Update: The N.H. House has approved this bill, 184-162, after the vote was moved to Wednesday.
The N.H. House of Representatives is set to vote next week on a voucher program that would allow parents to use public education funds for private schools.
The N.H. Senate approved Senate Bill 193, which establishes education freedom savings accounts for students, in March 2017.
However, the House Education Committee amended the bill by increasing requirements in areas such as accountability and eligibility. The committee narrowly passed the amended bill, 10-9, on Nov. 15.
If the House passes the bill by a majority vote, it will then go the House Finance Committee for review, according to Terry Wolf, R-Bedford, vice chairwoman of the House Education Committee. Once that’s complete, the House will vote again, Wolf said.
That vote was scheduled Thursday, but that day’s House session has been postponed because of a winter storm warning. The session has been rescheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 9.
“This is a process, just like any other bill,” Wolf said. “I think it’s going to pass the House Thursday.”
If the bill passes, the Senate gets another crack at it. Its options would be to concur with the House version or send it to a conference committee comprising Senate and House members. The conference committee would be charged with crafting the final, compromise bill.
“There is a strong possibility for more floor amendments to be added Thursday,” James E. Rivers, director of House communications, said. “Then, it would become interesting to see where that would lead.”
The bill calls for the use of state education funds to set up savings accounts for parents to access so they can pay tuition for their children to attend any private school, including religious schools, in the state.
New Hampshire’s Constitution prohibits using tax dollars for religious schools, but the bill avoids that conflict, supporters say, by providing money to a scholarship organization that dispenses the individual savings accounts to parents.
“I believe this bill is unconstitutional and if passed, will end up in court where it won’t prevail,” state Rep. Marjorie Porter, D-Hillsboro, said. “They have answered some of the questions, but they haven’t gone far enough. This is still a bad bill.”
Wolf disagrees; the constitutionality of the bill will have a “hearty debate,” she said.
“Both sides are equally convinced they’re right,” Wolf said. “That has been and will continue to be discussed.”
The bill takes 95 percent of the state adequacy aid per child — about $3,200 per student between the ages of 5 and 20 — and gives it to a scholarship organization where the individual savings accounts exist. Parents then receive the money by way of a voucher that can be used to pay for private school tuition.
“This bill is a budget-buster,” said Sam Osheron, coordinator of Monadnock United 2018, an unaffiliated political activism group. “The private school accountability is shoddy at best, and there are more loopholes than usual. There is a lot of outraged people and the opposition is growing.”
The bill would leave a $35 million shortfall in state education funding over five years that has not been reconciled, Osheron said.
Rep. James W. McConnell, R-Swanzey, disagrees and supports the bill, saying it’s “for the kids.”
“I think the money should be with the child,” McConnell said. “It gives the parents the option to choose a better school. That’s important.”
Furthermore, the bill is designed to help provide a path for lower income and working-class families to access the best educational opportunities available in New Hampshire, state Rep. Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, who wrote the majority opinion in favor of the bill, said. The bill is a five-year pilot program.
To be eligible, parents would have to have a household income less than or equal to 300 percent of the federal poverty limit, live in an under-performing school district, have a child with an individual education plan or tried unsuccessfully to enroll a child in a charter school or get an education tax credit.
The money would be distributed by a nonprofit scholarship organization that would keep 5 percent for administrative costs. The bill, designed as a five-year pilot program, has an oversight commission, including the N.H. Department of Education and the state Board of Education.
Even if the bill passes Thursday, and eventually moves through the process to the governor’s desk to be signed into law, it faces a certain court challenge.
“Everybody that has discussed this from every side does agree on that single fact,” Wolf said. “It will end up in court.”