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Major changes proposed for school choice bill opposed by Democrats

State House Bureau

February 27. 2018 10:13PM
Opponents of SB 193, left, and supporters of the bill, right, as the House Education Committee voted on what opponents called a "school voucher" bill on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. (Dave Solomon/Union Leader)

CONCORD — A year-long legislative effort to enable the use of taxpayer funds for private school education has taken another turn, with the second complete overhaul of Senate Bill 193.

(Click here to see today's related editorial.)

Called the “school voucher bill” by critics and “freedom scholarships” by supporters, the bill would be substantially changed by a proposed amendment to be discussed at the State House today.

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

The bill, which passed the Senate along party lines in March 2017, would give parents state aid to send their children to private schools, under certain conditions. The bill started as a four-page proposal when introduced by Sen. John Reagan in January 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, last month.

After House passage, the bill was referred to House Finance because of the dollars involved, and has since been reworked again, in anticipation of another House vote before the end of March.

Public school advocacy groups argue the bill, if signed into law, would drain millions of dollars from public schools.

“It’s still a bad bill,” according to the website Advancing New Hampshire Public Education, created by former Board of Education member and public school advocate Bill Duncan.

“The amendment tightens some of the loopholes, but places local school districts in greater financial jeopardy. A bad bill remains a bad bill that should be voted down.”

School choice supporters, including Gov. Chris Sununu and Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, believe those fears are based on unrealistic assumptions of how many families will take advantage of the scholarship accounts.

“I think it (the amendment) moves the ball in the right direction toward choice,” said Edelblut. “The concerns many have expressed are overstated. We have many excellent schools in New Hampshire and I think it’s unlikely you will see a mass exodus from that system.”

The bill would enable parents who work with an approved scholarship organization to receive 95 percent of the per-pupil state education grant, about $3,600, to be used for tuition or other costs at a school of the family’s choice, or to pay for home-schooling.

The major change in the amendment drafted by leaders of the House education and finance committees is the elimination of a stabilization fund to shelter school districts from a significant loss of funding.

The bill that passed the House in January promised five years of “stabilization payments” to school districts that lost state funding equal to 0.25 percent or more of the district’s budget.

Instead, the state would now pay a “one-time adjustment” of only $1,500 for each student who takes advantage of a scholarship and leaves the district.

The new version of the bill caps the number of students who could receive scholarships each year in any one school district. No one school could lose more than 5 percent of its students in a single year.

The household income limit to qualify for scholarships has been reduced from 300 percent to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, while the criteria for private schools receiving scholarship students have been tightened up.

The new amendment requires that the private school be accredited by an accrediting body certified by the Department of Education.

There are many other technical changes, including a narrower window of time each year for parents to make a decision and a delay in implementation by one year, to the 2019-2020 school year.

The bill still has a long way to go, including final passage by the House and reconciliation with the Senate before heading to Sununu.

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