Bonnie Perry, kindergarten teacher at Holy Trinity School in Laconia, answers a student’s question on Nov. 15. The school could benefit if a bill allowing vouchers passes. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
State legislation to allow public tax money to go to private schools has passed Senate, moves to House
By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Most local families could meet the income requirements in legislation that would provide them with state money to spend on private education or home schooling.
Senate Bill 193 was amended to include a maximum income qualification at three times the federal poverty level.
That means the majority of students could participate in Laconia, where 60 percent can receive free or reduced-price lunches, which are available when family income doesn’t exceed about two times the poverty level.
The current poverty level for a family of four is about $24,000.
The Senate-passed bill cleared the House Education Committee this week, 10-9. It still needs to go before the full House and the Finance Committee. The Senate will also need to consider House changes before the bill can be sent to the governor to be signed into law.
Income qualifications in the bill could be overcome by other criteria, including failing to gain admission to a public charter school or having an individual education plan.
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.
Dan Vallone, director of engagement for Reaching Higher NH, which analyzes legislation affecting public education, said it’s hard to estimate the fiscal effects of the bill without knowing how many students would participate.
A new amendment in the bill would require the state to compensate school districts for losses in revenue above one quarter of one percent for the first five fiscal years.
“That would be all new money and that would require new funding from the state,” Vallone said. “It could be very sizable, even with relatively conservative adoption rates.”
Laconia School Superintendent Brendan Minnihan has expressed concerns about the loss of funding schools could encounter under the bill. These concerns could be addressed by the new amendment, but he said he still has “philosophical concerns.”
“The public schools serve a purpose that is larger, although inclusive, than any one individual,” he said. “They serve a purpose for our democracy and a purpose for our community and Senate Bill 193 is basically an attempt to sort of circumvent that role that public schools play.”
He said public schools are faced with rigorous accountability standards meant to ensure students are making adequate academic progress. Private schools and home schools do not have the same requirements.
He also said public schools offer a wide range of education options to deal with specific students’ needs and academic interests.
Mary Jane Cooney, principal of Holy Trinity Catholic School, welcomes the legislation.
“Not every school is right for every child,” she said. “I know children who thrive in the public schools, and our school may not be for every child, but the people who do send their children here feel they are providing their child with the best opportunity.”
She said the school provides financial assistance for those who can’t afford tuition, but many who would like to send their children there may feel they need additional assistance.
Holy Trinity’s yearly tuition of $8,330 can be reduced through volunteer school service and scholarships. Reductions are also made when multiple children from the same family attend.
Its website says, “If a family truly desires to send their children to Holy Trinity School, money will not be the reason preventing them from doing so.”
The school welcomes children of all faiths, and 30 percent of the students are not Catholic, although Catholicism is a big part of the education offered. Academics and strong values are stressed.
Michelle Levell, director of School Choice for NH, said statistics from the handful of states with programs similar to the one envisioned in the bill indicate only a small percentage of students would leave public schools if the measure passes.
Still, she thinks that choice should be available for young people who need something other than what is offered at a public school.
“Even a good school district might not be the best fit for a particular child,” Levell said.
Bullying is a problem at some schools. Others may lack what a child needs academically.
She said her three children benefitted from being schooled at home.
The home-school community has many options and events to get children together and to assist in curriculum and education, she said. All three of Levell’s children learned to speak Mandarin Chinese because that interested them.
She sees the legislation as empowering parents.
“Parents know their children the best and have a vested interest to make sure their kids are educated well,” Levell said.
The more than $3,000 of state money that could be applied to a private education wouldn’t go far at some of the area’s prestigious prep schools.
Tuition for day students at the nearly 200-year-old Brewster Academy on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro is $35,020, which is typical for a New Hampshire prep school, said Marcia Eldredge, the school’s communications director.
Still, she said the state aid that would be available under the bill could be valuable to some applicants. About 35 percent of students there receive need-based financial aid.
Sant Bani School
The tuition at Sant Bani School in Sanbornton is $7,500 yearly.
An endowment helps keep the tuition low at the K-through-8 school, but about half of its 113 students receive need-based financial aid and some applicants are unable to attend because their families can’t afford it, said Brooke Pearsall, director of advancement.
“Sant Bani” is loosely defined as “song of the spirit” in Sanskrit.
“We’re a nonprofit organization focused on educating the whole child and spending a lot of time in nature,” Pearsall said. “The kids are outdoors a lot and they are moving a lot. We focus on academics, arts, music and offer after-school enrichment.”
Catie McLaughlin, of Hampton Falls, has five children. Four are school-age and all are being schooled at home.
She said their education includes online courses. The family has been able to build strong relationships with other home-school families. Some of the children have advanced well beyond their grade level.
“My 11-year-old is doing three high school classes,” McLaughlin said. “I have a daughter in eighth grade who has a full year of high school under her belt.”
McLaughlin said many students at public schools struggle academically and that recent standardized testing has shown half of public school students did not reach proficiency in math and English.
She also said that the new legislation contains provisions for accountability and reporting for parents participating in the program.