Opponents of a school voucher bill say the proposal would violate the state constitution by allowing public money to be used at private, religious schools.
The Republican-backed bill would create Education Freedom Savings Accounts, allowing parents to use public money for a broad range of education expenses, including tuition at private schools. Families would get roughly $3,400 dollars per child, or 90 percent of the average per-pupil state adequacy grant.
The New Hampshire School Administrators Association is among groups opposed to the bill. Executive Director Carl Ladd tells NHPR’s Morning Edition the issue is certain to end up in court, should it become law.
“Here in New Hampshire it’s very clear, that you cannot expend public funds for religious schools. And I have nothing against religious schools; I have nothing against private schools. But I don’t think that there should public funds diverted to those schools.”
The bill would also allow parents to use public money to pay for home school programs.
The measure has already cleared the state Senate along party lines, and is now before the House. Governor Chris Sununu has not said whether he would sign the bill into law, should it reach his desk.
Ladd says his concerns go beyond the constitutionality of the bill, to how be believes it would deplete public schools of critical resources.
"This bill, the way it’s currently crafted, would allow any home school parent, any student who is currently attending a private school, or private religious school, and there are approximately 16,000 of them, to access these educational savings accounts," Ladd says.
"That means that funding would have to be raised and appropriated by the legislature because there is no current funding mechanism for them. So that money would have to be taken from somewhere in order to pay for these students."
The bill's sponsor, Sen. John Reagan, spoke with NHPR's Morning Edition Tuesday. Read his interview here. You can read Ladd's entire interview with NHPR's Morning Edition Thursday below:
You’ve raised concerns about this program diverting funds from public schools. What do you see as the impact of this bill, should it become law?
Fundamentally, the bill is not necessary in New Hampshire. And it would actually be quite harmful for most of the children in communities in the state.
In what way?
This bill, the way it’s currently crafted, would allow any home school parent, any student who is currently attending a private school, or private religious school, and there are approximately 16,000 of them, to access these educational savings accounts. That means that funding would have to be raised and appropriated by the legislature because there is no current funding mechanism for them. So that money would have to be taken from somewhere in order to pay for these students.
I want to hear from the bill’s sponsor, Senator Reagan, who argues the argument this is taking money from the public school system isn’t valid:
“If a student doesn’t go to their school – and there are many students in a school district that do not attend the school district school – the school hasn’t lost anything.”
What’s your response to that?
I’m not exactly sure what he means when he says many students don’t attend school. Ninety-two percent of the children in New Hampshire attend public schools. Those parents have opted in, they’ve chosen to attend public school because we do have other choices.
Say you lose 100 students and they’re spread out from grades K-12. You’ve essentially lost $350,000 in state revenue. That does not mean that you can cut teachers, programs at the $350,000 level because it’s spread out. Class sizes are not going to change dramatically. You’re still going to have to provide the same programming that the local communities expect from their local schools, so somebody has to step into that gap. I don’t imagine it’s going to be the legislature, so that means it’s going to have to be the local taxpayer because they’re going to lose the revenue so they’re going to have to raise and appropriate that revenue just to keep things on a level playing field.
You’ve also raised concerns the bill violating the constitution with money going to religious schools. Do you see there being legal challenges here?
Absolutely. I don’t see how we could not challenge this in the courts, which means there is going to be more litigation, unnecessary litigation around an issue that our New Hampshire constitution is very clear, as opposed to other states, where it’s a little more nebulous and at the federal level, it’s even more nebulous. Here in New Hampshire, it’s very clear that you cannot expend public funds for religious schools. And I have nothing against religious schools, I have nothing against private schools, but I don’t think there should be public funds diverted to those schools.
What about non-religious private schools? Do you have similar concerns there?
Absolutely, because there’s no accountability and there’s no transparency. When we have public schools, we are required to follow and adhere to every state, federal, and local regulation and mandate. Private schools do not. We are accountable for every dollar that the taxpayer spends; private schools do not have to do that.
Senator Reagan argues this would make public schools better by forcing them to compete for students. Do you see any argument there?
I don’t. I have absolutely no problem in competing with any educational entity providing that we’re all operating under the same rules. If they want to have private schools and religious schools follow all of the same federal mandates, state mandates, certification requirements for teachers, follow all of the legislative mandates that are coming, I would put a public school up against a private school any day of the week.
What’s the impact on special education students with this bill?
In my opinion, the students with disabilities are the ones who really get left behind.
In what way?
In order for them to access a private school, if a private school would even accept them because there is no guarantee that a private school has to accept a student with disabilities because they don’t have to follow the same rules everyone else does, the parent would have to sign away their rights to a free and appropriate public education through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in order for their child to attend. That means they lose the services and support that they are entitled to and that schools are required to provide. If a student is not accepted, where is their choice?
Could you support a limited voucher program? Perhaps offering this only to low-income students, or instituting a cap on the number of students who could use it? Or is this simply about opposition to the idea of vouchers?
I don’t see the need for us to provide a voucher system. We do more for school choice now than we ever did when I attended school. We have dual enrollment programs with colleges. We have Advanced Placement courses that were never available when I went to school. We have more career pathways through the career and technical education centers in our state. We do more for public school choice than we ever did before, and we should be funding and supporting those efforts that are already underway, instead of trying to undermine it in this very risky and possibly costly, litigious bill that is not going to provide for those kids who are in poverty who are struggling. This is not going to help their parents.