Bill Would Let N.H. Parents Use State Funds For Private Or Home Schools

Apr 11, 2017

Credit Tom Woodward / Flickr Creative Commons

  A school choice bill making its way through the legislature could have major implications for the way public education is funded in New Hampshire.

The Republican-backed proposal would create what the bill calls “Education Freedom Savings Accounts.”

Families would be able to use 90 percent of the average per-pupil state education aid grant - roughly $3,400 - and put it toward other education expenses, including tuition for private, religious schools.

The bill has already cleared the state Senate along party lines, and is now before the House. Gov. Chris Sununu has yet to take a position. "The Governor and his team are closely monitoring the bill," according to a spokesman.

Senator John Reagan is the bill’s prime sponsor. He’s a Republican from Deerfield, and is chair of the Senate Education Committee. He spoke to NHPR's Morning Edition about the bill. 

We’ve heard from those in the public school system concerned that this is going to essentially undermine them by taking away critical resources. Why is this bill necessary?

The schools’ claim that you’re taking resources from them just doesn’t bear up. If a student doesn’t go to their school, and there are many students in a school district that do not attend the school district school, the school hasn’t lost anything. Any business has an ebb and flow in the amount of their business, and they had to adapt to that.

One reason you said you introduced this bill was to see more competition. You believe public schools, after this program is instituted, would have to be competing for students, and therefore make them better-run schools. Do you have evidence for that?

Nationally, that’s recognized that in areas that have extensive scholarships, vouchers, free-to-choose situations, the proximal public schools see their scores improve. Things get better because there’s an incentive then to do things better than you were doing.

Critics say this won’t be a choice for everybody the money won’t necessarily cover the entire cost of private school tuition, and low-income families may not be able to make up the difference. Are you concerned about that?

There are low-income families now whose children are going to alternative places seeking education. So this way, we’re giving them 90 percent of the school district’s adequacy money. So this helps them depending on how great a sacrifice each family wants to make for any reason.

How would this work for special education students?

My understanding right now is when the student leaves with the savings account, they must seek their own special education services.

Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield.

  So they don’t take that state money with them?

No.

Then in effect, many families wouldn’t have a choice, right? They would have to stay where they are because they could not afford the alternative.

Well they can stay, if they’re satisfied with the services they have now. Any parent that wishes to apply for a savings account is entitled to do it. There’s nobody denied this.

This plan also covers home school students. Home school advocates have fought to ensure the state has limited involvement in what they do, so doesn’t that raise accountability issues if you’re now using public money to pay for home school programs?

I don’t see the problem.

Well, there’s accountability and testing in public schools, and in private schools, there’s also certain standards that have to be met. That’s not necessarily true with home school programs.

No, we wisely pretty much leave the home schoolers alone because they have a proven record of people that care that much about their children’s education that one of the parents decides to stay home and become the principle educator. There are people that want to make that sacrifice.

But shouldn’t there be some kind of accountability when you’re talking about public money?

My response would be what kind of accountability do we have now? Our schools are graded by test scores, and half the schools are doing worse than the other half and nobody does anything about that at all. This is the advantage of letting parents control the venue for education.

The state attorney general’s office has raised questions about the legality of this money being used at religious schools. Do you see any issues when it comes to separation of church and state? 

If that becomes an issue, we have a severability clause in the law. If a court decides this money can’t be used at a religious school, then it won’t be. It’s not an issue until it’s decided by a court.

What’s your view?

The religious schools that most commonly occur are Christian schools and the schools runs by the archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church and they’re not particularly adept at indoctrinating people in their religion. They’re probably better adept at discipline. And they’re apparently very successful at the reading and the writing and the science, whatever you want children to learn. But I don’t think that there’s a great drive that cults are going to open schools and train our children in some bizarre new religion.

Private schools can pick and choose the students they want to accept, but they’re getting public funds in order to do this. Doesn’t that break down a wall a bit?

No, this is the parent’s choice. Where the students goes is the choice of the parent or guardian.

Republican Neil Kurk, the chair of the House Finance Committee, suggested there needs to be some kind of cap on this, limiting how many students can use this in a single year. Is that something you could support?

I’m willing to yield that point to support the bill, but we have no evidence to know what will happen. In Milwaukee, they started a voucher program and saw all their poor, disadvantaged students all want a voucher, they all wanted to leave. I don’t think you’re going to see that in New Hampshire. I don’t think we have schools that everybody would like to get their children out of.