Half of N.H. Students Would Qualify for Vouchers

  • Rep. Glenn Cordelli (center) and other school choice supporters worn yellow scarves during a session of the House at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Concord Monitor
Tuesday, January 16, 2018

At least 84,500 New Hampshire students — about half of the state’s public school population — would be eligible for a controversial school choice proposal under consideration at the State House, a panel of lawmakers was told on Tuesday.

Republican Rep. Glenn Cordelli, a major proponent of Senate Bill 193, testified before the House Finance Committee that, according to state Department of Education figures, about 84,500 students would qualify for the “education savings accounts” — a voucher-like program — that the bill would create.

That figure includes the number of students who currently qualify for free and reduced lunch and who are on special education plans. It also includes an estimate for the number of students who don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch but would nevertheless meet the bill’s income eligibility criteria.

But what it doesn’t include is the number of students who might qualify for the program under its other eligibility criteria — like applying to a charter school but not being admitted — and for which it could be difficult to find good data.

How many students ultimately would qualify for the program — and how many would decide to take advantage of it — will be critical questions as the bill moves forward in a notoriously spend-thrift Legislature. The bill would allow families who pull their children from public school and use the state aid that would have gone to the district on private educational expenses instead.

The base amount of state aid per student is about $3,600. But that number can top $8,000, depending on a child’s demographics.

To sway certain moderate Republicans who worried about the bill’s potential impact on local school districts, the bill was amended to include so-called “stabilization grants” to partially reimburse districts for losses tied to the program.

“I do not think that the dollar amount for the stabilization amount is going to be very significant,” Cordelli said. “I believe there is money in the education trust fund or the general fund.”

A study released in December by public school advocacy organization Reaching Higher New Hampshire calculated that the bill would cost the state $31 million in new spending over five years — assuming just under 50,000 qualified for the program, and 3 percent of those eligible used the program.

Opposition to the bill, especially from the public school sector, has mostly focused on the legislation’s potential impact on the finances of local districts. And multiple superintendents reiterated these worries on Tuesday, adding that the state’s cuts to existing school aid programs — such as building aid and special education funding — made them loathe to believe the Legislature would keep its promise where the bill’s hold-harmless provision was concerned.

But how much the legislation could cost the state in new spending likely will become a key debate.

When Drew Cline, the president of the free-market think-tank Josiah Bartlett Center, testified to the committee on Tuesday about the group’s updated projections on the bill’s impact to schools, House Finance Chairman Rep. Neal Kurk, a Republican, had only one question.

“What about the impact on the general fund?” he asked.

A House Finance subcommittee will take up the bill for a work session at 1 p.m. on Tuesday.