ESA Bill Passes New Hampshire House, Awaits Finance Review

Published February 6, 2018

ESAs grant parents access to the money allocated for their children’s government school education to spend on approved alternatives such as private school tuition, homeschooling textbooks, learning therapies, and tutoring. Senate Bill 193 would grant eligible families—those with special-needs children or low incomes—up to $3,500 per year to use on educational expenses.

SB 193 passed the state Senate in March 2017. The House approved the bill in January 2018, and the House Finance Committee is scheduled to review the bill in April 2018. Gov. Chris Sununu has voiced support for the bill.

Challenges Expected

Supporters of SB 193 expect challenges regarding the bill’s constitutionally.

New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald ruled in December 2017 ESAs are allowable under the state constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union and other government school advocates continue to argue the bill would not hold up in the state Supreme Court, saying it violates the state constitution’s Blaine amendment, which forbids public money from funding “sectarian” institutions.

‘This Isn’t Working for My Kids’

Ann Marie Banfield, education liaison for Cornerstone Policy Research, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit organization, says parents desperately want alternatives to government schools beset by federal mandates.

“I tend to focus on how we can improve public education,” Banfield said. “I look at legislation that is targeted toward improving literacy, academic excellence, and parental rights, and since 2010, we’ve had nothing but more federal government intrusion into our schools with Common Core and competency-based education, and our enrollments are showing that we have declining enrollments in public schools.

“I have been focused on improving public schools, but I’ve run into roadblocks,” Banfield said. “The education establishment wants to keep Common Core and competency-based education, so if they want to force that on the public schools, you have to listen to the parents who are saying, ‘This isn’t working for my kids.’ And there’s plenty of them. Since 2010, I’ve been working closely with all of these parents, and they’re fed up, and they’ve pulled their kids out. And if they’re pulling their kids out over these reforms, then we’ve got to give them some kind of avenue when they do pull their kids out of the schools.”

‘We Want Authentic Choice’

Banfield says her organization didn’t want to accept just any school choice plan lawmakers were willing to pass.

“We were very careful with the ESA bill,” Banfield said. “As much as I like school choice, I’m very careful about it. I don’t support the [U.S. Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos remedy, which would be federal vouchers. I don’t support something like that, because I know that that’s the way government tries to control private schools. We’re very careful with school choice in New Hampshire. We want authentic choice. We don’t want what’s going on in Indiana—the same in Ohio—where the kids are put into private schools and forced to take the Common Core test, and all the private schools are aligning with Common Core. We want no part of that.

“We actually killed a school choice bill a year ago because it had a [state standardized] testing mechanism attached to it, and we just said, ‘No way,'” Banfield said. “We want to make sure that when this choice is made available to parents, that it’s authentic choice. New Hampshire is doing it differently from a lot of the other states that are supposedly supporting school choice. We’re trying to keep the strings that they try to want to attach, off. We’ve learned from other states.”

‘Eligibility Was Trimmed’

Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute a senior fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee, and a Heartland Institute policy advisor, says he’d prefer SB 193 to be more inclusive, but he thinks that will probably come with time.

“It was originally pretty broad and inclusive as far as eligibility, and then into December, the eligibility was trimmed,” Butcher said. “They’ve narrowed the eligibility, which, of course, is not ideal, but as we’ve seen in other states, I think … once lawmakers and taxpayers and voters see students beginning to benefit from this, you can begin to build a consensus that this is something really valuable and students from all walks of life could benefit from it.”

‘Taxpayers Are Paying Twice’

Butcher says a provision of SB 193 would essentially pay school districts for students after they’ve left to use an ESA.

“What caught my eye in reading the bill was a section about stabilization grants that are going to go to districts when students leave to use an account,” Butcher said. “They’re going to backfill districts when students leave to use an education savings account, and I think that’s not responsible fiscal policy.

“I understand that compromises need to be made to build consensus around a bill, but … that means taxpayers are paying twice for students, and that’s not fair to taxpayers or families, especially when we have examples from Arizona where a child leaves their public school to use an ESA, the money is just moved from one place in the general fund to another, and there’s a period of adjustment, but eventually, the district doesn’t get money anymore for that child, and that’s the way it should be, instead of paying the district for an empty seat,” Butcher said.

Teresa Mull ([email protected]is a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute.