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Portsmouth Herald Editorial: Protect taxpayers, students, schools; send SB 193 for study

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The Portsmouth Herald and its related seacoast papers ran the strong editorial below this morning on why SB 193 should be sent to Interim Study.  The vote is tomorrow and supporters are putting together elaborate plans to get something passed to keep the bill alive.  Now would be a great time to call your House member and follow up with an email about why the bill should be defeated (get their contact info here if you know who they are and here if you don’t):

The New Hampshire House Finance Committee is to be commended for its in-depth analysis of Senate Bill 193, which led it to warn that more study is needed before the state authorizes so-called “freedom savings accounts” for students.

After holding 13 work sessions and several public hearings on the bill, the Finance Committee voted 14-12 last week to recommend the bill be referred to interim study, where its many flaws can be addressed over the summer and fall to benefit a future Legislature.

We support the informed recommendation of the Finance Committee to refer the bill to interim study to address seven major flaws, most significantly that it would “downshift over $99 million to local school districts during the program’s 11-year ramp-up period, most likely resulting in an increase to local property taxes.”

As Finance Chairman Neal Kurk, R-Weare, told the Union Leader: “I was not elected to downshift costs on my constituents, so I cannot support this bill.” We expect most elected representatives share Kurk’s view that voters in their districts did not send them to Concord to increase their local property taxes.

Prior to the Finance Committee’s work, voters were confronted with dueling ideological arguments that offered conflicting facts to support their points of view.

So-called “freedom savings accounts” would allow parents and students to take state education adequacy funding now paid to public schools ($3,600 per student, plus, in some cases, $1,800 in differentiated aid) for home-schooling or toward tuition in private or parochial schools.

In its majority report, the Finance Committee acknowledged the difficulty of the legislation.

“This bill presents unusually complex challenges, including constitutional, historical, educational, organizational, public, private and financial issues,” wrote Rep. Robert Theberge, R-Berlin, for the majority.

For example, the New Hampshire Constitution, Part II, Article 83 states: ”… 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.”

To an objective observer, this constitutional directive seems crystal clear.

However, “freedom savings accounts” advocates argue that because the state is giving the money to a non-governmental administrative entity, which would then give parents the money for use in religious schools, it does not violate the constitution. Clearly, if passed, that constitutional issue would be litigated.

The Finance Committee majority, however, steered clear of the constitutional issues, instead focusing on the financial and educational aspects, highlighting seven major problems with the bill.

First, the majority wrote, the bill does not adequately address the needs of special education students. Second, a majority of the non-public schools receiving public dollars through “freedom” funds do not meet public or private academic oversight requirements. Third, oversight of home school education in New Hampshire is “minimal.” Fourth, there is confusion over how “differentiated aid” would be allocated to students. Fifth, the removal of adequacy funding from public schools with fixed costs would impose “a significant financial burden that increases over time. Ultimately, this burden will be borne by local property taxpayers.” Sixth, using a private non-governmental entity to run the program has “been demonstrated to be vulnerable to misuse and maladministration” in other states and the bill does not protect against such abuses. Seventh, as stated above, the program would gradually downshift $99 million onto local taxpayers.

For these clear and factual reasons, we urge the New Hampshire House to send SB 193 to interim study when it votes on May 2.

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