Senate Bill 193, “Establishing education savings accounts for students,” was retained last year for further study by the House Education committee. SB 193, sometimes referred to as “the voucher bill,” passed out of the Education committee in November with a designation of OTPA, ought to pass as amended, on a narrow 10-9 vote. All Democrats on the committee, except one, voted against it, and two Republicans joined in voting against it.
On January 9, on vote of the NH House of Representatives, SB 193 passed, 184-162. This is not the final word, however. The bill, which was significantly amended since first voted on by the Senate, will now go to the House Finance committee before it returns to the legislature for final votes. On Tuesday, January 16, the finance committee will begin its daunting task of trying to figure out the finances of and state funding for SB 193 in a public hearing.
As it now stands, SB 193 essentially allows an eligible family to receive 95 percent of a student’s adequacy aid, money that is currently provided by the state to public schools, with the remaining 5 percent going to a scholarship organization to administer the education freedom savings account (voucher) program. The bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. John Reagan of Deerfield, estimated the subsidy at about $4,400 per student. In Manchester, that number could exceed $5,000 and even near $8,000. For an individual student, the amount would be about $3,600; however, it would be $1,950 more if the student is in special education and $1,800 more if, for example, the child is eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. These funds would be provided in the form of an education freedom savings account and could be used for tuition in private or religious schools, homeschooling, tutoring, transportation, or other education-related costs. These funds, public money, would no longer go to public schools.
In Manchester, with its 22 public schools, if an average of only one student per school, each at only the $3,600 base amount, took advantage of the education freedom savings account, about $80,000 would be redirected from the Manchester public school district. Since those students would likely not come from just one school, one grade, one class, and one bus route, but be scattered among them, the school district would likely not realize any operational savings. No teacher could be eliminated; no heating and other utility costs would be saved; no bus routes would disappear. And if each of these students were eligible for differentiated aid or special education, the district would lose significantly more money. Manchester’s public schools, already on a tight and insufficient budget, would still have to provide the same funding to keep its schools going, yet the state’s contribution might be significantly decreased. According to Reaching Higher NH, a nonpartisan public education policy resource, that could be more than $430,000 in lost state aid in the first year alone if only ¼ of 1 percent of Manchester’s eligible students select vouchers. The number of students who might receive vouchers is conjecture at this point. However, the pool of eligible students in Manchester is more than half of its roughly 13,626. Sadly, the impact of the funding loss would fall on the shoulders of property owners in the form of higher property taxes.
SB 193 has the potential to wreak havoc with state finances, as well. The bill includes a provision to minimize the financial impact to communities. SB 193 provides for a stabilization grant: If a district loses more than ¼ of 1 percent of its prior year’s appropriations from the state, the state will make up the remaining loss. The state would need to raise additional money in order to provide such funding. Where would those funds come from?
Yet, despite the state and local financial tolls, SB 193 fails to assure an adequate education. Among the concerns are the bill’s accountability requirements for student achievement. SB 193 does not clearly address how student progress will be assessed. Additionally, educational program oversight would be in the hands of a private organization and not those of the NH Department of Education.
Special education must be considered, as well. Although state and federal laws require that a student with disabilities be provided with a free and appropriate public education, a family accepting an education freedom savings account would waive many of their rights. Furthermore, out-of-district students who use voucher funds to attend Manchester’s private and charter schools would be Manchester’s responsibility for new special education evaluations, a responsibility that averages between $1,500 and $5,000 per student.
As the House Finance committee begins its work and SB 193 approaches its next hurdle, we continue to ask this question: Is SB 193 good for NH’s children and for NH education?
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State Rep. Mary Heath, D-Manchester, is in her third term and represents Hillsborough District 14, Manchester’s Ward 7. She serves on the NH House of Representatives Education committee.
As a representative of Hillsborough District 45, Manchester wards 10, 11, and 12, Rep. Connie Van Houten is in her first term. She serves on the NH House of Representatives Commerce and Consumer Affairs committee.