School choice debate shifts to the New Hampshire Senate

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire’s school choice program was depicted as both a lifeline for struggling families and a blow to public education as debate moved to the state Senate on Tuesday.

The Senate Education Committee heard testimony on two House-passed bills to expand the voucher-like program that provides families with the same amount the state provides per pupil to public school districts to pay for private school tuition or home school expenses. One would increase the income cap for applicants; the other would expand eligibility to certain children regardless of family income, including those in foster care, homeless children and children who have been persistently bullied.

Currently, families earning up to 300% of the federal poverty limit are eligible for the grants, which are roughly $4,500 per child. Under the proposed change, the cap would increase to 350%, which is $105,000 for a family of four. But one of the bill’s sponsors said Tuesday he hopes that would be just the first step.

“We’d like to raise this incrementally over the years in front of us to get to a level where we’re going to support all parents who are looking for this choice program,” said Rep. Rick Ladd, a Republican from Haverhill.

The number of participants roughly doubled this fall to 3,025 students. Kate Baker, director of the organization that administers the funds, said about 340 families were turned down because they made too much money, including about 100 whose income would have qualified under the proposed higher cap.

“I think by increasing the income limit to 350 (percent), you’re conservatively catching the inflationary increases that we’ve seen, in addition to providing an opportunity for families who are just a little over the income limit but still may be in high need,” she said.

Opponents argued that expanding eligibility would stray from the program’s original intent to help lower-income families and that any expansion is premature for a program they believe needs stricter accountability and oversight. Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, pushed back on the notion that the grants help students leave failing public schools, noting that all but 100 of the current participants were already attending private schools or were home-schooled before enrolling in the program.

“It’s just outrageous that this bill passed the House and landed here with a $60 million price tag to cover people already in private schools or home schools or who knows what,” he said. The state’s 165,000 public school students have been waiting decades for lawmakers to fulfill their constitutional duty to fund public schools, said Debrah Howes, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

“We should not be starting voucher programs or expanding them until that duty is met,” she said. “Any money that is spent on a voucher program competes directly with money that should be spent on public education.”