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In Blow To Sununu, N.H. House Votes Down School Choice Bill

A bill that would have created a school choice program in New Hampshire based on education savings accounts was voted down in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

The vote on SB 193 capped off a long and winding journey for a controversial piece of legislation that was originally introduced in January of 2017.

NHPR's Jason Moon and Peter Biello discussed the bill's fate on All Things Considered.

The bill would have allowed parents to use state tax dollars to educate their children outside of public school – including at religious and private schools or with homeschooling. Supporters described it as an ‘escape hatch’ for students who weren’t being well served by the public school system.

But which students would have been eligible and how public schools would have been protected from financial losses under the program changed several times over the bill’s long journey through the Legislature, as fresh concerns prompted long work sessions and new amendments in multiple committees.

On the floor of the House Wednesday, both supporters and opponents pointed to that long process as evidence that the bill was either a well thought-out compromise or a complicated mash-up of ideas that wasn’t ready to become law.

School choice has long been a priority for conservatives. But despite the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, the chamber voted 170-159 to send the bill to interim study, effectively ending the bill’s chances for this session.

Republicans who joined Democrats in voting against the bill seemed mostly concerned with the potential impact on local property taxes.

Republican House Finance Chairman Neal Kurk said while he supports school choice in general, he couldn’t support SB 193 because of the way he says it would have downshifted costs to local property tax payers.

“Local property tax payers are going to have to raise additional tax dollars to offset the loss of state revenue,” said Kurk. “Do we really want to make things worse for local property taxpayers? I think not.”

Backers of the bill have argued strenuously that based on projections, the bill would have had a negligible impact on public school district budgets.

The defeat of the bill marks a significant setback for proponents of school choice in New Hampshire.

Last year, when the bill was first introduced as a universal program –eligible to any family interested- it attracted national attention as a potential milestone in school choice programs nationwide.

For conservatives in New Hampshire, this session was their likely their best opportunity to pass such an ambitious program. The last time Republicans controlled both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office was 2004. If Democrats gain control of any of those three in this year’s elections, the chances for another version of SB 193 are virtually nonexistent.

This fate of SB 193 also marks a defeat for Governor Chris Sununu, who had been among the strongest supporters of the bill. That it failed by such a narrow margin could be a sign that Sununu is having trouble corralling his party into supporting his policy priorities. Sununu issued a brief statement following the vote Wednesday saying it “was a loss for New Hampshire children and their families.”

Already, Sununu’s support for the bill is shaping up to be a major issue in the gubernatorial race this fall. Democrats are running digital ads accusing Sununu of trying to steal money from public schools with the bill. Now, Sununu will have to contend with those attacks without being able to claim a policy victory to his own supporters.

Still, this legislative session hasn’t been a total bust for school choice proponents like Sununu. HB 1686, which would expand the state’s existing education tax credit program, is expected to clear the Senate on Thursday.

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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