AFT-NH President Deb Howes testified today before the House Education Committee on HB 1588, a bill relative to children attending public school with a mask mandate without an emergency order.
To: NH House Education Committee
Dear Chairman Ladd and Members of the Committee,
My name is Debrah Howes. I am the president of the American Federation of Teachers -NH. AFT-NH represents 3,500 teachers, paraeducators and school support staff, public service employees, and higher education staff across New Hampshire.
On behalf of my members and the children and communities we serve, I urge you to vote against HB 1588. This bill ignores New Hampshire’s long and cherished tradition of local control and local democracy that gives educators and parents a voice in their schools and communities. This bill inserts the state into health and safety decisions that should be left to families and communities to work out with their elected school boards. Yes, Granite Staters on both sides of the mask issue feel strongly. But the state won’t improve matters by stepping in with this expensive, and frankly, coercive bill. Educators and parents have always worked together to solve issues at the local level in New Hampshire. Placing the state’s thumb heavily on one side of the scale to prohibit these stakeholders from reaching an appropriate local decision in the best interest of the students and staff who work in the schools, as well as the safe and orderly functioning of those schools is not the New Hampshire way.
HB 1588 has potentially serious consequences to the quality of education provided in the community as well as cost to property taxpayers. This bill would allow a parent who disagrees with a local mask mandate to send his or her children to any other public or private school or enter the state voucher program regardless of their income level. The $8 million state voucher program is already 6000 percent over the projected budget in its first year and is rapidly depleting the balance in the Education Trust Fund. We have not yet begun to see the harm this will inflict on neighborhood public schools and the students who attend them, but it will be coming. Local districts will be left with two bad choices, cut programming, and staff or raise local property taxes to fill the gap left by dwindling state resources. As far as tuitioning out students, that is a direct impact on local taxpayers. This bill forces school districts to pay for whatever tuition and transportation costs are charged by the schools that students leave for.
This new bill is an unfunded, unlimited mandate on local school districts and property taxpayers. Why would we put this financial burden on our schools at a time like this? Our public schools and the kids we serve need support, so they can focus on reconnecting with their learning communities, not more stress and disruption.
The legislature did the right thing when it tabled HB 607, an earlier attempt to push local vouchers and their costs on towns and property owners. The fact is, parents, taxpayers, and voters don’t want yet another voucher program. In a Dec. 2021 Hart Research Associates Poll, New Hampshire registered voters solidly opposed spending public dollars for private schooling, and overwhelmingly said the legislature should focus on making public schools better for all kids, vs. vouchers for a few. Voters also feared that vouchers would mean unfair property tax hikes.
When this pandemic is over, few of us will want to revisit or remember the mask debate. It will fade away. What won’t disappear is the toll that will be left by these continued attacks on our schools—the defunding, destabilization, and disruption that may be the only educational legacy that our legislature leaves from these pandemic years.
I urge you to vote ITL on HB 1588. Now is a time we should be working together and be solution-driven to help our children and our schools recover from this pandemic and thrive again.