Distant Dome: Education Priorities Upside Down in Legislature

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Garry Rayno is InDepthNH.org's State House Bureau Chief. He is pictured in the press room at the State House in Concord.


From the new proposed rules for education minimum standards to alternative education opportunities, the state legislature and the executive branch appear to have their priorities upside down.

Call it culture wars, call it the war on public education or whatever you want, but much more attention is being paid to about 3 or 4 percent of the state’s school-age students — mostly in private and religious schools or home-schooled — while about 24 percent of public school students with food insecurity do not receive the same attention.

While there is ample evidence a hungry student is not a student fully focused on his or her studies, and is less likely to succeed academically than those who aren’t hungry when they come to school, the House last week by the slimmest of margins, said the food insecure kids could go hungry in this, one of the wealthiest per-capita states in the country.

House Bill 1212 supporters were willing to trim the cost by reducing the income cap from 350 percent of the federal poverty level to 250 percent or about $17 million annually from the Education Trust Fund instead of $50 million.

But that failed to induce enough Republican support to take the bill off the table where a near party line vote had put it, effectively killing it for this year.

The Republican majority also did not want to spend $150,000 of federal pandemic money to hire a coordinator to help about 1,500 homeless students who do not qualify for state homeless services because they do not live with their parents.

Many of the 1,500 students are in the LGBTQIA+ community.

Many of the same people who did not want to spend state or federal money to feed the hungry and help the homeless children and youths favor greater restrictions on abortions or are “pro-life.”

What they are saying with their votes, is we want you to have babies whether you want them or not or whether you can afford them or not, but once they are born, you’re responsible for taking care of them with no help from us.

Pro-life may not be the best term for anti-abortion proponents who voted not to feed the hungry children nor help find them a place to live.

Yet this week two public hearings will be held on bills to expand the eligibility for the Education Freedom Account program now in its third year, and every year well over its budgeted appropriation.

The Senate Education Committee will hold a public hearing on House Bill 1665 Tuesday at 9:20 a.m.

The bill would increase the income cap for the program from 350 percent of the federal poverty level to 500 percent which is $156,000 for a family of four and $102,000 for a parent and child household based on federal 2024 figures.

The current rate would limit family income to $109,200 for a family of four and $71,540 for a family of two.

The cost of the program since its inception has steadily increased from $8.1 million the first year, to $15 million the second and $25 million for the current school year.

The bill barely passed the House and the House Finance Committee chair waived fiscal review of the increase although many more students would be eligible — well above 50 percent of the families in New Hampshire and greatly increasing the cost, but bill proponents did not want to give Democrats another shot at killing the bill.

The money for the program comes from the Education Trust Fund which also provides the adequacy grants to public schools and the larger grants to charter schools, along with special education, building aid and other educational activities.

On the same day before the House Education Committee, Senate Bill 442 will have a public hearing at 11 a.m.

The bill will increase the income threshold from 350 percent to 400 percent with the threshold for a family of two $81,760 and a family of four at $124,800.

Reaching Higher Education estimates this increase will bring the cost for next school year to $53.4 million.

That is about a quarter of the current surplus in the Education Trust Fund.

The ultimate goal for supporters of the EFA program is universal eligibility or having no income cap so every family in the state would be eligible which would cost $90 million to $100 million if all the students in private or religious schools and homeschool programs sought and received some grants.

About 10 states have universal or near universal voucher programs, but the two states that have attracted the most attention because of their impact on state budgets have been Arizona and Ohio and both have gone well over estimated costs as they have here in New Hampshire.

The program is bankrupting Arizona and the Democratic governor is trying to limit its reach, but the Republican-controlled legislature has refused to go along.

Ohio faces a lawsuit over its program claiming it is hurting public schools while the vast majority of the new participants are students already in private or religious schools or homeschooling programs.  

Sound familiar.

As one Texas state senator said when Gov. Greg Abbott was pushing for school vouchers, “it is nothing but a subsidy for the wealthy.”

And there are the new rules for the state’s minimum standards for public schools.

Two public hearings were held in the past two weeks and the proposed rules were universally trashed by almost everyone testifying causing state Board of Education chair Drew Cline to chastise those focusing on the rules presented to the board in February while a newer, updated version will come before the board soon, although that updated proposal is not available to the public.

The rules are aimed at clarifying and adding details to the state’s competency-based education model, but they also have been criticized for lowering the existing minimum standards, removing limits on class size, making many standards optional and not mandatory, and no longer requiring certified teachers and professionals.

Other concerns were the proposal would do away with local control, a hallmark for public education in the state, and move toward privatizing education and away from what one person called the great equalizer “public education.”

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut proposed bills in the last few sessions that would have eliminated many current standards to focus only on the core areas of English, math and science, but without much success with the legislature.

Many saw the plan as a way to lower the state’s share of the cost of education and to make public school alternatives more attractive to students and parents.

Say what you will about Edelblut and his opinions about public education, he is tenacious.

The state is at a crossroads that will determine what public education will be for the next decade and on whether or not the state is willing to take care of its most vulnerable so they can fully participate in that education.

The end of the 2024 session and ultimately the next election should provide a vision of the future for New Hampshire and its children.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.

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