Senate OKs ed tuition deals with religious schools

Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, confers with Senate Democratic Leader and ex-President Donna Soucy of Manchester at the first in-person session of the Senate in 2021 in historic Representatives Hall at the State House.

CONCORD — Letting parents get taxpayer-supported tuition benefits for their children to attend religious schools cleared the State Senate Thursday.

The narrowly-drawn, House-passed bill (HB 282) permits school districts to provide tuition support to parents for their children in grades at religious schools, only if the town doesn’t have public schools in those grades.

The bill passed the Senate along partisan lines, 14-10; all Republicans in support, all Democrats opposing it.

A federal lawsuit brought on behalf of a Croydon family sparked this legislation, which gained steam last June after a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Espinoza vs. Montana Department of Revenue, found that state could not exclude religious schools from its voucher program.

After the ruling, the libertarian-leaning, pro-school choice group Institute for Justice filed suit on behalf of a Croydon seventh-grader whose grandparents wanted to send him to Mount Royal Academy, a religious school.

Croydon is such a small town that it has no middle school.

In 2017, Gov. Chris Sununu signed a tuition law at the request of Croydon advocates but it only allowed school districts to approve tuition agreements with “non-sectarian” schools.

“This legislation furthers school choice,” said state Sen. Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

After some further procedural steps, the bill will go to the desk of Sununu, who hasn’t taken a position on it during the 2021 session.

Critics: It could discriminate

State Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, said the bill could lead to discrimination as parents are only offered schools supported by religions not of their faith.

“If a school district decides they will go with the least-expensive Catholic school in the neighborhood as the alternative tuition school, aren’t we talking about taking away a parent’s choice?” Sherman asked.

Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, said tuition costs at religious schools can be lower than others because their teachers are not licensed by the state.

“There is one purpose for this bill and that is to authorize public money to be spent for private religious schools,” Kahn said, adding the bill violates a provision in the Constitution against state aid for religious schools.

“If the Republicans want to direct public money to religious schools they should do so through a constitutional amendment that allows the public to voice their opinion,” Kahn said.

A small group of public school supporters held signs outside the State House, urging the Senate to reject the bill.

At a Senate public hearing last month, 118 signed up against the measure while 11 supported it.

On a related matter, the Senate voted by the identical, 14-10 margin, for a bill (HB 388) making religious schools eligible to be chosen as an alternative place for a student who has a “manifest education hardship” in attending a public school.