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AFT-NH Testimony in Support of HB 451 (Prohibition on discrimination)

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 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. I am writing today in support of HB 451, relative to the state board of education prohibition on discrimination.

This bill would update the necessary guardrails that protect students from unlawful discrimination in admissions and access to any publicly funded educational programs and activities. State law already prohibits such discrimination in public schools, of course. This bill specifically adds language prohibiting discrimination by any entity receiving state or federal funding—including private schools, online programs, or educational vendors that use voucher funds.

That’s important, because in recent years, our state legislature has passed bills creating one of the nation’s most expansive, costly, and unaccountable voucher programs. We need to ensure that these programs don’t allow discrimination on the taxpayers’ dime.

Our union opposed the voucher program for many great reasons: It is wildly expensive—and as we predicted, quickly racked up massive cost overruns. There is no independent oversight of the spending and no independent academic accountability. The voucher program serves a few thousand children—most were already home-schooled or in private schools—while draining millions every year from the Education Trust Fund needed to support the neighborhood public schools that the rest of New Hampshire’s 165,000 students attend.

Nationwide, studies have shown that vouchers are a failed policy. Why is New Hampshire, with a public education system that consistently ranks about 5th in the country chasing a failed policy that will harm the vast majority of Granite State students and the public schools they rely on? We have seen years of studies in a whole variety of states that show that vouchers are a failed education strategy, often leading to declines in student achievement—one recent analysis found that vouchers inflict a negative impact on student learning similar to or worse than Hurricane Katrina or the pandemic!

But among the many reasons why we question any tax funded voucher scheme, one of the most important is this: Vouchers often use tax dollars to fund discrimination and segregation.

Public schools are open to, and serve, all students. But private schools and programs can deny students admission, or discipline them, or expel them, for any number of reasons, including disability, sexual orientation, or religion. Tax support of that level of discrimination – what some might call exclusivity or fitting in with world-view – has never been a Granite State value. You can see that in our long standing prohibition in our state constitution forbidding the direct funding of sectarian schools with state dollars. There are efforts now to eliminate that language, which AFT-NH opposes.

There are examples across the country of how private, voucher-funded schools have discriminated, from the child with disabilities in Texas who was rejected by 13 different private schools, to the Florida school that received $1.6 million in voucher funding in just one year but told parents it would kick out gay or transgender students.

Especially troubling is how private school voucher programs perpetuate racial segregation. Data going back more than 10 years show that vouchers disproportionately serve white students, leaving students of color behind in more segregated schools. Sadly, segregation is baked into vouchers’ history. Voucher programs in the South—Virginia., Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina—were first created to allow white students to fund segregation academies in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education.

I often come here and voice positions that some legislators don’t agree with. But I hope we can all agree that New Hampshire should be one of the states that won’t let a single public dollar go to discrimination or segregation in any form, including in private schools and programs that take New Hampshire voucher dollars.

I urge you to support HB 451.

Debrah Howes

AFT-NH President

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