AFT-NH testimony on HB 1683
To the 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.
I am here to urge passage of HB1683. Last summer, with no fiscal analysis, opportunity for a public hearing or public comment on the financial impact, supporters of school choice at any cost pushed through (as part of the state budget) a costly and unaccountable state voucher program. Now initial numbers are in, and it’s clearly time to repeal this program before more damage is done.
At the time these state vouchers were proposed, AFT-New Hampshire and other child advocacy groups warned that this program would be one of the most expansive, unaccountable, and potentially costly voucher proposals in the nation. It was clear even then that the voucher program would drain millions every year from our neighborhood public schools, downshift more costs from the state to local taxpayer and hike our property taxes.
But it was startling even to us how quickly this program wildly overran its budget. At its inception, the program was projected by the NH DOE to cost $129,000 out of the Education Trust Fund. The most recent cost projection for the program is $8 million for Fiscal Year 2022, with the program cost likely to double to $16 million in FY23. This $24 million drain on the Education Trust Fund was not planned for in the biennial budget was adopted in June 2021.
What are Granite Staters getting, for a program about which they had no choice? According to figures reported by State Education Commissioner Frank Edelbut, 280 of the 1635 New Hampshire students currently enrolled in the new state voucher program came from public schools in 2021. Apparently 1355 were already being home schooled or were in private schools. In other words, state voucher proponents just spent $8 million in taxpayer dollars to remove280 children from neighborhood public schools — all at a time when public schools are strapped for funding and our public school students have never needed more help to reconnect and refocus on learning.
We have heard a lot about how these vouchers are needed so that students can “find the right fit” in their education. What’s needed even more is adequate funding for all public schools so that every public school student has the right fit in the school their family has already chosen. More than 80% of NH families want their students in public schools. There are more than 160,000 public school students in NH. They all deserve to have the small class sizes, individualized attention from the teacher, academic support from trained paraeducators, access to technology and enrichment activities in science, arts, languages, and sports, and sense of community in their public schools that we hear supporters of vouchers state as something they found by leaving. But to do that, they need this legislature to take its commitment to all 160,000 public schools students as seriously as some take a commitment to the 1635 students entered into a hastily rolled out program where the rules aren’t even finished yet.
The $8 million due to be spent on vouchers to benefit a few this year could have provided the 160,000 public school students with:
- 200 more school nurses in a pandemic
- 430 paraeducators to work with small groups, review lessons the teacher has presented and help students practice their skills
- 160 classroom teachers to keep class sizes smaller and give more individual attention
- Numerous enrichment programs in coding, robotics, foreign languages, band, drama to engage curious minds
- Sports programs and outdoor exploration activities to engage growing bodies
This is the opportunity cost of the vouchers. These are educational supports that would have benefitted far more than 1635 students, had that $8 million investment been made in public schools this year.
One thing is certain: If this program stays in place, this voucher scheme will continue to drain money from our public schools and from taxpayers’ pockets. Those missed opportunities will turn into real cuts and hollowed out schools, or the costs will be downshifted, yet again. Local taxpayers will have to close the funding gap for public schools created by the state’s voucher debacle. What’s more, this program has come with no accountability guardrails—no meaningful educational, operational or fiscal oversight.
Did voters and taxpayers even want these vouchers? The answer is no, and polling bears this out. 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, not funding vouchers for a few.
Now more than ever, we need to invest in helping our children recover and thrive. We need to support the public schools that are at the heart of our communities. It’s time to vote Ought to Pass on House Bill 1683, to repeal the Education Freedom Accounts program.