Over the past year, I have received many emails, and phone calls about funding for public schools and school choice. Senate Bill 130 (the school choice bill) has been, for the most part, the focus of these conversations. It has been incorrectly vilified by some as an instrument for destroying our public school system, but this characterization has most often come from an incorrect understanding of what school choice legislation, such as SB 130, actually does and will mean for our communities.

The COVID pandemic gave many parents a clearer view of what goes on in a classroom. Many were appalled at how the teaching was conducted, and many for the first time actually saw the curriculum. Many parents wanted to do something that was better for their children, but there were few choices. Public schools were closed, but charter schools were fully subscribed, as were many private schools. The situation was ripe for providing an alternative way to provide education for our children.

Senate Bill 130 provides an educational option for parents and their children, particularly those from lower income families. Despite its best intentions, the public school system cannot provide the best, and most suitable education for all children. That is an unrealistic expectation. There are many reasons why a different educational setting, and environment suits certain children. No child should be forced to attend a school just because it happens to be in his/her zip code area. Choice is a wonderful feeling.

Let’s take a look at some of the complaints.

“Vouchers” hurt public schools.

For each child attending public school, the district receives their adequacy grant from the education trust fund, plus additional money if the child is an English learner, needs reduced or free lunch, or has an IEP. The rest of the money for education, is raised in the community from property taxes.

A child who will use the “voucher opportunity” will have the money from the education trust fund through the scholarship organization, sent to the school of choice. None of the money raised locally from property taxes will support that child. Depending how many children choose this option, municipalities should actually see a significant savings over time.

To allay the fear of superintendents who see this alternative educational option as a drain on their expected financial support for their districts, there is a phase-out grant provision. For a child leaving the system 100 percent of the adequacy grant the first year, 50 percent the second year, and 25 percent the third year.

This provision should make it easier for school districts to adjust to fewer students and make appropriate planning. I don’t think anyone is expecting a major walk-out. This offer of vouchers are, at this point, reserved for families with an income at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty line. That in itself will exclude many families. Whether or not those guidelines will change in the future is anyone’s guess.

Will property taxes go up?

No, they won’t for the above reasons. A child leaving the public school system is not eligible for locally raised property taxes. Besides, in this new budget, $100 million dollars will go directly to municipalities for property tax relief. No property taxes will be raised for the children leaving the public school system for an alternative school, which should provide a savings to communities over time and property taxes should actually go down.

There is no separation of church and state. I don’t want my money to support religious schools.

The U.S supreme Court held that excluding religious institutions from programs for which they would normally qualify is a violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause (Read the case: Espinosa v. the State of Montana). Excluding religious schools from our school choice programs would be discriminatory.

Non-public schools don’t take children with educational, or physical disabilities.

Wrong. Families of children with special needs are strong supporters of school choice, and are often the people who need other options the most. “Vouchers” would be able to pay for special education services, including at local schools, if that is where parents and scholarship organizations agree that students would be best served. Under SB 130, parents would be explicitly informed of their rights under state and federal law, and would be able to make informed decisions about how best to meet the special needs of their children.

The way it works is that parents who have an income at, or below, 300 percent of the federal poverty line, apply to the scholarship organization for tuition to a particular school. If the application is granted, that tuition money is transferred to that school, not to the parents. Remember you have to be 300 percent or less of the federal poverty line in order to qualify. The tuition payment will include, if needed, aid for English language learners, special education, free and reduced lunch. What SB 130 does not provide is property tax money for the child. That money stays in the community.

It is a very misguided notion to think that only public schools provide a quality education. In New Hampshire we have many excellent private schools, and charter schools. Their teaching staff is top-notch, they provide a range of academic subjects, sports, and yes, educate children with special needs.

Private schools have to follow the same guidelines and regulations as the public schools.

Many have stated that because of COVID, and the disruption of public school education, the public schools now need more money to catch up. Do you realize that during this pandemic the private schools, charter schools, and parochial schools never missed a beat? That should say something about options, choice and flexibility.

SB 130 is for the children of New Hampshire who need a different place to learn. We should not withhold this opportunity for them.

Ruth Ward, a Stoddard Republican, represents District 8 in the N.H. Senate, and chairs the Senate Education Committee.

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