A bill to significantly expand access to school vouchers in New Hampshire is gathering momentum in the Republican-controlled State House.
HB 20 would establish an “education freedom account program,” allowing families whose children have left their local public school to redirect state aid to the educational program of that family’s choice.
Like earlier versions of this bill that failed to pass, HB 20 would create accounts that families could access to offset the costs of home or private schooling, but unlike earlier proposals, the program would be open to all parents – not just low-income families and those assigned to schools struggling to meet accreditation criteria.
The amount available to families for each participating student is estimated at $4,597, which is the average amount of “adequacy aid” the state pays per pupil to school districts.
If passed, the bill would not go into effect until the summer, but its supporters say school reopening debates during the pandemic have underscored the need for parents to have more control over where their kids get an education, and how taxpayer dollars are used to pay for it.
Kate Baker Demers, who oversees the state’s current tax credit scholarship program for low- and moderate-income families at the Children’s Scholarship Fund NH, says demand for vouchers has skyrocketed during the pandemic, especially among families in districts that are mostly offering remote instruction.
The Fund ran out of scholarships and still have 800 families on a waitlist.
“It's heartbreaking," Demers says. "I can’t fundraise my way out of this crisis."
While a legislative priority for Republicans, the bill will face stiff opposition from public school advocates and Democrats, who say vouchers pull resources away from cash-strapped public schools and redirect public money to private programs with little oversight.
Barrett Christina, Executive Director of the New Hampshire School Board Association, is one of the bill's critics.
“It's bad public policy because it takes money away from public schools, there's a lack of accountability and transparency with how the money is going to be spent, and there's no evidence to show that these [freedom accounts] increase educational outcomes for children,” he says.
A fiscal analysis of education freedom accounts by Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, himself an advocate of school choice, projects small savings for the state with the expansion of vouchers.
The analysis assumes that between .1 and 3 percent of students will leave their public schools and opt for a freedom account, which the Department of Education says will enable schools to begin cutting costs. Over the next ten years, it projects a savings of between $360-393 million, about .4 % of total K-12 school spending in New Hampshire.
Some public school advocates dispute these figures, saying the reduction in class sizes would not be significant enough to reduce expenses.
"I would question the cost savings," says Christina Pretorius, Policy Director at Reaching Higher NH. "If you’re losing three students out of a 25-person classroom, you’re not going to fire a teacher.”
A fiscal analysis of the bill from the Office of the Legislative Budget Assistant is expected later this year.