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AFT-NH Testimony in Opposition to HB 331 (Elimination of Income Limits for Vouchers)

Good morning, Chairman Ladd and Members of the House Education Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify on HB 331.

My name is Debrah Howes. I am the president of the American Federation of Teachers-NH. AFT-NH represents 4,000 teachers, paraeducators and school support staff, public service employees and higher education faculty across New Hampshire. My members work with approximately 29,000 of the 165,000 public school students in New Hampshire in one way or another as well as thousands of university students. We are residents and taxpayers in the Granite State. As such, I can unreservedly say we oppose HB 331, which would eliminate any income threshold for a family to be eligible for a school voucher.

By removing the income threshold HB 331 would create additional liability on the state of New Hampshire to fund whatever educational choices a parent wants without any regard for the taxpayers’ ability to pay. The state has long recognized its duty to provide a public education, so much so that it is enshrined in our state’s constitution. The original voucher program put taxpayers on the hook for parents’ educational choices, other than the public schools, for families below a certain income level. There are legal arguments why the original program was incorrect and a bad idea. Eliminating any income threshold just increases the state’s liability does nothing to address the legal shakiness of the program.  

Let’s just be candid, this bill is simply a giveaway of tax money to those who have the time and energy to navigate the system. By eliminating the cap, no income level—no matter how sky-high—would be an obstacle for a family to secure a voucher to use on private school tuition or whatever educational expense. Does it really make sense to tell a single parent in Hudson who is struggling to pay her property taxes, mortgage,  and other bills that now she needs to pay even more in taxes because a NH biotech entrepreneur wants to send his high schooler to Phillips Exeter Academy instead of Alvirne High School and wants the voucher because you don’t get far in business by turning down “free money?” If HB 331 passes, people who have the where-with-all to send their kids to pricey private schools would get tuition relief and we all would pick up the tab. This proposal is simply grotesque.

Right now, about three-fourths of the state funds spent for the current voucher program have subsidized tuition for students who already attended private or religious schools before the voucher program started. These are NOT students who were attending public school, and, with the help of the voucher program, were able to switch to something that better suited their learning needs. However, the advocates of the program originally justified the need for it saying there were many students waiting for just such a chance. They have not materialized! These families had already made their educational choice and were paying for it on their own; the voucher program just made sure that taxpayers subsidized their choices! This voucher program is being morphed into a state-funded free for all. The free for all continues with the enrichment programs used by homeschoolers to supplement their homeschooling, which is also an allowable use of a voucher. The classes, such as music and art lessons, karate, dance, gymnastics and summer camps are activities most families have to reach into their own pockets to pay for. If HB 331 passes, they would become a taxpayer obligation for any family at any income level that wanted to claim a voucher! Get ready for your taxes to go up!

Here's what I’m most upset about—along with eliminating the income cap and other bills the Legislature is considering to expand the current voucher program - what about the needs of the 165,000 students who choose and rely on their neighborhood public schools? They deserve a great education, no matter whether they live in Bedford or Berlin. When will the state live up to its constitutional commitment to all of them?

The overwhelming majority of New Hampshire’s students attend traditional public schools, and they deserve a well-funded, well-resourced education. Will they be able to have a wide array of courses taught, in-person, by certified teachers? Will they have the funding for practical career and technical education courses? Will they have the funding to have small class sizes with learning support from paraeducators and have updated technology? I doubt that would be possible with funds flying out of state coffers to any family who asks for a hand-out for a private or religious school education, or after school activities.

Raising local property taxes to make up for the lost dollars going to vouchers is not an option. The burden on property taxpayers is already ridiculously high in so many Granite State towns and cities - so high it is forcing some people out of their homes, driving many young families to relocate to other states and contributing to our workforce shortage. Property taxpayers shouldn’t have to shoulder the cost of paying for an ever-growing private and homeschool voucher program.

New Hampshire families support funding their neighborhood public schools to help all children in the school do better. They don’t support raising already high taxes even higher to subsidize private schools for wealthy families. Our public schools should be the envy of every state in the country. To keep the well-deserved reputation Granite State public schools have nationally for excellence, we need our legislature to work on fulfilling its constitutional obligation to fully fund its public schools. We need lawmakers, Governor Sununu and Education Commission Edelblut to support public education and not get sidetracked by negligent spending on vouchers for unaccountable private education.

I urge you to find HB 331 Inexpedient to Legislate.  

Thank you!

Debrah Howes,

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President, AFT-NH

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