Upper Valley Republicans plan to prioritize education bills in NH legislative session

  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, at podium, swears in lawmakers during an outdoor session, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. The 400-member House and 24-member Senate are meeting to get sworn in, choose leaders and elect constitutional officers including the Secretary of State. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, left, swears in lawmakers during an outdoor session, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. The 400-member House and 24-member Senate are meeting to get sworn in, choose leaders and elect constitutional officers including the Secretary of State. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/2/2020 9:57:46 PM
Modified: 12/2/2020 10:25:11 PM

WEST LEBANON — New Hampshire Republicans say education bills — from those seeking to institute a voucher program to others that would reshape school funding — will take center stage during the Legislature’s upcoming session.

Lawmakers who represent parts of the Upper Valley say they’ll be “laser-focused” on education issues when they reconvene next month, with an emphasis on efforts to expand school choice. Those include measures to better fund access to charter schools, private institutions and even religious schools.

And with Republicans now in the majority of both the House and Senate, there’s little Democrats can do to prevent sweeping changes.

“Kids don’t all learn the same way. This isn’t the Industrial Revolution anymore where we’re turning out kids intended to go work on a production line,” state Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, said on Tuesday. “This is a global world with wildly complex dynamics.”

Giuda — whose 26-town district includes Haverhill, Piermont, Orford, Orange and Dorchester — said parents and students require a variety of choices outside the traditional public school to thrive.

To help make that happen, he predicted that Republicans will work quickly to accept $46 million in federal grants aimed at bolstering the state’s charter schools.

The money, which was twice rejected by Democrats who worried it would drain spending on existing schools, would allow for the addition of 27 charter schools to the state’s existing 28.

Republicans have long argued that the charter schools, which operate tuition-free, can better experiment with structure and academic approaches because they’re exempt from some regulations and can admit students from any ZIP Code.

“Charter schools are an integral part of our education suite,” said Giuda, a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee who added that it was “heinous” for Democrats to shoot down the additional aid.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard, said she’s supporting a state constitutional amendment that would allow taxpayer dollars to be used by “religious educational institutions.” She sits on the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled against sending tax dollars to religious schools, and the state Constitution says that “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.”

However, some advocates have argued that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling saying that states with scholarship programs cannot discriminate based on religious status could open the door to funding religious institutions.

The amendment also has the support of Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Windham, a former chief justice on the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Ward, whose district includes the Newport/Sunapee area, said the COVID-19 pandemic has given “a lot of parents a different idea of what goes on in schools and how it’s done.” The challenges or remote learning, she said, made many parents look to other educational options for their children that require more support.

“I think that they’re much more open to saying ‘OK what else can we do? What are our choices?” said Ward.

Other lawmakers intend to focus on how schools are funded.

Rep. Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, said he’ll put forward a bill that reorganizes the state education funding formula to provide more money to struggling “property-poor” communities.

Past debates have revolved around whether to institute new taxes to fund schools, leaving towns struggling when solutions fail to materialize, Smith said

“What’s been left out of that is that Charlestown, Claremont, Newport in particular lose a pile of money every year because of stabilization grant reductions,” he said, referring to state aid designed to cushion schools from the effects of sudden demographic changes.

The grants were being zeroed out incrementally, costing some school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars, until the current state budget restored most communities to their 2012 funding level.

Talks of a new funding formula come as a new legislative report released this week called New Hampshire’s current model “inequitable from both student and taxpayer perspectives.”

The Commission to Study School Funding on Tuesday released a 180-report recommending excess money from the statewide property tax be funneled from wealthier towns to those with fewer resources, restoring a “donor town” system that had been eliminated in 2011.

State Rep. Dan Wolf, R-Newbury, said he’s not yet sure how the Republican-led Legislature will react to the report.

“It’s going to be a huge sea change if that gets adopted,” said Wolf, a member of the House Education Committee who also represents New London. “Are people going to be able to pay for it?”

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




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