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What education issues to watch at the NH State House: School choice, parents' rights and more

Henry Wilson Elementary School, a K-5 school of about 440 in central Manchester.
Sarah Gibson
In spite of mounting concern about long-term school funding, lawmakers haven’t put forward any coordinated effort to overhaul how the state finances its schools. But a few bills aim to modify it.

New Hampshire lawmakers are considering over 100 bills that could have far-reaching consequences for students, parents and public schools. From instruction to funding, the proposals suggest some potential for bipartisan compromise — but many reflect the growing gulf between Republicans and Democrats on the purpose of education, the responsibility of the state to fund it and the role of parents to direct it.

“I think fundamentally, the divide is between choice and compulsion,” says House Majority Leader Jason Osborne.

House Republicans, under Osborne’s leadership, hold one of the slimmest majorities in recent history. Osborne says expanding school choice is one of their top priorities.

"We believe that every single child has different needs, and needs to have access to have those needs met,” he says. “And the other idea about education is that every child needs to be treated exactly the same, needs to think the same, needs to show up the same days every week.”

Meanwhile, Democrats are pushing to direct more money to traditional public schools and rein in the state’s rapidly expanding school choice programs. House Minority Leader Matt Wilhelm says he’s optimistic Democrats will still be able to influence legislation, since they’re on near-even footing with Republicans.

“The majority in the House is whomever shows up on any given session day,” he says. “So yes, I'd like to see compromise. I'd like to see Democrats and Republicans working together, crafting amendments that they think both of their caucuses will support.”

School funding for buildings, special education, traditional public schools and charter schools

There is broad consensus that the way New Hampshire funds education needs reform. The formula the state uses hasn’t been updated in years and is the subject of several lawsuits. Costs are increasing even as student population declines, and New Hampshire relies more than any other state on local property taxpayers to foot the bill for public schools.

This issue is likely to be more pressing next year, when New Hampshire schools stop receiving federal pandemic relief aid. This money, which the state education department says totaled over $600 million, has allowed many districts to increase staffing and resources without significant tax hikes. But that funding expires in 2024.

In spite of mounting concern about long-term school funding, lawmakers haven’t put forward any coordinated effort to overhaul how the state finances its schools. But a few bills aim to modify it.

One bill, backed by Democrats, would send more state aid to towns based on property values and the number of low-income students. Another bill, backed by Republicans, would increase the amount of state aid specifically for public charter schools, a sector that has grown significantly in the last five years.

Several proposed funding reforms have attracted bipartisan support. One set of bills aims to improve the process and resources for school building projects, which can be prohibitively expensive for towns without significant state support. And a bill to help address the growing cost and demand for special education has support from top-ranking Republicans and Democrats.

Christina Pretorius, the director of policy at the education policy think tank Reaching Higher NH, says funding debates could shift depending on economic forecasts.

“We've heard from the governor and we've heard from people on the finance committees about, you know, the idea of a looming recession,” Pretorius says. “So how is that going to impact certain things?”

School choice and the debate over Education Freedom Accounts

Much of the school choice debate this session revolves around Education Freedom Accounts, a voucher-like program that sends state aid to low- and moderate-income families to pay for non-public school options, such as homeschool pods or parochial schools. The program, now in its second year, is significantly over budget. It’s also the subject of a lawsuit brought by the leader of a local teachers’ union, alleging that it illegally diverts money meant for public education.

Citing the program’s popularity, Republicans say it’s time to expand it. Their proposals would raise the income eligibility requirements or lift the income cap entirely for some students, including those from military families and those with special education needs.

Sarah Scott, a lobbyist with the libertarian Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire, which has supported and helped market the program to families, hopes that the push for more school choice nationwide will win over enough local lawmakers.

“We're seeing huge momentum across the country with other states proposing and very quickly passing these programs, and they're getting significant positive feedback from parents in the state,” Scott says. “So I think our legislators here are looking at that to kind of determine where they can go this year.”

Democrats are proposing a host of bills that would limit the eligibility for students, increase oversight and place a budget cap on the program.

Wilhelm says their major goal is increasing transparency around the program.

“I think the public has every reason to want to dig deeper into it and better understand how their tax dollars are being used and who's using them,” he says.

Parental oversight, student rights and curriculum

New Hampshire lawmakers are also considering dozens of bills related to curriculum, instruction and school climate.

Republicans are hoping to shore up enough support for a modified version of the parental rights bill they introduced last year. The previous version, which mirrored similar efforts in conservative State Houses across the country, sought to give parents more involvement in curriculum and policies at their kids’ schools. But it failed at the last minute, largely because of concerns over how it could affect LGBTQ+ students.

Osborne says the parental rights bill is still a major priority for Republicans this year.

“If we're going to have these public schools that are the default education environment for parents to send their children to, we cannot have them be places where, you know, secrets are kept from the parents,” he says. “They need to have maximal exposure to what is going on with those children in those environments."

Democrats are countering this push with a students’ rights bill. Its sponsor, Rep. Linda Tanner, says it's meant to codify existing rights for young people.

“The goal of the bill is to bring focus back on the student,” Tanner says. “In education, the student should be the focus of the community, of the parents, of the education committee. That’s why we’re there, and that’s what we do.”

Other bills focus on improving classroom instruction and resources for teachers. Several bills seek to improve resources and testing for students with reading challenges, including dyslexia. Others focus on addressing the state’s teacher workforce shortage.

The House Education Committee will hear the majority of these proposals, though several bills that would affect students — such as those limiting or protecting rights of transgender students — will be heard by other committees.

The New Hampshire General Court streams all bill hearings on YouTube. The hearing schedule can be found here. The link to the House Education Committee is here. The link to the Senate Education Committee is here.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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