On private school vouchers, New Hampshire voters deserve better than the closure of public discussion by Senate Republicans last month. Upon passage of Senate Bill 130, Senate Republicans immediately tabled the bill, preventing it from being referred to the Senate Finance Committee for a full fiscal review, avoiding another full Senate vote, and preventing comparable committee reviews and votes in the House.
Seemingly, the overwhelming public response against private and religious school vouchers convinced Senate Republicans they didn’t want any further public discussion on the financial impact, nor on the lack of clarity of this bill.
The problems with this private school voucher bill are numerous. For starters, SB 130 fails to define a relationship to the existing Education Tax Credit scholarships (RSA 77-G) offered to the same population served by this new school voucher program. Education Tax Credit scholarships don’t draw on any state general or education trust funds, and can be used by an eligible student for the same purpose as the proposed voucher program, “to attend (1) a nonpublic school; (2) a public school located outside of the school district in which the student resides; (3) the cost of college or university, accredited tutor or tutoring facility, or distance education program. A home educated student may also receive a scholarship to cover educational expenses.” The program serves 670 students, including 110 homeschoolers, and could double the number of student scholarships without any additional legislative authorization.
Does qualification for one program qualify someone for the other program? If so, a family might be able to receive up to $7,500 from a school voucher and $5,000 from a tax credit scholarship for each student.
The proposed new private school voucher bill, with the income eligibility limited to household income less than or equal to 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, opens eligibility for 60,000 public school students, and up to 16,000 private schoolers and 5,000 homeschoolers. Reaching Higher New Hampshire estimates the fiscal impact at $25 million a year. In addition, remember that by accepting the federal charter school expansion grant this January, New Hampshire has agreed to double the number of students in charter schools, likely doubling the state’s current $44 million in spending. No funding source has been identified to cover any of this new spending. And that’s why taxpayers are concerned that state aid to public school districts will be cut to pay for the new obligations, and local property taxpayers will be left to shoulder these unfunded state obligations.
There is no property taxpayer relief in the governor’s proposed budget for public school district grants either; the governor proposes an $85 million cut from the current year. This reduction, together with retirement cost responsibility shifted from the state to local districts, is causing a lot of apprehension as local school districts adopt budgets for next year.
Aside from funding concerns, the tabled school voucher bill fails to address how private school students access special education services, the unconstitutionality of funding religious-based education, the lack of background checks and credentialing of non-public school educators, lack of public input on rule writing, the lack of audits, and lack of nonpublic school performance reviews.
New Hampshire provides the least state funding per student of any state in the country. About 30 percent through state funds and about 20 percent if the statewide property tax is removed because those dollars are kept locally. The competition over the relatively small amount of state funding for public schools makes the public very nervous about local property tax increases. Rightfully so: Private school voucher programs usually cost states much more than original estimates.
The school voucher bill will result in the state funding 177 public school districts, 32 public charter schools growing to 52 with the new grant, and 133 private schools; in total 362 different organizations competing for the same funding pool of state Education Trust Funds.
The breakneck enthusiasm of the commissioner of education, Republican legislative leaders and the governor to divert resources from public schools is not in keeping with the vast majority of New Hampshire voters. Rather than cutting off debate, we need to hear what an overwhelming majority of New Hampshire residents think about school vouchers: people don’t want this, the state can’t afford it; communities fear the impact on their property taxes; programs already exist to do this; and basic questions about the bill haven’t been addressed.