Voucher bill hits roadblock in House panel

Kevin Landrigan, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·3 min read

Feb. 18—CONCORD — In a surprise move, a House committee voted Thursday to put off until early 2022 acting on a signature Republican initiative to award parents with "freedom scholarships" if they send their children to private, religious, home schools or public schools outside their hometowns.

With little debate, the House Education Committee voted 20-0 to retain the bill (HB 20) named in honor of the late House Speaker Dick Hinch, R-Manchester, who died last December after contracting COVID-19.

House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, agreed to take Hinch's place as the bill's lead sponsor.

Supporters had acknowledged Thursday the bill "wasn't ready" to leave the panel with any finding.

The GOP had no margin for error as it had only an 11-10 advantage in membership on the committee.

Despite telephone calls Wednesday night to rally GOP support, sources confirmed there was at least one Republican holdout.

This would have meant the bill would get a negative recommendation if leadership had brought it to an up-or-down vote.

The bill now sits in this committee until that panel makes some recommendation for it late this fall, and then the full House will vote on that motion early on in 2022.

Two top House Republicans said they won't let this setback deter them.

"HB20 remains our number one priority for this legislative session. The House Education committee had a quickly approaching deadline that did not afford them the time they needed today," said House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn.

House Deputy Majority Leader Fred Doucette, R-Salem, said out-of-state interests weighed in against this cause.

"Recent polling has shown that over 70 percent of New Hampshire families are in support of education freedom accounts," Doucette said.

"New Hampshire students do not fit into a one-size-fits-all education system, and we will continue work on HB20 to ensure that we give students and families the choice to find the best situation that works for them."

Rep. Mel Myler, D-Concord, who is the ranking Democrat on the panel, praised the committee's action.

"HB 20 has too many serious flaws to list. It contains no protection for students against discrimination, little oversight and is ripe for fraud. When fully implemented, the program would act as a tax-dollar giveaway to wealthy families," Myler said. "There has never been as much vocal opposition to a piece of legislation in New Hampshire as we have seen on this bill, for good reason."

Backers tried to save bill with amendment

The move also came a day after one of its lead sponsors, Rep. Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, had offered a comprehensive amendment to limit the scope of these vouchers and try and keep the bill alive.

The change would cap eligibility for the program to families earning up to 375 of the federal poverty level which for a family of four was about $100,000.

The amendment would end the cap and let all families participate in these vouchers after July 1, 2026.

Critics maintained the bill would siphon away tens of millions of dollars from public schools and that districts would still face high fixed costs even with these declining enrollments.

Critics also protested that as originally proposed, these scholarships would be given to wealthy families sending their children to exclusive, expensive private schools.

Cordelli tried to mitigate this with his amendment, offering a proposal that would give all school districts some aid for three years after each student that leaves to enter the voucher program.

This aid would equal 100% of the adequate education grant for that student in the first year, 50% in the second year and 25% in the third year.

Former House Majority Leader Doug Ley, D-Jaffrey, maintained even with this amendment, the bill in the first year could lead to a $50 million hit to the Education Trust Fund.