One of the most hotly debated bills this legislative session, Senate Bill 193, centers on school choice. And it is drawing passionate arguments from both sides.
Proponents say it supports NH’s “Live Free or Die” ethos by allowing public funds to follow each child so that families may choose the educational path that best suits their children.
Opponents argue taking funds away from public schools and placing them in private schools, home schooling and religious schools, weakens the ability of public education to meet the needs of students.
Introduced in 2017, SB 193 passed the NH Senate. In the 2018 session, the measure was amended by the House Education Committee, and sent on to the House Finance Committee. Finance must look at the cost to enact the legislation and has asked the legislative budget assistant to provide estimates. The bill would then head back to the Senate where they could agree or reject the changes made by the House and send the measure to a committee of conference to work out the differences. It seems likely by the end of the session some version of the bill will land on the desk of Gov. Chris Sununu, who made passing school choice a campaign promise.
“Our legislature has signaled to families that we are focused on the kids, giving parents and children the ability to choose the education path that is best suited for them. This is the first step in ensuring that New Hampshire’s education system continues to be on the forefront of innovation, closing the opportunity gap and opening pathways like never before, regardless of economic status,” Gov. Sununu said after the House vote in January. (The governor was unavailable for comment for this story.)
What is SB 193?
A quick refresher: SB 193 was originally written to establish “education freedom savings accounts” (ESAs) for children between ages 5 and 20. Sponsored by Rep. Joseph Pitre, R-Farmington, and Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, the bill creates savings accounts from public funds that enable parents and caretakers to send their children to private schools, online classes, educational services or therapies, or to pay for assistive devices, home-schooling, textbooks, tutors, school transportation, other alternative education programs, fees for standardized achievement tests and other education-related expenses (including computers and software) via state-funded scholarships. “It gives parents the opportunity to take their children to a different school other than a public school,” says Reagan.
SB 193 allows eligible families to receive 95 percent of the roughly $3,600 the state pays per student.
The age range has since been amended to include eligibility requirements. To be eligible, students must come from households earning less than 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, or have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), or attend a poor-performing school or be on the waiting list for the state’s existing tax credit scholarship.
To put in a check system, the bill requires that students who take the funds are tested annually though they can choose which national assessment they take. Parents can also select a teacher to evaluate their student. If it is determined they are not making “satisfactory academic growth after two years of assessments,” the student will be issued an intervention plan.
The biggest concern raised by opponents is that the bill pulls money from public schools, making it more difficult for public schools to serve the students who stay.
Reaching Higher NH, an education policy organization, analyzed SB 193 and concluded: “The largest pool of eligible students will likely be those from households who earn less than 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Line. This means that about 70 percent of eligible students will come from communities that are extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in state aid and enrollment. These communities depend on dollars raised through local taxes and state funding due to lower-than-average equalized valuation per pupil (lower-than-average property valuations, meaning a lower ability to raise property tax funds). For example, a reduction in state aid in Franklin has a more discernible impact on their local budget than a reduction in state aid in Rye.”
To alleviate such concerns, the House Education Committee included stabilization grants for any district that loses more than one-quarter of 1 percent of their prior year appropriations from students leaving the district. Those districts would receive a stabilization grant from the state for the next four years that equals the amount of the reduction in excess of the one-quarter of 1 percent.
Battle of the Studies
Muddying the waters are conflicting analyses of the bill’s impact. There’s Reaching Higher NH arguing against the bill and the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy Studies, a conservative free-market think tank, arguing for the bill. (The Josiah Bartlett Center has close ties to the governor as Charlie Arlinghaus, the center’s former president, served as Sununu’s budget director and is now the state’s administrative services commissioner. Drew Cline, president of the center, was appointed as chair of the NH Board of Education and members of Sununu’s family are on the board of the center.
Conclusions from the Reaching Higher NH report include:
• “The stabilization grants intended to protect these districts from catastrophic funding losses would cost the state at least $31 million in new spending over the next five years.”
• “In the first year, districts are set to lose around $5.8 million in state aid—a projection that factors in the bill’s stabilization grants. Manchester, for example, will lose about $430,000 in state aid if just 1 percent of eligible students select a voucher. For Nashua, that would be a $407,000 loss.”
• For those students with disabilities who participate, they would waive “their rights under federal and state disability laws, including the right to an IEP, the right to services, and the right to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.”
Analysis conducted by the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy paints a different picture, stating that school districts would see, on average, a 0.14 percent decline in operating budgets. The Josiah Bartlett Center based its analysis on a review of school choice programs nationwide, which found average participation rate in the first year of a school choice program is approximately 1 percent of eligible students (and not 1 percent of total student enrollment). Based on that participation, Josiah Bartlett Center calculates state appropriations to local school districts would be reduced by $3,757,500.
“Based on the eligibility criteria in Senate Bill 193, we estimate that 50 percent of New Hampshire public school students would qualify for the program. We then apply the average first-year participation rate of 1 percent to the eligible population,” states a report by the Josiah Bartlett Center. “A 1 percent participation rate would see 835 students statewide choose an ESA. Given the eligibility criteria in the bill, we estimate the average cost of an Education Savings account to be $4,500.”
That would include 95 percent of the state’s $3,636 adequate education grant as well as differentiated aid that districts would receive for special-education students and those eligible for free or reduced lunches.
When it ran calculations for a 5 percent participation rate, the Josiah Bartlett Center found state appropriations to local school districts were reduced by $18,787,500, or 0.72 percent of operating budgets.
“The expected decline in enrollment would be well within the average range that school districts handle on a yearly basis,” the Center’s report states. Those figures do not include the aforementioned stabilization grants, but the report adds, “Had we included stabilization grants, the average revenue loss would be even smaller.”
Innovation Vs. Decimation
Passions run high in this debate. Proponents argue this is an innovative bill that gives families greater say in where and how their children are educated and expands the notion of public education. Opponents say school choice should not come at the expense of the existing system and argue SB 193 will cut funding meant for public education and redirect to private schools, 85 percent of which are religious, per the National Education Association (NEA) website.
“The program contemplated in SB 193 allows kids whose school is not working for them to seek out an alternative.... This is not an attack on public schools or public education,” Cline says. “The point is to find the right education environment for every child; that’s really important.” He says some families cannot afford to pay for options like a private school or a tutor. “That’s where education savings accounts come in. If a family sees a kid struggling to excel or even meet their expectations in school, they have the option for exploring other choices. The focus is on the child’s needs.”
As for the effect on public schools, Cline is skeptical of predictions of financial catastrophe. “We heard a lot of sky is falling stories since the first program began in Florida, and it didn’t destroy public education in Florida or the other places it’s been tried. All these Chicken Little scenarios didn’t happen. What did happen is kids got into an educational environment that was right for them,” he says. “We found at the Bartlett Center that your average local school district would keep 98 percent of operating budget. This is a myth that [ESAs] will decimate public school funding,” Cline says.
However, leaders from school districts statewide have expressed concerns. Both the Manchester school board and superintendent oppose the bill, and Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig testified before the House committee about her concerns.
“It’s important to note that I believe every parent should do what is right for their children and that choice is important, but I do not believe diverting funds from public schools is the answer,” Craig testified. Craig warned if one-quarter of one percent of Manchester’s students, or 35 students left, the school district’s budget would take a significant hit.
She warned such losses would mean cuts to programs and staffing levels. “Direct student services would be impacted,” she said.
Rural communities are also concerned about the financial hit. Berlin’s school district has 1,162 students enrolled, and enrollment has been on a steady decline for years due to Coos County having the oldest population in the state and one of the smallest populations due to its rural nature. Berlin already faces financial challenges as the amount of state aid it receives continues to decrease, placing more pressure on local taxpayers to close the revenue gap, says Berlin Superintendent Corinne Cascadden. “Our tax rate is $39.19—the highest in the state,” she says.
If SB 193 passes, the Berlin School District estimates it may lose about 1 percent of its student population, as a high number of its students meet the poverty level eligibility or have IEPs. “We have 54 percent free or reduced population, and the special education population is 23 percent,” Cascadden says, pointing out the state average is about
Cascadden says a 1 percent loss of students would translate into a $54,000 cut. “For our district, that’s a lot of money,” she says. “I’ve been superintendent for 10 years now. We have closed elementary school buildings and consolidated and reorganized grades. We have been much more aggressive in seeking out grant funding to offer specialized programs we otherwise couldn’t offer like an office of student wellness, services for high at-risk population, providing onsite mental health and after-school programs, including feeding dinner meals.” The projected revenue loss under SB 193 would only compound the district’s challenges to meet students’ educational needs, she says.
And opponents also warn that the proposed stabilization grants won’t offset school costs. Megan Tuttle, president of the NH chapter of the National Education Association (NEA-NH) testified the figures in the reports are based on conservative estimates and that the actual impact could be much higher.
“Because all but the largest districts will see a loss of only a handful of students, fixed costs will remain. This means revenue will be down, while expenses will likely remain flat. Even with the proposed stabilization grants, local budgets will continue to be stretched to the breaking point,” Tuttle testified.
Cline says results from other states show only a small percentage of families take advantage of ESAs. “The bill is not designed to replace public schools. It is designed to supplement public schools. Evidence from other states suggests there is a small portion of students who would benefit from a program like this. Most kids are served pretty well in the system we have now. Some kids would be served better with other options,” he says.
Proponents argue that families should have choices beyond public school if that setting is not working, and income should not be a barrier. Sen. Regan, a sponsor of the bill, points out the United States ranks 27th for math among countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “I question how do we trust the people running the public school if this is the best we can get,” he says. “In the United States, we do a very poor job with education, and we spend a tremendous amount of money, and we can’t produce educated people.”
Michelle Levell, director of School Choice for NH, a coalition of volunteers who advocate for educational options, says, “Parents are responsible for their children’s well-being every day in all aspects of their children’s life whether it’s deciding on medical care, which doctor to go to, what medication to grab off the counter at the pharmacy or whether to keep their kids home because they’re not feeling well that day,” she says. “So it seems appropriate to have families make educational choices for their children.”
Before being appointed by Gov. Sununu as commissioner for the Department of Education, Frank Edelblut vied for the Republican nomination for governor against Sununu. One of his chief platforms was school choice.
Edelblut says the department does not lobby the state legislature but he sees school choice as a positive development for NH. “Students need to get personalized education experiences whether in the public education system or outside of public education. It’s about getting them to the top of their game,” he says.
Edelblut says school choice should not be limited to non-public school choices. “If I have five first-grade choices, why not let parents pick the one they want to go to? It tells us something if they want four but not one,” he says. “We are moving away from an industrial model of education that treats our cohort of students as though they are homogenous and treats them as individuals.”
Andru Volinsky, who represents District 2 on NH’s Executive Council, says school choice should not depend on “robbing revenue needed to support traditional public education.” He accuses Edelblut of undermining public education. Volinsky argues the loss of state funds to public schools will have to be made up in property taxes, as the fixed costs that public schools incur won’t decrease. He says the stabilization grants meant to mitigate that loss are a hollow promise. “It doesn’t change the funding picture,” he says, as the $3,600 per pupil is only one funding stream.
Volinsky says the current state budget already underfunds aid for school transportation and special education, and the state offers no aid for building projects. In addition, he says SB 193 does nothing to guarantee that other state education funding will remain constant. He predicts the state will reduce financial commitments for special education and transportation. “Taxpayers will feel the hit to their personal budgets, because property taxes will go up next year and the year after,” he says.
Volinsky also says the bill will disproportionately favor larger urban communities over rural communities. “It’s hard to do the choice paradigm in areas that are sparsely
populated and do not have good public transportation,” he says, arguing there needs to be population density to effectively offer school choice. Cascadden agrees, pointing out that in Coos County there is one private Christian school that the Berlin School District already works with collaboratively. (A Catholic elementary school will open in Lancaster in the fall.) She expects that most families that would leave the public schools will opt to home school.
And that raises concerns about accountability, says Cascadden and Bryan Lamirande, business manager for the Berlin School District. “We need to be able to compare what a child is learning in a public setting and in a home school setting and if they are equal or not,” Lamirande says.
Reaching Higher NH has also expressed concerns, as have other opponents, that the bill does not require private schools to adhere to the same requirements as public schools to meet the needs of students with special needs and disabilities. In fact, those schools are not even required to accept those students.
Others have raised concerns about the use of public funds for religious institutions. “At one of the first conferences that we had, I removed that from the bill. The opponents of the bill in the House Education Committee put religious schools back in because they think that would get them in court and have it declared as unconstitutional,” says Reagan.
Cline says there are provisions to prevent the state from favoring one religion over another, and SB 193 meets that standard, leaving it up to the parent to decide what type of educational setting to spend the money on.
Volinsky says there is no one silver bullet for meeting the educational needs for all children, but that solutions should not come at a cost to public education. “The way to go about this is to start from the premise you will support the public school system,” he says.
Cline of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy says people on both sides of the school choice debate are passionate about providing quality education.
“What I have found is that we actually have more common ground than we think we do. Most people are genuinely interested in doing what is in the best interest of children of New Hampshire. When we actually talk to each other, that comes out,” he says. “When people assume they know the other side’s motivations, that’s where we get into trouble and into heated arguments that are not productive.”