It would be hard to envision worse legislation than House Bill 607, either in effect or process.
It would allow school districts to vote to enact local “freedom education accounts” — school vouchers that draw public school funding away to help pay for private schools or homeschooling. And this plan, unlike even the expanded state-level vouchers GOP leaders are trying to ram through, would pay, in many cases, much more, and possibly for a far longer time, with no way to step back.
That’s because these local vouchers would be guaranteed to the families who choose them, even if the community immediately sees the downside and reverses its vote. The amount — which can be as high as $41,000 in extreme cases — would be guaranteed to follow the student though high school graduation, even if they received it as a 1st-grader. And there would be no cap on who can make use of the vouchers, no income requirements. At this point, legislative leaders aren’t even pretending anymore that the vouchers are meant to help poorer families.
The lone sane aspect of the bill is that the local districts must opt into the program, by a 60 percent vote in favor of it. While that might, to some, make it seem unlikely ever to be approved, note there are communities in which a sizable percentage of local students are either homeschooled or could be expected to opt for private schooling.
In fact, since anyone homeschooling would be eligible for what amounts to “found” money compared to their current situation, we’d expect every homeschooling family to take advantage of it if they can. Suppose for some reason ConVal voted to allow these accounts. If the 83 current homeschooled students in the district were all granted the $7,511 each voucher is expected to be worth (via education advocacy group Reach Higher N.H.), that would be more than $623,000 from local taxpayers spent on students who aren’t costing the district a cent now, because their parents chose not to send them to public school.
Proponents of stealing public money to pay for private education often argue there should be no net effect or — laughably — that the cost to taxpayers should drop — when money is diverted through vouchers. Their reasoning is that the expense of educating the student ought to drop hand in hand with the loss of the funding, or even more if the level of the funding isn’t fully what the district spends “per student.”
But that deceptive argument ignores that most school costs don’t occur student by student. The salary and benefits spent to pay a teacher don’t drop when that teacher has one or two or even five fewer students per class — nor does the cost of electricity, water, sewer, etc. The district doesn’t start laying off custodians, nurses and administrators when a handful of families opts to take the money and run to the nearest private school. Those costs remain, and are borne by local taxpayers — who are already bearing almost the full load for all school costs, since the state “aid” being sent back to the district also comes from them.
Make no mistake: Passage of HB 607 would be one more step in the far right’s effort to undermine public education. It practically begs parents to opt out of public schools, by offering them, in many cases, far more than the $3,709 in state-aid vouchers the original education freedom accounts paid out in the 2020-21 year. In the case of Chesterfield, for example, anyone getting a local voucher would receive $11,291, according to Reach Higher N.H.’s calculations. That’s quite an incentive to anyone who thinks they can get a better education at a private school, or do it themselves.
Then there’s the process by which this was foisted upon the state.
The bill began last legislative session as an attempt to localize the new favored educational plan of the state’s far-right: school vouchers that force taxpayers to pay for private and home-schooled students. That was bad enough, but it got far worse as lawmakers began mucking about with it.
The original version would have used the meager state educational aid to pay for the vouchers. But an amendment proposed Nov. 10 overwrote almost the entire thing, most substantially changing the funding so that it would now come directly from local taxpayers. The House Education Committee voted about a week later to recommend its passage, in a fully partisan 10-9 vote.
That amendment never had a public hearing, nor did the legislation contain any fiscal note on its effects to taxpayers. “This program has the potential to have a dramatic impact on local schools, their budgets, and local property taxes,” Marjorie Porter, D-Hillsboro, reported for the minority.
That lack of oversight and public input alone ought to ensure the bill be tabled, if not outright dismissed when the full House takes it up, which is expected Wednesday. The effects it would have on any district foolish enough to pass such a law ought to be even more of an incentive to kill it.