Litchfield, and Robert Theberge, R-Berlin, to support the interim study recommendation.

“I voted in favor of choice in the past, but I cannot support this bill for one primary reason,” said Kurk. “This bill downshifts $99 million to local property taxpayers in ways they will not be able to avoid by reducing expenses. I was not elected to downshift costs on my constituents, so I cannot support this bill.”

The bill would enable parents who work with an approved scholarship organization to receive 95 percent of the per-pupil state education grant, about $3,600, to be used for tuition or other costs at a school of the family’s choice, or to pay for home-schooling.

The version of SB 193 that passed the House in January promised five years of “stabilization payments” to school districts that lost state funding equal to 0.25 percent or more of the district’s budget.

After the first go-round in the House, the bill was referred to Finance, which made several amendments, including elimination of the stabilization fund. Instead, the state would pay a “one-time adjustment” of only $1,500 for each student who takes advantage of a scholarship and leaves the district.

The extent to which public school districts would lose funding has been disputed since the bill first passed the Senate and was sent over to the House last year.

The loss of state funding to the public school districts (not counting public charter schools) would rise from $2.17 million in the first year of the program, to $11.8 million by the 11th year, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Assistant provided to the committee in March.

“The maximum number of dollars in any one year that would be taken from the public schools is $11 million, out of the $938 million that we put into education on a regular basis,” said Rep. Karen Umberger, R-Kearsarge, chair of Finance Division II, which worked on the bill. “So I don’t believe that passing this bill is going to have the catastrophic effect that so many believe is true.”

The House Education Committee worked on the bill for much of 2017 after it came out of the Senate, and managed to get the bill passed through the House, but it was referred to Finance for additional review and a second House vote.

House Education Chairman Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, said he doubts that the full House will override the Finance Committee recommendation when it votes on the bill a second time, but the pressure on Republican representatives will be intense.

“Thanks to the representatives who voted today to support expanding educational opportunities for low-income families,” said Sununu in a statement. “We hope for a better result on the floor of the House.”

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