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School choice bill clears key committee in 10-9 vote

State House Bureau

November 14. 2017 7:47PM
Opponents of SB 193, left, and supporters of the bill, right, were out in force in the hallway and in the meeting room as the House Education Committee voted on what opponents called a "school voucher" bill. (Dave Solomon/Union Leader)

CONCORD — New Hampshire is one step closer to enacting one of the most expansive school choice laws in the country.

With a 10-9 vote, the House Education Committee on Tuesday endorsed SB 193, which would offer parents state-funded scholarships to send their children to private schools, including religious schools, or to pay for home schooling.

The bill already passed the Senate and has been aggressively endorsed by Gov. Chris Sununu, who made school choice one of the major planks in his gubernatorial campaign.

The committee vote on Tuesday improves the bill’s chances for passage, but it still has a long way to go before becoming law.

The full House will take up the bill when it reconvenes in January, with an “ought-to-pass” recommendation from the Education Committee. If the House passes the bill, it will then go to the House Finance Committee, because of the dollars involved.

Ultimately, the Senate would have to agree to the many changes in the bill made by the House, or the two chambers would have to agree on a common version of the bill before it goes to Sununu for his signature.

The 10-9 committee vote was largely along party lines, although two Republican representatives voted against it (James Grenier of Lempster and Robert Elliott of Salem), while one Democrat voted in favor (Barbara Shaw of Manchester).

Sununu applauded the bipartisan vote, and encouraged lawmakers to move forward with the bill.

“Politics were put aside today, and I applaud the House Education Committee for reaching a bipartisan compromise that puts New Hampshire families first,” he said in a statement. “We will continue to champion this ground-breaking legislation and will work with other members of the legislature as this bill moves through the process.”

Court challenge likely

Opponents of the bill said it would drain resources from public schools and would face an inevitable court challenge on the issue of tax dollars going to religious schools, even if those dollars are channeled through an independent and nonsectarian scholarship organization as the bill intends.

The “Education Freedom Savings Accounts” authorized under the bill would enable parents who work with an approved scholarship organization to receive 95 percent of the per-pupil state grant of $3,636 to be used for tuition, transportation or other costs at a school of the family’s choice, or to pay for home-schooling supplies.

The original Senate bill passed earlier in the year was only four pages long, and was retained by the House Education Committee, which appointed a subcommittee to work on the bill over the summer.

The bill is now twice as long, with an amendment filed at Sununu’s request that restricts eligibility for the scholarships to households with family income at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level, although that barrier could be overcome by other criteria, such as students with “individual education plans” or students who applied but failed to gain admission to a public charter school.

House Education Committee Chairman Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, said several changes were made to accommodate concerns raised by the governor and by certain representatives on the Education Committee to get the necessary votes.

“We had a strategy and the strategy worked,” he said. “We communicated with people and worked with them to get their votes.”

Sunset provision

In addition to new eligibility requirements, the version of the bill that now moves to the House contains provisions for accountability and reporting by parents in the program, mandatory audits of each scholarship by the scholarship organization, and a provision for grants to public school districts to compensate for any losses in revenues above one quarter of one percent.

There is also a sunset provision in the committee version of the bill. Unless an oversight commission recommends continuation of the program at the end of five years, it will expire in 2023.

Ladd urged the committee to endorse the bill as a way of helping students whose needs are not being met in their assigned public schools.

“Then target this to those students who are in those situations, and not to such a wide range of the population that almost anyone could qualify,” said Rep. Linda Tanner, D-Cornish. “If you want to base it on truancy, discipline, social or emotional issues identified by the school so that parents could take advantage of it, that would be one thing, but we just opened the flood gates for everyone.”

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