CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The debate over school choice has returned to the New Hampshire Statehouse, pushed by a larger Republican majority and a growing number of parents frustrated by the coronavirus pandemic.
A bill before the House Education Committee on Tuesday 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. Unlike a similar bill that was defeated in 2018, the new version would make accounts available to all students, not just those from low-income families and those living in underperforming districts.
“Under this horrible disease we’re under, COVID-19, I firmly believe this is a good solution for the families of New Hampshire to help them in the best way to educate their children,” said House Speaker Sherm Packard, R-Londonderry, who took over as lead sponsor of the bill after the COVID-19 death of former Speaker Dick Hinch. “I think anybody in this state who wants to make sure our kids have the best education possible should, and I hope will, support this bill.”
Opponents argue the bill will drain money from public school districts and allow wealthy parents to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools that are free to discriminate against applicants on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race and more. Rep. Doug Ley, a Jaffrey Democrat and president of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, called it a “radical reshaping of New Hampshire’s public education system.”
“If 1% of students leave a school, you do not get to shave 1% or one yard off the 100-yard football field, it doesn’t work like that,” he said. “This program will only deepen the rapidly growing crisis in the funding of public education and it will lead to increases in property taxes.”
Ben Clemons, a Nashua alderman, said his city already is looking at a significant tax increase to make up the funding lost due to the pandemic. Enacting the voucher program could mean the closure of schools, teacher layoffs or program cuts, he said.
“You’re gonna see consequences that are going to be extremely dramatic,” he said.
Another sponsor of the bill, Rep. Glenn Cordelli, rebutted that argument, saying public school enrollment is projected to drop regardless of the voucher program, so districts will have to find ways to adapt. He also dismissed criticism that the program does nothing to ensure that students are actually receiving an adequate education. While participants wouldn’t be required to take statewide assessment tests like their public school peers, “It has better means of assessment. It has parental accountability,” said Cordelli, R-Tuftonburo.
“A parent can walk and take their dollars with them if a parent is not getting a proper education,” he said.