Debate Heats Up In N.H. State House Over School Choice Bill
State lawmakers heard hours of testimony Tuesday on a bill that would significantly expand access and funding for school choice in New Hampshire.
The bill, HB20, would establish an Education Savings Account program, which allows families to use taxpayer dollars to educate their children outside of their local public school, including in homeschool and private school settings.
The bill is named after former House Speaker Dick Hinch, who died of COVID-19 late last year. If passed in its current form, many say it would be the most sweeping such program in the country.
In a virtual hearing, the bill's supporters said it would help families who can't normally afford private school, including those whose children have special needs and differences not accommodated by their public school.
Elizabeth Tentas, a Manchester woman who sends her son to a private school, said the estimated $4,500 her family would get through the program would help cover the cost of private speech therapy sessions for her son, which she said “would be huge.”
State Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, a longtime advocate for school choice, said the bill would lead to “significant” savings for taxpayers, because it would prompt enough students to leave public schools that they would eventually decrease in size and cost.
Rep. Glen Cordelli of Tuftonboro, one of the bill’s sponsors, said even without students opting into an education saving account program, the declining number of young families and children in New Hampshire requires a rethinking of the state’s education spending.
“Schools are going to have to learn how to adjust,” he said.
The bill has broad support from State House Republicans, but at the virtual hearing, more than 3,000 attendees said they opposed the bill, while only 600 said they supported it.
Democrats, as well as some supporters of school choice, say the financial analysis of the bill from the state Department of Education is flawed, and that HB20 would actually cost local taxpayers more money.
Others, including Rep. Kat McGhee of Hollis, said the program would deliver a dramatic blow to how the state has historically funded public schools.
"We always had school choice, but we never pretended that our tax dollars could support both public and non-public education at the same time,” she said. “That was never the deal, and I don't think we have any more money than we did before."
Another lawmaker who expressed concern was Rep. Doug Ley, a Jaffrey Democrat on the House Education Committee who was found to have violated ethics guidelines as House Majority Leader in 2019 for testifying on bills that intersected with his job as paid president of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
Ley said his job as president of the teachers union would not preclude him from participating in a discussion about HB20, “as based on my compliance with the ethic committee’s informal resolution.”
In a press release as AFT president, Ley wrote that the bill “should scare every parent and taxpayer in New Hampshire. It’s a complete abdication of our obligation to provide every child with a high-quality, well-resourced, accountable education.”
After close to four hours of virtual discussion, there were still 100 people on the waiting list to offer testimony. The House Education Committee will reconvene a hearing on the bill on Feb. 11.