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School Officials Eye Voucher Bill



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, December 08, 2017

Lebanon — Upper Valley school officials said they’re keeping watch on school voucher legislation that’s projected to cost many districts thousands of dollars in state aid.

A recent analysis of the bill by Reaching Higher New Hampshire found schools statewide could lose $5.8 million in combined funding during the first year if the bill is enacted.

The group, which describes itself as a nonpartisan education policy center, also reported that a majority of students eligible for vouchers live in lower-income communities, and those districts would likely struggle to make up the lost funding.

“We have to stay on top of this bill and we need to inform the Legislature that this bill is going to be undermining for public education in tax-strapped communities,” Claremont Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin said on Thursday.

Claremont is projected to lose about $88,000 annually under the voucher bill, according to the Reaching Higher report. While that’s just a tiny percentage of the district’s roughly $35.5 million budget, McGoodwin said, every penny counts.

The superintendent compared Claremont’s school budget to an orange: every time a tight budget is passed, money meant for classrooms is squeezed out.

Over the past four years, the district has seen such level-funded budgets, McGoodwin said, where spending on fixed costs, such as health insurance and salaries, eat up more money each year.

“We’ve got to a point now where the orange is dry,” he said. “There is a point where you can no longer squeeze and get orange juice.”

Proponents of the voucher bill argue it will allow families the ability to better choose where their children go to school.

The bill, SB 193, would divert state education funds away from public schools, allowing parents to instead use those dollars for private tuition or home-schooling.

The state’s per-pupil aid starts at $3,600 and varies depending on the students. Under the bill, 95 percent of those funds would be distributed to parents through “education savings accounts,” which would be administered by a nonprofit scholarship organization.

The program would be restricted to families with a household income less than or equal to 300 percent of the federal poverty limit, those who live in under performing school districts, have a child receiving special needs services or failed to enroll in a charter school or obtain an education tax credit.

Claremont isn’t the only community that would see losses, according to the Reaching Higher report. Both the Lebanon and Mascoma Valley Regional School districts could lose nearly $60,000 in the bill’s first year, while Haverhill would see a $37,500 loss.

Officials at both Lebanon and Mascoma said they’re concerned about the legislation, but would be in a better position than Claremont to handle the loss in state aid.

“It doesn’t scare me,” Lebanon business administrator Tim Ball said on Thursday.

Revenue projections aren’t always precise, he said, adding the district could end up seeing a $60,000 shortfall by simply underestimating Lebanon High School’s enrollment by a handful of students coming from Plainfield.

“It’s really a shot in the dark as to what the ramifications could be,” Ball said of the bill.

Mascoma Superintendent Patrick Andrew also said the funding loss appeared “manageable.” A provision in the House version of the bill that would provide stabilization money to districts would also prevent “catastrophic” results, he said.

The state would need to raise about $31 million over the next five years to provide stabilization grants, which would go to school districts where the loss of state aid exceeds 0.25 percent of the district’s past budget, according to Reaching Higher.

However, there’s currently no funding mechanism for the state to raise that money, Reaching Higher’s director of engagement, Dan Vallone, said on Thursday.

The group also took issue with how the voucher bill would treat students receiving special education services.

Any student accepting voucher money would be considered in “parental placement” under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, meaning they would receive potentially fewer special education dollars and waive some of the rights their public school counterparts rely on, according to Vallone.

Reaching Higher wasn’t the only group to release its analysis of the bill this week. The right-leaning Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy also came out with its own report on Wednesday, finding that many districts endured larger natural fluctuations in enrollment than legislation is projected to cause.

Even if districts lost 5 percent of students to vouchers, the center found, schools would likely keep 98.7 of their budgets intact.

“These figures show that the supposedly dire enrollment reductions projected by (the bill’s opponents) are actually within the normal annual variation for the New Hampshire school districts,” the center said in the report.

State Sen. Ruth Ward. R-Stoddard, on Thursday, said schools shouldn’t assume stable enrollment figures and instead need to adapt to the changing climate.

Younger students in particular are looking for more options in schooling besides the traditional public school, said Ward, who represents the Upper Valley towns from Grantham to Unity.

Stoddard asked, “Why should they just because of their zip code and date of birth be put in a particular school building?”

State Rep. Linda Tanner, D-Georges Mills, said she hops the recent analysis will give legislators pause about the legislation.

“There’s just a lot of loose ends in this bill,” said Tanner, who represents Cornish, Croydon, Grantham, Newport, Plainfield, Springfield, Sunapee and Unity. “I think it really needs to be looked at, firmed up and get a lot more input from different stakeholders than it is right now.”

The bill has passed the Senate, 14-9, in a party line vote in March, and the House Education Committee recommended an amended version of the legislation last month.

A full vote before the House could come in January. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has said he also supports the legislation.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.