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With the encouragement of Governor Sununu, the Republican-dominated legislature of New Hampshire authorized a voucher program. Critics are fearful that there is little accountability for how the money is spent. The organization that will administer the program is very pleased.
A report by InDepthNJ.org reported on a meeting of the state education board. The state commissioner Frank Edelblut is a home-schooling parent who has been advocating for vouchers since he was appointed by Sununu.
The board… heard from people about the rules proposed for “education freedom accounts,” or vouchers.
Several people testifying said the rules needed to be tightened up to better address the potential for abuse, that there is little in the way of accountability for how state taxpayer money is spent.
“I hope you ensure the program is going to the purpose which you have stated,” said Manchester Board of School Committee member Jim O’Connell. “I worry about people abusing the system and use state funds for improper purposes.”
Hawkins noted there are areas where “more guardrails are needed,” adding an awful lot of authority is given to a third-party organization. The Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire is administering the program.
Hawkins also raised the issue of income limits and under the current proposal, once a family qualifies, their income can increase beyond the limit and their student would still receive state aid money.
And he said the board needs to clarify what happens if someone fails a background check under the program, and he urged the board to support changes in the law to deal with its shortcomings.
Attorney Gerald Zelin, representing the New Hampshire Association of Special Education Administrators, said the rules need to clarify what rights a special education student would lose under a “parental placement” to participate in the program.
He said he knows the board is waiting for a ruling by the federal government, but its opinion has not been followed by the courts. Under the provision, special education students participating in the program would have to give up their rights to special services.
He was also concerned the rules allow families to bypass the state special education qualifying protocols, instead allowing a physician in any state to diagnose a student with a disability and be able to receive a higher amount of state aid.
The new program did have support from Kate Baker Demers, the executive director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire.
She praised the board and the department for getting the program up and running in such a short time so it could aid students and parents this school year.
“The rules provide rigorous guidance for operating the program,” she told the board.
While Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut predicted less than 100 children would take advantage of the program the first year, 1,635 students were approved at a cost of about $8 million. The money comes from the Education Trust Fund which is used to provide state aid to public education.
Program supporters say it will allow parents to find the most appropriate education for their child, and will, over time, save taxpayers money.
But opponents believe it will harm public schools, allow state money to be used for religious schools with little to no oversight and will allow private and religious schools to discriminate against students with greater educational needs.
Under the new law, a parent seeking to establish an account, would receive between $4,500 to $8,500 per pupil to spend on tuition to any private, religious or alternative school and on other related educational costs including home schooling, computers, books etc.
The student’s parents would receive the basic state adequacy grant of about $3,700 as well as additional money if the student qualified for free or reduced lunches, special education services, English as a Second Language instruction, or failed to reach English proficiency.
The average grant is estimated to be $4,600.
The program is open to the parents of a student in public —traditional and charter — private or religious school, home schooling or other alternative educational programs.
Parents’ income would have to be below about $80,000 a year for a family of four to participate.
Edelblut has been a vocal supporter of the program, which also has the backing of Gov. Chris Sununu.
Garry Rayno may be reached at [email protected].