By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The Senate voted to expand the school voucher program, eliminated some credentialing requirements for part-time teachers and voted unanimously to recommend to the voters a change in the state Constitution enshrining the first-in-the-nation primary.
It also honored two of its late former colleagues who recently died but refused to allow students under the age of 21 to taste wine in an educational setting during a Senate session on Thursday.
The state’s largest teacher’s union, the National Education Association of New Hampshire, responded in a statement to the bill on expanding the Education Freedom Account and on the part-time teacher issue saying the votes were a mistake and do not support the educational needs of the state’s students or taxpayers.
The school voucher program launched in 2021 and permits families to access a financial grant using taxpayer funds to pay for tuition and or costs associated with private schools, homeschool, and other non-public school options.
As part of the 2023 state budget, lawmakers increased the income threshold for voucher eligibility to 350 percent of federal poverty level.
Currently, students can be reassigned to a school that is not in their district if there is a hardship and Senate Bill 442 would allow students who have not met that hardship standard to receive a private school voucher, regardless of the family’s income.
The NEA-NH said, “this bill lifts an income cap for anyone DENIED a school reassignment under the state’s change of school assignment that could dramatically expand New Hampshire’s private school voucher program and have negative consequences on the sustainability of New Hampshire’s Education Trust Fund that jeopardizes public education funding.”
According to data from the NH Department of Education, enrollment in the voucher program grew 40 percent between 2022 and 2023, to a total of 4,211 participants in the 2023-2024 school year.
The NEA-NH states that “funds to cover vouchers – which will cost an estimated $24 million this year alone – come directly from the Education Trust Fund…(and) according to Reaching Higher NH, based on data provided by NH DOE, fewer than half (44 percent) of students enrolled in the voucher program this year are classified as low-income, down from 54 percent when the program launched.
On a vote of 13-11 with Sen. Denise Ricciardi, R-Bedford, being the only Republican to vote with the Democratic minority, the bill passed and was sent to the Finance Committee.
Sen. Donovan Fenton, D-Keene opposed the bill.
He said he has heard a lot about fiscal responsibility in the chamber “but this is anything but” calling it “a loophole for millionaires to access taxpayer dollars” because, he said if they claim their hardship was denied, they can qualify for the program without showing any financial need.
But Sen. Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard, asked why the state should deny a child who has a problem with their designated school and has exhausted efforts to get out.
She argued a “millionaire would have already put the child in another school to begin with.”
“We have to think in terms of our child’s education.”
Sen. Suzanne Prentiss, D-Lebanon, said she agreed with Ward in at least one aspect that she wants to support the best interests of every child.
“But we have a program,” she said and asked “we don’t disregard that.”
Sen. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, noted in the hearing on the bill there was a 17-1 majority of those who filed to oppose the bill.
She asked whether that was taken into consideration.
Sen. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton, said, “yes” but he worried about the middle class parent who had exhausted all appeals and he noted that the state has a requirement for compulsory education up to the age of 18.
Lang said there is a financial incentive by local districts to keep kids in their public school which has to be taken into consideration. The state has a graduated tier which pays 100 percent of that lost student the first year and goes down by a certain percentage each year.
He said it is fiscally responsible because it is just moving money from a local school district to a private school.
“It just allows a pathway,” he said, and argued it was even less to allow students to take advantage of the program than keep them in their designated public school.
Sen. Becky Whitley, D-Hopkinton, said she didn’t understand why millionaires could access this grant program.
Sen. Ricciardi said everybody wants the state’s public schools to be the best they can be and that the EFA program is for those with modest means.
Senate Majority Leader Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, said she had been listening to the debate and said every person cares passionately about doing the best to educate all New Hampshire students.
“But what we have is a one-size-fits-all program,” and the EFA program was established to address those students whose public school has failed them, for whatever reason.
“This is about the money – the money the public education system claims they are losing every time a student walks out the door,” she said.
Public educators need to step back and ask themselves “Why?” Carson said, and how do they compete and what they can do better.
Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, predicted this bill would be a “budget buster” and urged the Senate to vote it down.
After the vote, Megan Tuttle, president of NEA-New Hampshire which represents 17,000 educators and staff, issued a statement that “New Hampshire is dead last in our country when it comes to state investments in public education. Our courts have recently ruled once again that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to fund an adequate public education for our students. It is incredibly discouraging that instead of working together to meet that obligation to the 90 percent of Granite State students who attend neighborhood public schools, state senators are choosing instead to prop up a second education system that diverts public dollars to private and religious schools with little to no oversight.”
PART TIME TEACHER LICENSING
Also, the Senate voted 14-10, along partisan lines, to pass Senate Bill 374, relative to the licensing of part-time teachers, despite concerns expressed by Democrats to wait to consider the unintended consequences.
Republicans said to alleviate the shortage of educators, they supported the idea that teachers who were not credentialed would be allowed, provided they work part-time subject to a criminal background check and are bound to the code of conduct for educators, be allowed to teach.
Sen. Suzanne Prentiss, D-Lebanon, asked for a hold on the bill noting the problem of a teacher shortage did not include this recommendation.
Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, disagreed with the committee’s recommendation and said he was particularly concerned about the prospect of child sexual abuse. He noted a case in New Hampshire where a suspected abuser was let go without being reported and abused in another school district.
“I’ve just got to stand for our children,” Watters said.
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, also rose against the motion as well and said the teacher is the most important person in a school.
“The teacher bears a significant responsibility. That teacher has got to be prepared, got to be educated,” because of all the issues they need to address in their young lives.
“Let’s think about our kids,” he said, “the quality of the individual.”
Sen. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton, who chairs the Education Committee said the bill would allow specialists to come in to teach a class rather than cut the course.
On a roll call vote 14-10 it passed.
Tuttle issued another statement that “while New Hampshire is currently facing a teacher and staff shortage in schools across the state, this is a misguided attempt to address that crisis. Regardless of whether someone teaches full or part-time, we should all agree it is imperative that they possess the knowledge and skills to teach effectively. Senate Bill 374 undermines that goal by eliminating state credentialing requirements for some teachers. We urge legislators to reject this harmful legislation at the next opportunity.”
NO TASTE OF ALCOHOL FOR THE UNDERAGED
Sen. William Gannon, R-Sandown, led the effort to kill Senate Bill 194, which would have allowed those under 21 in an educational setting to taste wine. He succeeded with the vote to kill it 13-11.
There are 150 University of New Hampshire students taking a course on this but limited now to upperclassmen who are of legal age. The passage of the bill would allow for younger students to enroll in the course under the bill, sponsored by Sen. Dan Innis, R-Bradford.
Though well-meaning, he said the bill worried him that federal highway funds would be at risk and that it undermines efforts against drunk driving.
“I don’t want to be Debbie Downer,” he said, but the bill would encourage young people to drink alcohol.
There are reports, he said, that 3.2 million youths underage reported binge drinking in the country.
Innis said he understood his concerns and with the state liquor commission added an amendment to help educate students about the physiological consequences of drinking.
Sen. Daryl Abbas, R-Salem, said he used to be a bartender but it would have been impossible for him to master the creation of a margarita without tasting it.
“We are talking less than a strawful of alcohol,” arguing there is more alcohol in a similar amount of cough syrup.
Given that some restaurants are struggling to find help, he supported it and said that it is at a time and place where they can learn about safety.
Innis said new licensees get a liquor license and they are given a presentation.
Innis said, “It’s a sip and spit,” even with 21-year-old students.
Eight states, including California, offer such education to minors.
“It’s a bill about education. It’s not about getting drunk,” Innis said. “Quite the contrary.”
EDUCATION WHILE INCARCERATED
The Senate passed a bill establishing a corrections education and vocational planning group.
Watters said Congress recently passed a bill to allow those incarcerated to again be able to access Pell Grant scholarships for higher education. The bill will allow for the group to establish how best to access those funds.
Watters said in a statement after the vote that studies have shown that it helps to reduce recidivism.
UNANIMOUS VOTE TO ENSHRINE FIRST IN NATION PRIMARY IN CONSTITUTION
The Senate voted unanimously to support CACR 22 enshrining the presidential primary as first state in the election cycle.
Abbas said the constitutional amendment, which will also need to be ratified by the voters, translates into more political involvement and greater turnout, income for hotels and restaurants.
There are several traditions in this state that put us on the map, he said, including. Live Free or Die, the Primary. and the Old Man of the Mountain.
“We have already lost the Old Man and now they want to take the primary away based on a particular candidate who did not do well, here,” Abbas said.
The state has no control over demographics but basing the primary on race is not fair, he said and noted the Democratic National Committee called the NH primary this year “meaningless.”
Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, also rose in support of the measure but noted no one can take something away that they don’t own.
“It is something we created,” she said.
She said we all know the primary is Jan. 23 and wanted all to vigorously participate.
“There is a sideshow going on outside of this state,” she said, urging voters here not to be distracted.
MARTHA FULLER CLARK PORTRAIT
On a unanimous vote Senate Bill 331-A passed allowing the joint legislative historical committee to accept a portrait of former State Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, and directs the deposit of funds received by the liquor commission from certain commemorative bottles to the American Revolution sestercentennial trust fund.
With artificial intelligence becoming a major issue, the Senate concurred with the House to pass Senate Bill 255 which puts the state on the forefront of protecting privacy, Soucy said.
Also, the Senate passed SB 345 which increases rates for out-of-state residents at state parks but not for state residents.
It also passed SB 388-FN related to solar energy; SB 474 relative to prohibiting metal detecting in certain circumstances on athletic fields; SB 587 related to incoming animals to shelters from out of state; SB 323 related to definitions of a and SB 311-FN-A allocating $154,000 in Fiscal Year 2025 to offset impacts to the Town of Hampstead’s tax base due to the state purchases of the former, private Hampstead Hospital.
The Senate also passed SB 395 to create the position of assistant commissioner for the Department of Agriculture, Markets and Foods and amendment to make it effective upon passage.
There were other bills as well which passed including SB 324 related to lottery license renewal notice prior to expiration of no less than 45 days; and SB 513 allowing charity auctions without a license for nonprofit organizations.
One bill removed from the consent table, SB 343 related to school-based health services, was laid upon the table.
CANDLES AND MOMENT OF SILENCE FOR BARNES, DELAHUNTY
Former State Sen. Jack Barnes and Joe Delahunty, who recently passed away, were remembered during the Senate session with a moment of silence and lighting of candles which burned throughout the session on the podium.
Sen. Howard Pearl, R-Loudon, said to know Jack Barnes, a Republican from Raymond, “was to love him.”
The longtime Senator and former State Representative was very clear on where he stood on issues, Pearl said. He added Barnes was a wonderful husband, a hard worker, a devoted Red Sox fan, a committed volunteer and a collector of matchboxes.
Sen. Daryl Abbas, R-Salem spoke to how valued Delahunty was and how much he loved his community of Salem and his country. It is rare to come across someone as universally respected, he said.
The Republican died Jan. 16 at the age of 88.
D’Allesandro said “Joe D” was “a class act” and should be remembered for the quality of his service.
“Joe was the manifestation of a quality guy,” D’Allesandro said. And he said Jack Barnes “drove me crazy…out of my mind” repeatedly. They would sit at his McDonald restaurant and he said the best thing about him was his wife “who kept him on the straight and narrow when it was possible.”
Carson said she remembered Barnes’s sense of humor and love of the drink Moxie. She said he was honest, open and welcoming.
Soucy noted Barnes personally funded any bus for any school in his district which could not afford to come to the State House for a fourth grade visit.
Barnes served in the Senate from 1992 and 1998 and again from 2000 to 2012.
He died recently at the age of 92.
Paula Tracy is a senior writer at InDepthNH.org with 30 years of reporting experience in print and TV.