By Christian Wade | The Center Square
School vouchers would be dramatically expanded in New Hampshire under a plan added to the state’s budget that comes up for a vote this week.
Tucked into the proposed two-year state budget is a provision that would authorize “education freedom accounts” which would divert state educational dollars for students who choose to leave public schools to attend private, parochial or charter schools, or home schooling.
House lawmakers are scheduled to vote Thursday on the final version of the $13.5 billion spending plan, before it heads to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk. The state Senate previously approved the budget.
The measure is strongly opposed by teachers unions and Democratic lawmakers who say it would siphon limited money and resources from traditional public schools.
Deb Howes, president of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in a recent op-ed that the budget plan doesn’t bode well for public education.
“This is a hard slap in the face to all who believe that strong public schools are the bedrock of our communities and democracy and must be funded adequately so that Granite State students can thrive, progress and move on to their next level of education with confidence,” she wrote.
Howes said New Hampshire is “dead last in the nation” in terms of state funding for education, shifting the costs of schooling children to local property owners.
Supporters, like the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, say the changes would provide more options for students who don’t want to attend public schools and save the state money.
A report by the group in March suggested the system would be able to educate students at less than 25% of the cost of a traditional public school.
The state has a tax credit program, created in 2012, which provides scholarships for public school students who want to attend private schools or get home-schooled. But advocates say the program doesn’t go far enough to meet the demand, and only covers a portion of the expenses. The average grant in the 2019-20 school year was about $2,800.
Under the new proposal, the public school dollars would essentially follow K-12 students if they decided to attend private or charter schools. The proposal would authorize annual grants ranging from $3,700 to $9,000 per student. The state currently spends about $3,800 per student. Most cities and towns supplement the spending with local property tax revenue.
The state Department of Education projects the expansion of vouchers will save the state between $360 million to $393 million over the next decade. An estimated 700 students would likely take advantage of the program in the next two years, which would cost the state about $3.2 million, the agency says.
The education freedom accounts are one of several provisions in the budget aimed at winning over conservative House Republicans.
Those include a proposed ban on doctors from performing abortions after the 24th week, a prohibition on teaching “divisive concepts” in public schools and limits on the governor declaring a state of emergency.
Greg Moore, of the conservative Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire, is among those urging the House to approve the spending package.
“Not only does this budget help students and families by recognizing our education system should be built around the individual needs of every student, but it includes tax relief that is needed to help small businesses and employers get back up to full speed after the past year of economic hardship,” he said in a statement.