By Rick Green
Laconia Daily Sun
LACONIA — School districts could lose $5.8 million in state aid under a bill allowing public funds to be spent on private education or home schooling, according to a study by a policy analysis group.
The first year costs of Senate Bill 193 are projected to be $55,014 for Berlin and $16,362 for the Gorham, Randolph, Shelburne Cooperative District according to the study by Reaching Higher N.H., a nonpartisan education policy nonprofit.
Dan Vallone, director of engagement for the group, said the organization does not oppose or endorse the Senate-passed bill, which could be considered by the full House as soon as Jan. 3.
“We're just saying what a plain text reading of the bill indicates and we put it out there so people can make the best decision on what it says, what it means and what the practical implications are from a financial standpoint,” he said Thursday.
How it works
The measure would allow parents who work with an approved scholarship organization to receive the bulk of the state’s per-pupil adequate education grant, which is about $3,600, to be spent on private education or home-schooling costs.
This money would no longer be available to the school district, so districts would see a loss of state aid if the bill were to pass. District officials say many of their costs are fixed and unaffected by a marginal reduction in students.
The bill would provide stabilization grants to districts for the loss of state aid exceeding one-quarter of 1 percent of the district’s voted appropriations in the prior year.
But since these grants would not cover all lost funds, costs would remain. Manchester led the list with a cost of $432,009, followed by Nashua at $407,388 and Concord at $213,684.
Assuming a 3 percent participation rate, overall state costs of stabilization grants to school districts would be $2.2 million in the first year (2018), growing to $10.1 million in year five, totaling $31 million over five years.
A comparable program in Indiana has a 3 percent participation rate. Also, unmet demand for scholarships provided in a New Hampshire tax credit program would also indicate a 3 percent participation rate could be seen here.
The bill would also allow students to join the program after being in a private preschool or kindergarten. New state spending for this group would be $2.58 million, the study found.
Most local families could meet participation requirements in the legislation that sets maximum family income at three times the federal poverty level, or $73,800 for a family of four.
In its study, the organization said the bill lacks clarity about academic accountability.
“SB 193 contains accountability requirements that appear to be in contradiction with each other,” the report said. “The bill seems to compel any student who selects a voucher to take the annual statewide assessment. However, the bill also contains language indicating that the accountability requirements for vouchers students could be satisfied with an annual portfolio review and one other measurement tool agreed upon by the parents, the commissioner of education, resident superintendent, or private school principal. This issue complicates efforts to assess related potential academic impacts.”
The report also said there's nothing in the bill to prohibit the program's oversight commission from having a financial interest in education providers that could receive public money through the program.
Backers of the bill say it would empower parents to make the best education choices for their children. Some children might encounter bullying in a public school, or not have access to the best curriculum for their needs.
Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, the bill's author, said the measure would improve education outcomes.
“What we know nationwide is that any time you create any type of competition in education, you get a better product,” he said. “By introducing competition, you'll get better-trained students. This has happened all around the country, and test scores in nearby public schools have increased.”
Backers also say the financial effect on school districts would be minimal and comparable to the loss of students and state money seen in the yearly churn when students move away.
The Berlin Sun contributed to this story.