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NH House defeats controversial school choice bill — for now

State House Bureau

May 02. 2018 9:43PM

CONCORD — A controversial school choice bill that would have directed some of the state’s education funds to parents for private school tuition failed in the House on Wednesday, despite the strong support of Gov. Chris Sununu and Republican leadership in the House and Senate.

A concern over the potential loss of funds to public schools, cited by Republican Neal Kurk of Weare, chairman of the Finance Committee, was a major issue leading to a 170-159 vote to send the bill, SB 193, to interim study.

“The bill before us shifts a major financial burden onto local property taxpayers, and I wasn’t elected to increase local property taxes,” Kurk said. “Interim study can result in a bill in the future that solves that problem.”

Supporters of the bill said it would give a small number of low-income students a chance to find a better fit for their education, at minimal loss to public school funding.

The vote caps a year-long legislative effort to enable the use of taxpayer funds for private school education, but it is not necessarily the last word on the proposal.

Majority Leader Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, quickly called for the House to adjourn after the vote, preventing SB 193 opponents from making a motion to preclude future consideration of the bill during the current session.

That means it could be brought up again today when the House reconvenes, by simple majority on a motion made by a member who voted on the winning side, although absent a major change in attendance, the numbers appear to favor opponents.

Sununu, who campaigned aggressively for the bill, called Wednesday’s vote “a loss for New Hampshire children and their families,” and promised to keep working for the concept.

“While a slim majority in the House voted against expanding education opportunities for low-income families, we will continue to work with members of the House and Senate to advocate for what is right,” he said in a statement issued after the vote.

The entire Democratic caucus, with the exception of Rep. Dick Patten of Merrimack, joined 17 Republicans in supporting the Finance Committee recommendation of interim study.

Called the “school voucher bill” by critics and “freedom scholarships” by supporters, the bill went through many iterations since it passed the Senate along party lines in March 2017

The House Education Committee made several significant changes during its deliberations last summer and into the fall, resulting in House passage of the amended bill, 184-162, in January.

The changes include substantial reductions in subsidies to cities and towns that lose public school students; tighter qualifications for those seeking scholarships; and more accountability for the private schools that get the money.

After House passage, the bill was referred to House Finance because of the dollars involved, and was reworked again, with a cap on the number of students eligible for the program each year, and lower family income limits for eligibility.

Public school advocacy groups argued the program would drain millions of dollars from public schools, citing an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Assistant that put the total loss at nearly $100 million over the next 11 years.

Proponents of the bill questioned that number, but argued that even if accurate, it pales in comparison to the $26.5 billion that will be spent on public education in that same time frame, during years of declining enrollment.

The bill passed the House in January on promises of five years of “stabilization payments” to school districts that lost state funding equal to 0.25 percent or more of the district’s budget, but that provision was deleted during the Finance Committee review.

It was replaced with a “one-time adjustment” of $1,500 for each student who leaves a public school through the scholarship program.

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