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House OK's its version of school choice bill

State House Bureau

March 08. 2017 8:23PM
Croydon allowed parents of its few children to choose nearby non-public schools over public schools in neighboring towns. (Facebook)

CONCORD — School choice advocates chalked up another legislative victory on Wednesday, as the House voted 188-163 to pass HB 557, the so-called “Croydon Bill,” giving school districts the power to assign children to private schools in certain circumstances, using taxpayer dollars.

The Senate has already passed a slightly different version of the same bill, SB 8, and Gov. Chris Sununu has indicated his support for the concept. Lawmakers in the House and Senate last year passed a similar school choice bill only to have it vetoed by Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

The legislation was prompted by the ongoing battle the Sullivan County town of Croydon has had with the state Department of Education and in the courts over its attempt to send five local children to a nearby Montessori school at taxpayer expense.

The town has appealed a Superior Court ruling supporting the Board of Education to the state Supreme Court, which recently put the case on hold, pending the outcome of school choice legislation.

Many of the smaller communities in the state, like Croydon, do not have a local K-12 school district. They contract with larger nearby districts to educate their students, usually through a per-student tuition contract paid for by the sending town.

Many such towns would like the flexibility to send students to private schools, including those not approved by the state Department of Education.

The House version of the bill was amended before passage to exclude religious or sectarian schools. The Senate bill makes no such distinction.

“We’re trying to keep it all constitutional and able to stand up to any legal challenges,” said Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, chairman of the House Education Committee.

He predicted that differences in the House and Senate bills will be worked out in conference committee and a school choice bill will go to Sununu for his signature.

“During hearing testimony, we heard push back from groups representing the education bureaucracy opposing small towns having the authority to send students to nearby nonsectarian private schools, as these groups desire all funds going to nearby public schools,” said Ladd. “This bill recognizes that locally elected officials are best equipped to decide which school, public or nonsectarian private, is best for students.”

Speaking for the minority, Rep. Mary Heath, D-Manchester, said the bill fails to assure that students will get an adequate education because some could now be sent to schools not approved for adequacy by the state Board of Education.

“I know a lot of public schools that are noted as adequate, but are failing,” Ladd responded. “There are failing private schools, too, and this provides a choice for a school district that doesn’t have certain grades to tuition their students to a school that provides a great education, not just an adequate education.”

The House also took action on HB 620, a bill that originally prohibited the state Board of Education from implementing any rules or regulations that impose additional costs on local school district.

In a bipartisan 388-18 vote, the House voted to pass the bill as amended, to require the Board of Education to “take into account” the fiscal impact of any new rules or regulations.

“HB 620 as proposed was too complex and the Education Committee did not have enough time to study its impact on the rule-making process of the Department of Education,” said Rep. Mel Myler, D-Contoocook, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.

“Under the compromise floor amendment we adopted, all current rules have been grandfathered,” he said. “A study committee this spring and summer will take the time to seek input from various interest groups and stakeholders regarding how rules impact their concerns.”

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