There’s been a melee over SB 193, the statewide voucher bill, among Republicans in and out of the Legislature, set off by an amendment released just a week ago.
Developed by Finance Division II chair Rep, Karen Umberger with Reps. Ladd, Kurk and Wolf, the amendment corrected drafting errors, targeted low income students and instituted caps on the number of SB 193 grants that could be made each year in each school district. It also virtually eliminated state funding for the new voucher program, shifting all costs to the school districts.
Until now, advocates from the governor on down have asserted that only a few students who didn’t quite fit in their neighborhood schools would use the program. Now, although the new amendment allows for over 8,000 students to move to private schools over the next 11 years, the hard core advocates for private education say that is not enough.
State Board of Education chair Cline says that many more students are “desperate” to leave their “dissatisfactory educational situation.”
In a letter to the Finance Committee, Commissioner Edelblut said he wanted increases in the number of students eligible for grants and also wanted parents to get grants from both the new SB 193 program and the 2012 voucher program. (Private school advocates really want parents to be able to double dip – no one would want the smaller grants from the 2012 program otherwise.)
And here’s the Union Leader raging in ill-informed frustration that that every student in the state would not be eligible to move to private schools, as the House bill would have allowed.
So you can imagine the pressure on Kearsarge Republican Rep. Karen Umberger. The result is yet another amendment, on the heels of the last one, that demonstrates the divisions that have emerged. It does five important things:
- First graders who have never been to public school are now eligible again. Commissioner Edelblut, the governor and others have been lobbying to get that back in. So there is no longer any notion that SB 193 is for students who don’t “fit.” The goal is just to get as many children into private schools as possible. This first grade provision will add significant cost to both the General Fund and the school districts. UPDATE, March 8: Rep. Umberger, offered a new amendment today which was the same as yesterday’s amendment except that it removed first graders and regained the original amendment co-sponsors: Reps. Ladd, Kurk and Wolf.
- It adds back in the notion of an unqualified “Tutor,” with the proviso that if the scholarship organization feels the tutor is not qualified, it can refuse to pay. There are, however, no criteria in the bill and there is no reason to believe the scholarship organization would be qualified to assess the tutor’s qualifications. This, along with the other education features of the bill, undercuts the assertion that the ESA program would provide academic challenges comparable to those in our public schools.
- The amendment makes further changes to the special education provisions of the bill, the analysis of which we will leave to specialists.
- Double dipping is now allowed again. Students could get grants from both the SB 193 ESA program and the 2012 Education Tax Credit program, providing a wide range of opportunities for manipulation and, in the end, giving those students more state adequacy funding than all the other students.
- And, finally, the new amendment eliminates the 5 year sunset provision. Many Republicans uncertain about the ESA experiment have considered the sunset an important safeguard.
The fact that Kearsarge Republican Rep. Karen Umberger’s is alone in sponsoring this amendment sends an important message about the support SB 193 has at this point. Many supporters of school choice seem unwilling to follow private education advocates down such an increasingly damaging and unaccountable road.
The Finance Committee staff will provide a financial analysis of the impact of this new amendment tomorrow (Thursday), but these changes will clearly make a bad bill worse – and more costly.