Editor’s note: This is a new version of the story about a House Education Committee vote Tuesday that includes important information that wasn’t immediately available when published Wednesday.
By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — An amendment to House Bill 607 would allow school districts to establish Education Freedom Accounts using local education money.
The state already offers Education Freedom Accounts, which provide public funding to make it easier for parents to choose the schools their children attend.
Such accounts have proven to be more popular than anticipated. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said they now expect between 1,000 and 1,500 students to join the program. The New Hampshire Legislature had budgeted enough money to cover 28 students.
The amended bill approved by the House Education Committee this week is separate from the state program, enabling local Education Freedom Accounts that allocate a portion of public school funds to cover the costs.
The calculation takes the previous year’s local education tax revenue and subtracts special education funding. Eighty percent of the resulting figure would be divided by the average number of students in daily attendance to determine the per-pupil EFA grant amount.
In the examples provided to the committee, Newfields would have a local EFA grant of $11,462 per student; Rumney’s would be $10,788; Conway’s would be $4,872; and Deerfield’s would be $8,871.
If the amended bill is approved by the full House and Senate and becomes law, the superintendent of each school district adopting the program would make the necessary amount of funding available to each student requesting a local Education Freedom Account.
The money could be used toward educational costs at any private, religious, or charter school of the parents’ choice.
The state’s version of Education Freedom Accounts, passed in June, allows low-income families with earnings as high as 300 percent of the federal poverty level to participate. Each student could receive as much as $4,600 under that plan.
The local plan, which was not proposed by the Department of Education, has no income eligibility restrictions.
A statement from the House Democratic Office said, “The last-minute amendment jammed through House Education, with no public hearing, is a stealth attack on New Hampshire taxpayers as it would create a new voucher program that would draw exclusively on local property tax dollars and remove the parental income requirement. Expanding the voucher program in New Hampshire will dramatically increase property taxes statewide and swing the door wide open for absolutely anyone, regardless of income level, to force local property taxpayers to pay their private school tuition bills.
“Just last week, it came to light that the current voucher program Gov. Sununu signed into law this June is under-budgeted by five thousand percent in its first year, with most funds going to families and children already homeschooled or enrolled in private school.”
Grants for the 1,500 students potentially participating in the first year of the program would amount to $6.9 million, while the state had budgeted only $129,000.
The Democrats’ statement continued, “The amendment … exacerbates the already massive burden on local municipalities. While no fiscal note was included on the amendment, even the Republican’s [sic] hand-picked examples passed out in committee show that taxpayers in Rumney, a rural town of about 1,500 people, would spend 117% more than the current voucher program cost to fund the tuition of children attending private and religious schools. In towns lucky enough to have an ocean or a lake or a ski area, it could be thousands more to subsidize families who already send their kids to private schools, no matter how much money they make.
“Make no mistake, this has been the Republicans’ plans all along. Their ultimate goal of defunding public education and sending tax dollars to private and religious schools is here and is expanding every chance they get. Just like the current voucher program, this new program lacks accountability and is nothing short of stealing your tax dollars. Granite State taxpayers deserve better.”
Rep. Kevin Verville, R-Deerfield, the sponsor of HB 607, said his proposal, unrelated to the state EFA program currently in place, would neither decimate public school funding nor elevate local property taxes.
He also disputed that it was a last-minute amendment, saying it had gone to the committee earlier. The only change was to correct the definition of eligible students to match his original bill. Verville said he had accidentally copied and pasted the wrong language into the amendment when he made it to address concerns raised at a hearing last spring.
The bill itself, he said, was the product of “five years of kicking the concept around.”
It was based on a bill that Sen. John Reagan (R-Deerfield) had proposed during Verville’s freshman year as a representative, but which failed on the floor of the House.
Like the Education Freedom Account, Reagan’s bill would have given parents a portion of local education money to send their students to a school of their choice.
“But it got me to wondering, how does one potentially access local education money to be able to follow the student?” Verville said.
“This is enabling legislation. This doesn’t force anybody to do anything, and it’s a local control issue. So this allows a local school district to decide whether or not they want local education monies to be able to follow the student or not, and the same mechanism that enables it disables it if a community changes their mind,” he said.
Like communities and school district’s adopting RSA 40:13, popularly known as SB2, voters could rescind their adoption of the plan at a subsequent school district meeting.
He noted that students choosing the state’s Education Freedom Accounts are no longer considered to be enrolled in their local public school. In contrast, students choosing the local Education Freedom Accounts under his bill would remain members of their home school districts. They also would receive special education through their home districts.
It also means that, because the students would still be members of the school district, the district would still receive adequacy aid and other state and federal revenue, as well as 20 percent of locally raised education money.
Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, the deputy ranking Democrat, said members of House Education Committee had many questions about the amendment when it came to them late in the day following six hours of testimony and discussion about vaccine mandates.
While, as Verville said, the original amendment had come to the committee on Nov. 9 or 10, it had come late in the meeting and Chair Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, had not even seen the language.
Luneau noted that Thursday was the last day to deal with legislation and House leadership had not scheduled a meeting of the Education Committee beyond Tuesday, so they had to make a decision that night.
He asked that the bill be sent to interim study to give them time to get their questions answered, but he was rebuffed.
“I don’t think the four Republican substitutes [on the committee] were very familiar with either of those bills,” Luneau said. “None of them could really answer these questions yet, and they were important technical questions that needed to be ironed out.”
He called it a leadership issue. “If the House leadership had posted another executive session for Thursday this week, we wouldn’t have been punting. We should get the work done because, by the time it goes over to the Senate, they don’t want to do the heavy lifting.”
T.P. Caldwell is a writer, editor, photographer, and videographer who formed and serves as project manager of the Liberty Independent Media Project. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.