In a surprising turnaround, House Bill 1637, the school choice for small towns bill, was amended to fix the flaws of the House version and without the onerous “strings” from the Senate version.
The bill’s intention was to clarify that school choice programs, such as the one in Croydon, are allowed per state statute and practices. It is consistent with RSA 194:22 and RSA 193:1, section I (a), as well as existing contracts between public school districts and private schools, including religious institutions. It would benefit 15 small districts and those with declining enrollments across the state.
Unfortunately the version passed by the House had two significant flaws that were not fixed during its trek through the legislature. When it went through the Senate, the bill was amended with oppressive “strings” attached. It would have required private schools to follow state statutes governing public schools, adopt Common Core State Standards, and use the aligned statewide assessments. It would remove critical differences between private and public schools and harm current tuition agreements between private schools and public school districts. Neither version benefited school choice or had potential for growth.
Because the House and Senate passed different variations of the bill, it had to be reconciled in a Committee of Conference that met twice this week. Thankfully the Committee recognized the problems and were open to correcting them.
The new amendment, #2093 CofC, is built upon the House amendment, but includes three critical changes.
Firstly, the Committee’s amendment moves the clarifying text to the correct section of statute so it references school district responsibilities, not those of parents.
Secondly, the amendment refers to private schools without excluding religious schools. Several NH Supreme Court cases and opinions — Nursing Education Case, 99 NH §519 (1955); Sweepstakes Case, 108 NH §268 (1967); Property Tax Credit Case, 109 NH §578 (1969); and Choice in Education, 136 NH §357 (1992) — state that money may go to religious schools for specific purposes, but prohibits those funds be used for “sectarian education.” If local districts’ contracts specify that tax dollars are not used for “sectarian education,” then they would not violate the NH Constitution or the Blaine Amendment. For example, tax money may be used to support students participating in sports programs or science classes that their resident district does not offer. Not excluding religious schools in HB 1637 is also consistent with the US Department of Education’s publication called “State Regulation of Private Schools” (2009). On page 179 it references Opinion of the Justices, 115 NH §553 (1975) to say that tax money may be used for various programs including “services” as long as it does not include religious instruction. It also appears on the US DOE’s website, in the Office of Innovation and Improvement, New Hampshire, Private Schools.
Textbooks, physician, nurse and health services, and hot lunches are nonideological; there is no danger that they will be used to foster religion; they are furnished at the request of the student, not the school; and, there will be no need for continuing surveillance which would lead to excessive entanglement. Therefore, the aid is constitutionally permissible.
The bill could not exclude religious schools because the state currently allows public-private school agreements with Kimball Union Academy in Meriden as well as Bishop Guertin, a private religious high school in Nashua. The state also permits school districts to have agreements with private schools across state lines including the Lyme school district’s arrangements with Thetford Academy and St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont, and Chatham’s tuition agreement with Fryeburg Academy in Maine. If HB 1637 excluded religious schools, as it was in both the House and Senate versions, some of these contracts would be prohibited. School choice should move forward and expand opportunities, not repeal or restrict them.
Finally, the Committee’s amendment also clarifies that contracts will be approved by the state Board of Education or the board of the student’s resident school district. This is an improvement for local control.
The Committee of Conference also addressed a false flag brought by Mr. Dean Michener of the NH School Board Association. In the bill’s public hearings and again at the Committee meetings, he claimed that the bill would present districts with a huge financial liability to fund education at any private school in the state, including Phillips Exeter. After close scrutiny by the legislators, his misdirection failed to persuade them. The bill clearly states that districts “may make a contract…” This means that they are not required to make tuition agreements with all schools, just those the district selects and those private schools that choose to participate. The key word is “may.” Additionally, districts are free to enter into contracts with schools participating in choice programs. Like any contract, the terms are negotiable and could include a maximum amount the local district would cover, likely pegged to the tuition with their AREA agreement public school. In Croydon’s case, they have a maximum amount they pay towards tuition at a private school that is set at the amount they pay the Newport School District. If the tuition costs more, the parents are responsible for the difference. If the tuition is less, taxpayers have a cost savings. In Croydon’s situation, they have four students attending the Newport Montessori School at a savings of roughly $16K this year alone.
The next step will bring HB 1637 as passed by the Committee to both the House and Senate next week Thursday, June 1st, for approval. If it passes both bodies, then the bill will advance to Governor Hassan. Even if she vetoes the bill, this legislation sends an important message to the NH Department of Education, Attorney General, the NH courts, and small districts across the state that our legislature supports school choice programs. This could have an impact on Croydon’s legal battle with the DOE as they are still awaiting the NH Superior Court’s ruling.
Please contact your NH Representatives and Senator before Wednesday, June 1st, urging them to vote YEA on Ought to Pass with Amendment. This means they will support HB 1637 as amended by the Committee of Conference.
To find your Representatives, go to “Who’s My Legislator?” Brief and polite phone calls and emails are effective, especially if you mention you are a constituent. Mass emails are far less effective, but the email for all Reps is email@example.com.
To find your NH senator, and his or her contact information, refer to the senate’s roster page, or you can email all of them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Woodburn — District 1, Dalton
Jeanie Forrester — District 2, Meredith
Jeb Bradley — District 3, Wolfeboro
David Watters — District 4, Dover
David Pierce — District 5, Lebanon
Sam Cataldo — District 6, Farmington
Andrew Hosmer — District 7, Laconia
Gerald Little — District 8, Weare
Andy Sanborn — District 9, Bedford
Molly Kelly — District 10, Keene
Gary Daniels — District 11, Milford
Kevin Avard — District 12, Nashua
Bette Lasky — District 13, Nashua
Sharon Carson — District 14, Londonderry
Dan Feltes — District 15, Concord
David Boutin — District 16, Hooksett/Manchester
John Reagan — District 17, Deerfield
Donna Soucy — District 18, Manchester
Regina Birdsell — District 19, Hampstead/Windham/Derry
Lou D’Allesandro — District 20, Manchester
Martha Fuller Clark — District 21, Portsmouth
Chuck Morse — District 22, Salem
Russell Prescott — District 23, Kingston
Nancy Stiles — District 24, Hampton
For more information on HB 1637, read the following articles.
Choice Without Strings Attached
Disaster in the Senate
Saving School Choice
School Choice for Small Towns Hits Snag in Senate
Testimony for HB 1637
HB 1637 — School Choice for Small Towns
Guarantee an Adequate Education?
For more background on Croydon’s choice program and lawsuit, read the following.
Croydon’s Day in Court
Injunction Hearing for Croydon vs the NH DOE
Response to the NH DOE and Attorney General
It’s About Control, Not the Kids
The NH DOE Continues to Bully Croydon
The DOE Wants to End School Choice
Innovative School Choice Program in Croydon