Meals for Kids, and Classroom Visits, But No EFA Expansion

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Rep. Kevin Verville, R-Deerfield, speaks in favor of his bill to establish a local education freedom account program with local property taxes Thursday on the House floor.


CONCORD — The House went back and forth Thursday on whether to expand eligibility for free and reduced lunches before initially approving the proposal.

The House did defeat two attempts to expand education freedom accounts, and approved a bill to allow parents to observe their child with special needs in his or her classroom.

But the House tabled a bill to move any Education Trust Fund surplus at the end of each fiscal year to the general fund.

Feed the Kids

The House initially killed House Bill 1212, which raises the eligibility for the free and reduced lunch program from the current cap of 185 percent of federal poverty level to 350 percent to include more low- and middle-income families, who supporters say need help with food insecurity.

The bill would also have schools provide a pre-school meal to qualifying students as well as lunch.

But opponents said the program would have to be paid by state taxes when the federal government controls the program, and could cost from $50 million to $75 million.

Rep. Mike Belcher, R-Wakefield, said some schools would be required to build new facilities under the program, which would be an unfunded mandate, and the program is wasteful with 30 percent of food going to waste.

He questioned the number of children who actually do go hungry and said he would like to know the number before spending millions of state dollars.

But Rep. Muriel Hall, D-Bow, said meals play a critical role for students affecting attendance, their academic performance, their well-being and provide a healthy diet.

“Children are hungry,” Hall said. “The reality is some students do not know when their next meal will be.”
“We can do better than this,” Hall said, “and we must do better than this.”
Rep. Stephen Woodcock, D-Center Conway, said many House members had the opportunity to have a free breakfast and lunch that day, and needy children should have that opportunity as well.

“This bill is all about the kids, perhaps it is time to support the kids,” Woodcock said. “This bill does one thing, feed hungry kids, it is not Republican, it is not Democrat, it is about feeding hungry kids.”

The House initially voted to kill the bill on a 188-187 vote, but later in the day voted to reconsider that vote and eventually approved it on a 193-175 vote, after defeating attempts to stop the bill from coming before the House again this session.

The bill now goes to the House Finance Committee for review before a final vote is taken.

Special Ed Observers

The House decided parents of students receiving special education services should be allowed to observe their students in their classroom or learning area.

House Bill 1524 would do little to change what is already in federal law and local school district policies already in place, said opponents of the bill which they said is not needed.

Rep. Peggy Balboni, D-Rye Beach, said parents of students in special education programs have to be more involved in their students’ education than most parents and have the opportunity to observe their child, but there are other students who also need to be considered.

Many students in special education programs are very sensitive to changes in their room, their routines so there has to be some flexibility with visitors and when they could observe, she said, noting the need to protect all the students’ privacy, confidentiality and integrity.

Rep. Margaret Drye, R-Plainfield, said while schools may be required to allow parents to observe their students, the bill was requested by a constituent of the sponsor who was not allowed to observe their student.

A vital part of a student individual education plan is the parents’ ability to observe their child, she noted.

Not all school districts set conditions and restrictions on observation, Drye said, noting they have to recognize the important role parents play in special education services of their child.

The bill passed on a 187-185 vote and now goes to the Senate.

Local EFA

The House for the second time in three years voted down a proposal to create a local education freedom account program using local property tax dollars.

Under House Bill 1652, a community could initiate the program with a three-fifth majority vote at a school district meeting and could end the program with the same majority.

A petition with 25 district voters could put the issue on the annual school warrant.

Under the bill, a student participating in the local program would receive the state’s adequacy grant to the district, which is currently $4,100 per student with an average of about $5,000 with additional aid for poverty, special education and for English-as-a-second-language students.

The local money from property taxes would match the state aid for about $9,000 to $10,000 per student under the program.

There is no income cap on the proposal and no oversight of how the money is spent, but the student would have to take the annual school assessment tests.

Rep. Hope Damon, D-Sunapee, said the proposal would increase local property taxes to pay for education outside the school district without regard to a person’s ability to pay, while providing a subsidy to a wealthy family to help pay tuition to a private or religious school.

If the program follows the state EFA program, she said, the students participating will not be in the public schools but instead already attending a private or religious school, or in homeschool programs.

The bill would benefit a small contingent of people bent on dismantling the public school system, she said.

But the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Kevin Verville, R-Deerfield, said the bill would allow parents to determine the best educational fit for their student while allowing the state and local money to follow the child.

The only school districts that would be nervous are those perceived to be failing public schools, Verville said.

If students are fleeing a school system, that ought to be feedback that something has to be done, he said.

“This is not all doom and gloom,” Verville said, noting most people prefer “having their child in the local public school where they can get a sense of community.”

The bill was killed on a 194-179 vote.

EFA Assessment

House Bill 1677 would allow a student to automatically qualify if the school district they live in has low proficiency scores on the state assessment tests.

Opponents said it is yet another attempt to open the EFA program to anyone regardless of a family’s income or if they attend public school or not.

But supporters said the state’s students deserve the best education they can find, especially if they are in an underperforming school system.

The bill was killed on a 192-174  vote.

Education Trust Fund

House Bill 1560 would transfer any surplus money in the Education Trust Fund at the end of a fiscal year to the state’s general fund.

Currently the ETF has about a $160 million surplus that is expected to grow to about $220 million by the end of the biennium in 2025.

For many years, the ETF, which pays the state adequacy grants to school districts, special education costs, some state building aid and transportation costs, ran a deficit.

But with declining student enrollments, no increases in state funding until this fiscal year, and an influx of federal money fueling the state’s business taxes, the fund has had a healthy surplus for the past five to six years.

Supporters say the state has needs the surplus money could help fund and it would allow for more efficient budget management.

But opponents said with two superior court education funding decisions hanging over the legislators’ heads as well as growing special education costs, the money needs to remain where it is.

The bill was tabled on a 346-14 vote.

Garry Rayno may be reached at Garry has been a reporter in New Hampshire for 40 years.

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