Today the New Hampshire House Education Committee will vote on Senate Bill 193: “An Act establishing education freedom accounts for students.”
“This bill establishes the education freedom savings account program to be administered by the Department of Education,” its fiscal note explains. “The program allows the parent of an eligible child to contract and receive a grant for a scholarship organization to pay for qualifying educational expenses.”
While the bill has a long way to go in the legislative process, in our view, as written, it faces significant constitutional challenges, particularly because it would allow public tax dollars to be used at religious schools.
The New Hampshire Constitution, Part II, Article 83, is very clear on this issue, stating: ”… no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools of institutions of any religious sect or denomination.”
During a public hearing on the bill in April, Assistant Attorney General Ann Edwards and an attorney for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union testified on this potential constitutional problem.
The bill could also face constitutional challenges if, in diverting state funds from public schools for private education vouchers, it reduces the adequacy of the education received by the 90 percent of students served by the public schools.
In the landmark Claremont cases of 1993 and 1997, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled: “The responsibility for ensuring the provision of an adequate public education and an adequate level of resources for all students in New Hampshire lies with the State.”
According to published reports, other concerns include provisions that would give state tax dollars to homeschooling parents tax free, which could run afoul of the IRS; the bill’s impact on students with disabilities; and the distribution of statewide education tax dollars, raised through local property taxes, without the approval of local taxpayers.
According to the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy, 18.7 percent of public school funding comes from state adequacy grants. Public schools, with their fixed costs and expensive federal mandates to educate children with special needs, would turn to local taxpayers to make up for tax revenues lost to freedom savings accounts. Or, the school districts would be forced to cut teachers, reducing the quality of education for nine out of 10 children in our state.
School districts receive a base adequacy grant of $3,600 per student and differentiated aid including $1,800 for students who receive free and reduced lunch, more for English language learners, etc., making the average adequacy cost statewide $4,400 per student.
Using the conservative $3,600 per student, in Dover, if 5 percent of the district’s 3,928 students chose to take their money for a freedom savings account, the district would lose $714,422 per year, the cost of 13.28 teachers. Portsmouth would lose $469,052, or 6.57 full-time teacher equivalents. You can see how the bill impacts your school district at reachinghighernh.org.
We fully support parents who want to home school their children or who choose to pay for them to attend private schools. And we applaud the many private schools in our area that provide financial aid to assist or in some cases fully cover the tuition for low and middle-income students. But the choice of parents to send their children to a non-public school should not come at the expense of the vast majority of children who receive their education at their local public schools.
If the state truly wants to bolster alternative non-public education it should dedicate new money to that endeavor, not rob Peter to pay Paul. The state’s financial contribution to public education is already among the lowest in the nation and it gets away with this by shifting the burden onto local property taxpayers, who fund more than 70 percent of the cost of our public schools.
We understand that an amendment to ensure school districts do not lose money has been proposed and this would certainly strengthen the bill. Provisions to ensure accountability from those receiving state funds and a sunset clause that would end the program if it does not meet specific goals are also smart amendments. It would also be nuts not to limit these vouchers to families with some financial needs.
We can all agree our public schools, which are critically important to our communities, are not perfect. Students come to public schools from diverse backgrounds and with a wide range of abilities and needs. And public schools must welcome and educate all children to their fullest potential. Public schools are often the largest institutions in the communities they serve. They are also heavily regulated and can appear to be slow moving and bureaucratic. But the solution to improving education for our children is not to give our public schools less money by diverting already inadequate adequacy funding. If the state wants to experiment with bolstering non-public education it should do so with new funds.