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State Senate acts on school choice, parental control

State House Bureau

February 24. 2017 12:26AM

CONCORD — The state Senate passed several education bills on Thursday with a focus on school choice and local control, two of Gov. Chris Sununu’s top education policy priorities. The bills now head to the House.

One of the most controversial bills, SB 193, creates a program by which parents can receive state funding to send their children to any school they choose, including religious schools.

The Education Freedom Savings Accounts authorized under SB 193 would enable parents who work with approved scholarship organizations to receive 90 percent of the per-pupil state grant to be used for tuition or other costs at a school of the family’s choice, or to pay for home-schooling.

The scholarship organization would get 5 percent of the adequacy grant to pay for administration.

The base state education grant to school districts per-student is now around $3,600, with various add-ons for low-income students and other factors.

Democratic Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, described the measure as a “voucher bill” for private and religious education, and said it could draw as much as $80 million from the state’s education fund based on the number of students currently attending private schools or being home-schooled.

“We also have issues with constitutionality,” he said. “If it walks like a voucher and quacks like a voucher, it probably is a voucher. I applaud the creativity of bills that try to find some circuitous route to fund religious schools. See you in court if that’s where you want to go.”

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley said the bill is designed to help children who need a different educational environment to reach their full potential.

“That’s what we should be doing because that’s what’s in the best interest of our kids,” he said.

The new program would be in addition to the New Hampshire Education Tax Credit Program launched in 2013, which gives tax credits to businesses that donate scholarship money for families who meet certain income guidelines to attend private schools.

Students would not be eligible for scholarships from both programs.

The Education Freedom Savings Accounts bill passed 13-10, as Republican Sen. Regina Birsell, R-Hampstead, voted with the nine Democrats present. She later explained that she supports the intent of the bill, but promised a constituent she would vote against it and wanted to keep that promise.

SB 8, the so-called “Croydon bill,” was approved in a 14-9 party line vote. It allows a public school district to contract with a private school to educate a child if the district does not have a public school at the child’s grade level. 

A similar bill, HB 557, is working its way through the House.

On matters of local control, the Senate passed SB44, prohibiting the state from requiring any school district to use the Common Core educational standards.

Democrats argued that the bill is unnecessary because there is no state statute that requires use of the Common Core, and that standards used in New Hampshire and nationally are in flux.

“This bill is a local control bill and that’s why we should pass it,” said Sen. Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro. “We do not want Washington or national standards dictated to local school boards. Let’s pass this bill and make sure that parents and local school boards are running our state’s schools.”

The Senate also passed SB 43, which states that no student can be required to take a school survey or questionnaire without written consent of the parent or guardian.

The bill also allows a parent or guardian to opt out of the youth risk behavior survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sununu issued a statement shortly after the passage of SB 8 and SB 44.

“I applaud the Senate’s actions today, passing legislation that further promotes and protects local control in public education through providing parents greater choice and flexibility and empowering local school boards to make the best decisions for their communities,” he said. “I encourage members of the House to embrace this legislation and I look forward to the opportunity to sign these important bills into law.”

Funding issues

On issues of school funding, the Senate voted 22-1 to fund full-day kindergarten across the state at a cost of approximately $14 million, and then immediately voted to table the measure pending the outcome of budget deliberations.

“It’s a vote that says we support doing something for full-day kindergarten,” said Bradley, “but we also need to know what the cost is and how it will fit with all the other things in the budget.”

Sununu has proposed a different approach in his budget proposal, with approximately $9 million to be targeted to the most needy school districts that offer full-day programs.

Cost was also a factor as the Senate voted against restoring state aid for school building projects, defeating SB 192 in a party-line 14-9 vote.

The School Building Aid Program has been suspended since 2010.

Sununu has promised to use some of the surplus in the state treasury to fund building aid through an “infrastructure Revitalization Fund.”

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