CONCORD — New Hampshire School Administrators Association (NHSAA) Executive Director Carl Ladd and the NHSAA wish to share information on proposed legislation with the potential to create profound, potentially inequitable and tremendously costly changes to education statewide.
House Bill 20 seeks to create a taxpayer-funded “Education Freedom Account” or voucher program that would grant funding to nearly all New Hampshire students for educational expenses, including private school tuition. The program would be open to most students, including those who are presently homeschooled or attend a private school. At this time, the state does not provide funding to students who opt out of the public education system.
As a result, almost any student who is a New Hampshire resident attending private school could apply for the program. The program has the potential to place a vast financial burden on taxpayers to fund private school education and divert much-needed funding away from public schools, among other possible expenses eligible through the program as outlined in HB 20. Funding private school tuition also raises concerns for many about equity and access.
“It’s deeply concerning that this bill could potentially benefit only students already accessing a private school education and continue to widen achievement and equity gaps between these students and their peers,” Dr. Ladd said. “Further, taking funds away from public schools already severely fiscally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic is a great disservice to all students and educators involved.”
Dr. Ladd submitted testimony for consideration by legislators regarding the bill, which may be read in full by clicking here.
The bill is currently slated to be voted on by the House Education Committee on Thursday, Feb. 18.
An Overview of House Bill 20
The vast majority of New Hampshire students would qualify for the Education Freedom Account program outlined in HB 20, including students residing in the state attending a New Hampshire school that is remote or hybrid, students assigned to a New Hampshire public school with assessment proficiency below 40 percent, students currently attending a New Hampshire public school (including a charter school or public academy) or a private school, a kindergarten or first grade student, and the sibling of a student with an education freedom account.
According to the Department of Education, during the 2021-2022 school year an average adequate education grant through the proposed Education Freedom Account program would have been $4,603.
According to an analysis by Reaching Higher NH, if 50% of the students currently enrolled in private school and home school in New Hampshire opted to participate in the voucher program proposed through HB 20, it could cost the state $50,870,055 next year. This does not include additional public school students who may opt to apply to the program.
Reaching Higher NH is a nonpartisan 501c3 organization that acts as a public education policy and community engagement resource for New Hampshire families, educators, and elected officials. To learn more about Reaching Higher NH’s analysis, click here.
Other states with similar programs often identify criteria for participation based on student need, and are only open to certain students such as those with special education needs, socio-economic disadvantages or academic achievement gaps. HB 20 would be open to nearly every student statewide, even those currently attending or living in districts with high-performing public schools.
Expenses covered by the program would include private and religious school tuition and program costs including out-of-state schools and programs, tutoring expenses provided by an individual or tutoring facility, textbooks, curriculum, instructional materials, computer hardware and software, internet connectivity, school uniforms, fees for standardized tests and prep courses, summer program tuition and fees and transportation costs.
Students would apply to a designated scholarship organization in order to be considered for the program.
HB 20 does not mention a mechanism for public oversight of the scholarship organization responsible for managing the allocation of Education Freedom Account funds beyond those established in RSA 77:G, through which Department of Revenue Administration approves scholarship organizations eligible to award funds to students in New Hampshire. An independent audit may be conducted following a complaint regarding the allocation of scholarship funds by such organizations.
Other states with similar voucher programs have experienced significant fraud and waste of funds. In a 2016 audit of the State of Arizona’s (Empowerment Scholarship Account) ESA program, the Office of the Auditor General found more than $100,000 in misspent money in just a six-month period. A follow-up report by the Auditor General in 2018 found spending concerns had persisted.
The bill would additionally waive the local voter approval process for public education expenditures in individual communities, and voters would no longer have an opportunity to vote on whether or not to allocate funds to a contract negotiated by their school board.
In addition to the potential financial repercussions of the bill, educators throughout the state are also concerned the bill may exacerbate equity issues. Whereas any student regardless of race, gender, sexuality, income, religion, special needs, or behavioral history must be accepted into public school systems, private schools select their students based on an admissions process. Public schools are held accountable by the public and are required to make their procedures, policies, rules and regulations public, whereas private schools are not held to the same level of accountability. Students admitted into these programs would attend private schools with the aid of public funds, but the public would have little to no insight into how those decisions had been made or how those funds would be utilized.
“We are imploring people to learn more about this bill and to voice their opinions, as the ramifications of this legislation could be severe and profoundly detrimental to public education in New Hampshire, while potentially leading to a significant windfall for private schools with little to no oversight,” Dr. Ladd said. “We are deeply concerned this bill would not only be inequitable by benefitting select students more than others, but would also pull students and needed funding out of our public schools. New Hampshire is a leader in public education, and our schools are an asset we should be protecting at this vulnerable time in history, not turning our backs on.”
NHSAA is a nonprofit organization serving approximately 275 members and is dedicated to providing the best possible public education for the children of New Hampshire. Membership of NHSAA includes superintendents of schools, assistant superintendents, school business officials, special education directors, curriculum coordinators and other system administrators.
NHSAA provides its membership with professional development training and conference opportunities as well as myriad resources to support their role as educators, and also honors educational professionals statewide with annual awards including Superintendent of the Year, the Outstanding Service Award and Champions for Children.
To learn more, visit NHSAA’s website by clicking here.