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Advocates Cautiously Optimistic About Voucher-Like Education Program

  • Kim Moss talks with her son Zethan, 15, at their home in Plainfield, N.H., on Jan. 19, 2018. Zethan was about work on homework for his online music composition class. His classes cost the family several hundred dollars each time. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Zethan Moss, 15, a homeschooler in Plainfield N.H. works in his room for his musical composition class on Jan. 19, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Zethan Moss, 15, works in the school room at his home in Plainfield on Jan. 19, 2018. His parents Kim Moss and Dana Moss with cat Thor sit just outside the room, after going over Zethan's schedule for the day. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Plainfield — Home-schoolers and school choice advocates from the Upper Valley and beyond are hailing a voucher-like program under consideration in the New Hampshire Legislature, but also expressing concern that proposed limitations to protect public schools’ finances could blunt its benefits.

Lawmakers in Concord are mulling over a proposal that would establish “education savings accounts,” or ESAs, allowing parents to take state funding that otherwise would fund their children’s public education and put it toward private school, home schooling and maybe even parochial schools.

The legislation, known as SB 193, has sparked heated debates in the state capital between public-school advocates who fear damage to school systems and school-choice supporters, who say parents ought to decide how best to educate their children. In the Upper Valley, the measure has drawn interest from school choice advocates and home-schoolers in Plainfield, as well as leaders of a new Catholic school planned for Claremont.

“I think our family’s a really good example,” said Bill McGonigle, a Plainfield resident who is sending his daughter, Emma, to nearby private school Kimball Union Academy, rather than to Lebanon public schools.

Emma, a freshman, would have gone to Lebanon High School under an agreement that sends students from Plainfield, which has no public high school, to Lebanon. Instead, her family is sending her to KUA, with help paying the $39,500 2017-18 tuition from Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire, a nonprofit that backs SB 193.

“She was looking for a strong academic environment, somewhere where her curiosity and love of learning would be welcomed rather than ridiculed by her peer group,” McGonigle said of his daughter, who he said had earned straight A’s so far this year.

The legislation has generated statewide controversy, with advocates saying it gives parents more control over their children’s education, and opponents raising questions about its constitutionality and the potential to exacerbate educational inequality by encouraging middle- and upper-income parents to pull their children from public school.

“It takes the money away from the public schools and gives it away to private schoolers and home-schoolers,” said state Rep. Sue Almy, a Democrat from Lebanon who opposes SB 193.

But McGonigle portrayed the program as a partial fix to a system that already gives greater choice and opportunity to families who can afford it.

“School choice is always available to rich families,” McGonigle said, “and the real question is, for families that aren’t wealthy, is school choice available?”

It remains unclear who will be able to take advantage of the proposed legislation, even if it became law in its present form, without any more changes.

In order to limit losses to public schools, legislators have added clauses to SB 193 that limit use of the education savings accounts to people who fall under an income limit, were rejected from charter schools, have special education plans, or unsuccessfully applied for state education tax credits. The bill also says that children already being home-schooled do not qualify.

Those caveats may rule out people like Kim Moss, a nutritionist and online teacher who home-schools her high school-age son Zethan, in Plainfield.

“They’re going to cut out the entire middle class,” Moss said of the income limits, which she said likely would rule her out — not to mention the provision that excludes children already being home schooled.

As it stands, the limit is 300 percent of the federal poverty line, or an annual income of about $75,000 for a family of four in 2018.

Moss and others in the home-schooling community said the roughly $3,600 in annual state adequacy aid — the voucher could be worth more for students in English as a second language programs, with special education plans or who receive free or reduced lunch — could make a serious difference for families, even if they don’t fall under the income guidelines.

Zethan Moss, for instance, hopes to become a film composer one day, and is taking online classes in composition that cost the family several hundred dollars a pop.

His mother, who herself teaches online literature courses to students around the world, said Zethan hoped to become “the next John Williams or Hans Zimmer” — an aspiration that a less restrictive voucher framework could support.

“I think it’s a great start,” Kim Moss said of the bill, “but for me personally, I wish they wouldn’t have put in the income restriction.”

Margaret Drye, another Plainfield resident who recently finished home schooling her nine children, calculated that the program could have afforded as much as $19,000 a year toward her children’s education — “higher than our school taxes, to say the least,” she said.

As with Moss, Drye made extensive use of online classes, including a constitutional law course followed by several of her children. Drye also noted that spending from the educational savings accounts would be regulated by the state, cutting down on frivolous uses of voucher money.

“You can’t just say, ‘We’d like to go to Aruba to see what the tropics are like,’ ” she said.

Despite Moss and others’ concerns about eligibility, some analyses of the bill indicate that qualifying for an education savings account under the current restrictions may be possible for large swaths of New Hampshire’s schoolchildren.

In testimony before the House Finance Committee on Tuesday, state Rep. Glenn Cordelli told fellow lawmakers that about half of New Hampshire’s public school population could qualify.

Cordelli, a Tuftonboro Republican who supports SB 193, said New Hampshire Department of Education data indicated that at least 84,000 students could be eligible, according to the Concord Monitor.

His figures take into account families who are on free or reduced school lunch or who have special education plans.

But Cordelli’s number does not include an estimate of how many students could qualify by applying unsuccessfully to a charter school, a statistic that has proven difficult to pin down.

Estimates of the potential cost of this program also have varied.

A December study from Reaching Higher New Hampshire, a public school advocacy organization, said the bill could cost the state an extra $31 million over five years. The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank, countered last week with a study concluding that local school district revenue would decline by about 0.14 percent, on average, stemming from families using ESAs in their first year of availability.

As a further step to limit liability for public schools, the legislation includes a provision that would indemnify school districts when money lost through educational savings accounts exceeds a quarter of a percent of a given district’s annual budget.

Still, the bill has weathered criticism from public school advocates who express doubt that the Legislature will follow through on the reimbursements and prompted concerns about the constitutionality of the legislation.

New Hampshire’s constitution forbids use of public money for parochial schools.

Proponents of SB 193 say it avoids this restriction by placing the funds in savings accounts managed by a third-party scholarship organization, but questions remain as to whether this successfully circumvents the rule.

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office in December appeared to reverse prior statements it had made about the bill when it told the House speaker that the legislation was constitutional as proposed.

“This opinion is incorrect,” the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire fired back earlier this month. “SB 193 directly violates the New Hampshire Constitution and New Hampshire Supreme Court precedent restricting the use of public funds for religious schools.”

The Rev. Shawn Therrien, the pastor at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Claremont, which is slated to open a Catholic school in August, said he supported the legislation as proposed.

“If we truly believe that education is important, there’s one aspect where it doesn’t matter who’s doing the educating, as long as it’s within the guidelines established by the state and agreed upon by reasonable people,” he said. “Teaching math is not religious.”

Although the school hasn’t yet opened and tuition rates have not yet been set — Therrien said the school may settle somewhere around $5,000 a year — the pastor predicted that education savings accounts could boost enrollment.

“I think it would provide a greater opportunity for those who would like to send their kid to a parochial school but perhaps can’t afford it,” he said.

Both the New Hampshire House and Senate have voted in favor of the bill, but the House Finance Committee must now analyze the measure for its potential fiscal impact. Then the full House would consider the legislation again before possibly sending it back to the upper chamber.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.