CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The Republican-led New Hampshire Senate gave preliminary approval Thursday to a school voucher bill that supporters say would especially benefit children who have struggled during the coronavirus pandemic. Opponents argued it would drain money from struggling public schools.
The Senate voted 14-10 along party lines in favor of the bill, then tabled it. It's similar to a House measure, but the Senate version limits eligibility to families with income up to 300% of the federal poverty line.
Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, described hearing from a family which both parents work full time while their children attend school in person part time and remotely on other days. The children are not doing well, she said, and the school’s response was to warn the mother that child protective services might be called.
“This will give her a choice. It will give parents a choice to be able to go to a school that is teaching in person that will benefit the kids,” she said. “With hybrid, it doesn’t work for all students, and we don’t know how long this is going to go on.”
The bill would create “education freedom accounts” that could be used toward private or home school expenses. Participants would get about $4,500, the average amount the state pays per pupil to school districts.
Opponents argued it would siphon money from public schools while providing no oversight over the education provided by private institutions that are free to discriminate against applicants on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race and more.
In urging his colleagues to reject the bill, Sen. Lou D’Allesandro said he questions its constitutionality, and said it was the wrong move at a time when the state is being sued over education funding and just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants to recommend improvements to public education.
“Public education should be treasured,” said D’Allesandro, D-Manchester. “And yet, all of this legislation is carving public education apart.”
Sen. Denise Ricciardi, R-Bedford, said she opposed the original bill but was satisfied with changes made by the Senate, including limiting eligibility to low-income families. The Senate version also includes phase-out grants to public schools that lose students because of the vouchers.
“This is to help the small percentage of people that are not getting what they need. Do we need to simultaneously work to improve our public school system? Absolutely, and I will be on board to do that. But in the meantime, what happens to this small percentage of children?” she said. “It is not a threat to our schools. It is an enhancement for children who need it, and it is the right thing to do.”
A recent study from the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy estimated that public school enrollment would decrease by less than 1% in the first year of the program and 2% in the second year. It estimated that the program would save taxpayers $6.65 million in its first two years.