By Rep. MARJORIE PORTER, D-Hillsborough
When the results of the election in November became clear, giving Republicans the control over the NH House, the NH Senate, the Executive Council, and the Governor’s office, I had a feeling I was going be experiencing a lot of deja-vu.
I was right. With total control, my colleagues from across the aisle got right to work, filing bills to bring back all their old favorites.
I admit to going into my files to look for articles I had written before that I could simply dust off and use again. I found many. Guns in Reps Hall? Check. Cutting business taxes? Check again. So-called Right to Work? Constitutional amendments to ban income and sales taxes? School vouchers? Check, check, and (Oh boy!) check again.
I decided to go with the last one.
Back in 2017, when Republicans last controlled things, the Senate passed SB 193, a bill creating an educational voucher system in the state. It worked like this. A scholarship program would be set up for families that wanted to send their children to private, religious, or home schools. The program would be funded by the state’s education trust fund, which is in turn funded by our taxes. It would be administered by a privately-run scholarship granting organization.
Parents could apply for a scholarship. Once approved, the state would send the money to the scholarship granting organization. The organization kept a percentage and sent the balance on to the school of choice on behalf of the parents.
Cleverly calling the scholarships “education freedom accounts,” the hope was this would be an end run around the constitutional ban on using tax dollars to fund religious education.
There were income limits and other restrictions on who was eligible to receive a scholarship, and caps on the numbers each year, but in the end the bill died a not-so-quiet death after coming out of the House Finance committee with recommendation for more study.
Why? Because Finance had determined the program, even with all the restrictions and caps, would end up costing local property taxpayers $99 million over 10 years. They could not condone the downshifting.
Fast forward to 2021, and this year’s HB 20–the voucher bill on steroids.
HB 20 has been described as the most expansive voucher program in the country. Gone are the income limits, caps, and restrictions. In fact, it is estimated 95% of all K-12 students in New Hampshire would be eligible—even those currently in private schools. Families earning $40,000 or $400,000 or more—all are eligible.
Red flags are popping up all over the place with this bill, serious ones including constitutionality, but I am going to focus only on the financial today.
Scholarship amounts are based on the adequacy aid given per NH public school student, minus the fees the private scholarship granting organization charges. The bill says that fee can be as high as 10%.
Currently, the base amount of aid is $3,786, but it varies and can go as high as $8,458. If a student is in public school, that money goes to the school district. Under this bill, if the student leaves public school, the money goes with them. The Dept of Education estimates the net decrease to the local school for each departing student would be $4,603. If 10 students leave a district, the loss to the district will be $46,030, although fixed costs to run the school will not change. Local taxpayers will make up that difference. (We saw the harm done when school enrollment dropped due to the pandemic this year. Hillsboro-Deering enrollment went down 60 or so students, and the loss to the district in state and federal aid was more than $500,000.)
The argument is the program won’t cost the state any money because the adequacy aid will simply be going to the scholarship program instead of the public school.
The state does not grant adequacy aid to students attending private or home schools. But under the provisions of this bill, students currently enrolled in private schools, and most likely homeschools, will also be eligible for scholarships.
So, here’s some math. According to the NH Dept. of Education, there are currently 16,294 students enrolled in private schools in NH, and 6,110 students being home schooled. Assuming they each would apply for scholarships (and why wouldn’t they?) and each received just the base aid amount, the cost to the state education trust fund would be $84,821,544, money that is not currently being spent.
Add that to the money needed to fund public school kids who might apply, and the total amount is daunting.
It is not clear where that money will come from, as we are already facing a school funding crisis. Business taxes are one of the main sources of revenue for the education trust fund, but the governor is calling for business tax cuts.
As alarming as these figures are, of even greater concern is the virtual lack of public oversight of all this money. The private scholarship organization has control over not only who is granted aid, but also what educational programs and expenses are approved. It must only provide an annual report that it creates and perform limited random audits of scholarship accounts. And according to a report from Reaching Higher NH, “There is no stated provision where the scholarship organization must complete a comprehensive financial audit, submit proof or records of fiscal management, or any other oversight to ensure that the organization, or families, are using public funds for their stated purpose.” *
Those of you who have attended school district and town meetings over the years and are used to overseeing how our every tax dollar is being spent, certainly must see the folly in this. Tax dollars given to a private organization with no oversight, to be spent as they see fit. What could possibly go wrong?
And finally, the list of education-related expenses the voucher dollars can be used for is long and ambiguous, and includes any educational expense recommended by the scholarship organization and approved by the DOE. Like, say, field trips.
So, here’s a scenario you might like to consider. A wealthy family, homeschooling their seven children, could apply for and receive a grant totaling $23,851 after fees, and take their family on a wonderful field trip to Europe on the taxpayer’s dime.
All the top Republican leadership in the NH House and Senate are co-sponsors of this bill. They’ve even named it after the late Speaker Hinch, to honor him. I understand the Governor is on board, along with the education commissioner.
And all this time they’ve been telling us THEY are the fiscally conservative party. Go figure.
*Many thanks to Reaching Higher NH. Read their full report here:
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