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School choice advocates make their closing argument to lawmakers

State House Bureau

May 01. 2018 8:58PM
Catie McLaughlin of Hampton Falls holds daughter Lily-Cate as she speaks in support of SB 193, the school choice bill before the legislature this week. (Dave Solomon/Union Leader)

CONCORD — Advocates for a school choice bill that faces a do-or-die vote this week crowded into the Legislative Office Building on Tuesday to make their case.

Moms with kids in tow joined Manchester school board members, lawmakers and policy analysts to push for passage of Senate Bill 193, using some of the most emotional language yet heard in what has been a contentious debate.

The bill, which passed the state Senate last year, would create a scholarship program from state education funds for qualified parents to send their kids to private schools, including religious schools, or for home schooling.

The theme at Tuesday’s event centered on parents, who spoke of their frustrations in dealing with the public schools, their desire to find alternatives for their children, and their inability to achieve that goal due to a lack of income.

“This bill establishes a program that will give less fortunate families a chance to explore education options that might not normally be within their reach,” said House Majority Leader Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack.

“We’ve added reasonable safeguards to ensure our public schools continue to be strong and well-funded,” said Hinch. “The bill has been tailored to ensure those with the greatest financial needs are the beneficiaries of the program.”

Rep. Karen Umberger, R-Kearsarge, described many of the changes made in the bill to address concerns of opponents, including caps on the number of children eligible and tighter eligibility requirements.

But the real purpose of the event was not to rehash the details of the bill, which have been debated for months. The focus was on the children and teenagers in the crowd, many of them sporting the yellow scarves of the school choice movement.

State Board of Education Chair Drew Cline, in his capacity as public policy director for the Josiah Bartlett Center, presents an economic analysis of SB 193, the school choice bill, as a press conference on Tuesday. (Dave Solomon/Union Leader)

A ‘matter of dignity’

Catie McLaughlin of Hampton Falls, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and small business owner, came with her five children to discuss her experience in home schooling and advising other home-schoolers in her community.

“These are usually very astute, hardworking and involved parents, but for one reason or another, their child is not doing well (in public school). These parents have tried to make the schools better, usually to no avail,” she said.

McLaughlin, holding her young daughter as she spoke, said: “Having a choice in education is a matter of human dignity, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we know it’s also a matter of saving lives.”

“Those children who are out there suffering in the schools day to day, who cry on a daily basis, whose stomach hurts ... those kids are out there suffering, and we see suicide rates on the climb. We need to have a school system that will allow for parents to have more choices.”

Moira Ryan of Londonderry alluded to her veteran status and choked back tears as she described trying to work with her public school system to educate her son, who has autism.

“Myself being a veteran, and someone who is in the military, there are days when dealing with the public school is like going through a war a second time,” she said. “Every parent-teacher conference centered on ‘What’s wrong with your kid?’ but no solutions on making my child successful.”

Scheduled for a vote

The bill is scheduled for a vote either today or Thursday in the House, culminating a debate that began more than a year and a half ago.

The bill goes to the House floor with a 14-12 vote from the House Finance Committee for “interim study,” which in the second year of a two-year session means a new bill would have to be brought forward in 2019.

State Rep. Robert Theberge, R-Berlin, was one of three Republicans on the Finance Committee to vote for interim study.

“The majority believes that the bill needs further work,” according to Theberge. “It would downshift more than $99 million to local school districts during the first 11 years, most likely resulting in an increase in local property taxes.”

Theberge also writes in the majority report on the bill that it does not adequately deal with the needs of special education students and does not allow for proper oversight of private school or home-school academic programs.

Gov. Chris Sununu, an ardent backer of the bill, had a letter of support presented on his behalf at Tuesday’s event. 

Also speaking in support of SB 193 were Board of Education Chairman Drew Cline, in his capacity as public policy director for the Josiah Bartlett Center, a free market think tank; along with Manchester school board members Rich Girard and Lisa Freeman, who also serves as a state representative.

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Thank you, Sununu