CONCORD, N.H. — A bill that would allow New Hampshire parents to use state funding to send their children to private schools is closer to becoming law after winning a narrow endorsement Tuesday by the House Education Committee.
The bill, which was passed by the Senate in March but retained in the House, would provide parents with the state’s basic per-pupil grant of roughly $3,000 to be used for private school tuition or home schooling. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu supported it but pushed for an amendment to tighten eligibility based on income and other criteria.
After several hours of discussion, the Republican-led education committee voted 10-9 to recommend an updated version of the amendment. The vote was mostly along party lines, though two Republicans — Reps. Robert Elliott of Salem and James Grenier of Lempster — opposed the bill, and one Democrat — Rep. Barbara Shaw of Manchester — supported it.
“New Hampshire has signaled to families that we are focused on the kids,” Sununu said. “This is the first step in ensuring that New Hampshire’s education system continues to be on the forefront of innovation, giving parents and children the ability to choose the education path that is best suited for them, closing the opportunity gap and opening pathways like never before, regardless of economic status.”
Under the bill, the money would flow through a nonprofit scholarship organization that would keep 5 percent for administrative costs. To qualify, parents would have to have a household income less than or equal to 300 percent of the federal poverty limit, live in an underperforming school district, have a child with an individual education plan or tried unsuccessfully to enroll a child in a charter school or get an education tax credit.
Opponents argued the program would violate the state Constitution, which says no person shall be compelled to pay to support a religious school.
“Those of us who have some concerns about this bill are not anti-school choice,” said Rep. Mel Myler, D-Hopkinton. “The issue is whether tax money should go to religious schools.”
Among other concerns, Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, took issue with part of the bill that said parents “shall maintain accountability and responsibility for the best educational opportunity for their eligible student.” He argued that would make every parent, whether they sought a scholarship or not, responsible for obtaining the “best” education for their children, and wondered whether parents would then be sued for failing to do that. A series of state Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s held that the state has a duty to provide and pay for an adequate education.
“It is shifting responsibility and accountability squarely onto the parent,” Luneau said.
That section was later changed to say the parent “shall maintain accountability and responsibility for the education of their eligible student.” Supporters argued lawmakers should remain focused on the bill’s broader intent rather than get bogged down in details.
“Everybody at this table has admitted at one time or another that we do have some schools in this state that aren’t cutting the mustard,” said Committee Chairman Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican. “This is about the child, it’s about the student. Here we’ve been talking about trying to cross our T’s and dot our I’s. We can correct that, but we don’t have much time on this. We have kids out there who need this now.”