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Voucher Bill Tests Ambition of School Choice Advocates in N.H.

Photo Credit woodleywonderworks via Flickr Creative Commons

Lawmakers will debate a controversial education bill Tuesday that would allow parents to use state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition and homeschool expenses.

The bill is testing how far and how fast school choice advocates are willing to go in implementing their agenda.

It’s the middle of another school day here at the McLaughlin house in Hampton Falls: four kids, from 7 to 13 are scattered around the kitchen table and living room – some with pencils and worksheets; the oldest with a laptop and headphones.

“Since the baby is asleep, this is a good time for us to do math. She’s got a live online math class, which has worked out really well for her…”

Catie McLaughlin says she and her husband decided to homeschool about seven years ago. They were both in the military, expecting to move around a lot, and they wanted to provide some continuity for their kids.

McLaughlin says she was nervous about it at first, but eventually even family members who were skeptical of the choice agreed it was working well.

Tori McLaughlin, age 13, takes her headphones off to agree.

“I like being able to go faster on some subjects and then taking a longer time every day on other and asking for help – being able to ask for help all the time. Oh and not having to ask to go to the bathroom.”

Catie McLaughlin says homeschooling turned out to be the best choice for her family. But she says it wasn’t always easy – especially financially. As it turns out, homeschooling is expensive.

“When the kids are younger, you want them doing a lot of hands on stuff. So you’re buying materials for experiments and arts supplies. But as they get older, they get to a point where it’s good for them to be accountable to other people, other adults, other teachers and all of that adds up.”

It’s a big reason why she supports Senate Bill 193, which is working its way through the state legislature.

This bill would make homeschool families like the McLaughlins eligible for state money to help with the cost of homeschooling -- about $2500 a year, per child.

There are an estimated 6,000 homeschooled children in New Hampshire who would all be eligible for the grants if the bill passes.

And homeschoolers aren’t the only ones who could take advantage of this program. Parents could also use state tax dollars under this bill for things like textbooks, tutors, and tuition at a private school.

“Yeah it would be for us, a game changer for sure.”

That’s Mark Pomeroy, director of Claremont Christian Academy, which has about 120 students in grades K through 12.

Pomeroy says a program like this could make a big difference for families who can’t afford private school.

The sticker price for tuition at Claremont Christian Academy is about $4,000 a year. This bill could give parents enough money to cover about 75 percent of that.

“You know, we’re just in a low-income area and we don’t like to turn families away because it’s kinda like saying, ‘you know, if you just had some more money, we could give you a good education.’ And we don’t really look at it that way, we’re kinda like ‘ok, if God brings the kids to the school, we want to provide them an education if we can.’”

Opponents of the bill have raised several concerns – including the issue of sending public money to religious schools.

But many have focused their concern on how the program would be funded.

If the parents of a public school student decide to use this program to switch to private or home school, the state money that would have gone to the public school would leave with the student. School administrators say they can’t always reduce their expenses at the same rate they could lose funding under this bill.

It’s concern about this part of the program that is giving pause to even staunch school choice advocates. Governor Chris Sununu, who often campaigned on school choice issues, seemed to pump the brakes on the bill while talking to reporters last week.

“I do have concerns when you start using state funds, whether it be a voucher program or you know all the different terms that you want to put for it, to schools of a non-public nature. Whatever we do we have to take things step-wise.”

The bill easily passed the Senate on a party-line vote last month. But recently the Republican chair of the House Education Committee echoed the governor, saying it may be wiser to take it slow and retain the bill until next year.

The House Education Committee takes up the bill on Tuesday.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.

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