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AFT-NH Testimony on SB 141

From Debrah Howes, President AFT-NH

Thank you, Chairperson Ward and Members of the Senate Education Committee, for reading my testimony.

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. I am writing today in support to SB141, relative to administration of the education freedom accounts program

Let me be clear. I do not think that we should be having taxpayer funded education vouchers at all. I do believe that parents have a choice in where to send their children to school, or whether to educate them at home. I disagree with the notion that taxpayers have an obligation to fund that choice. I particularly disagree with the idea that taxpayers have an obligation to fund that choice with no real assurances that the money is being spent wisely or for the purpose intended. To that end, this bill would improve some gaps in the existing voucher program.

The education freedom account or voucher program was instituted less than two years ago with the promise of allowing educational choice for students, however what we have seen from the program is dramatically different. The voucher program so far has been used largely by families who already homeschooled or sent their children to private schools. In fact, nearly 8 out of 10 students using a voucher were not attending public schools and were not the responsibility of taxpayers. These families were already exercising their choice. It certainly is their right to make such a choice, but it is not the taxpayers’ obligation to fund it!

This bill would stop the increasing shift of private obligations onto the taxpayers back under the current voucher program by limiting eligibility to students who are already in public schools for at least a year. We would no longer be obligating Granite State taxpayers to subsidize individual families’ private choices. For this reason, we support SB 141.

We would really like to see this bill improved by adding stronger independent financial accountability for the voucher program. A report of NH Department of Education data released just this week by NHPR showed that the top recipient of funds from the voucher program in the 2021-2022 school year was Amazon. We have no details as to what was purchased. At a time when some are howling to scrutinize every single book and video clip allowed within the walls of a public school, how can you condone spending over $800,000 of taxpayer money on Amazon for who knows what! We only have the word of the same scholarship organization that earns up to 10% of every payment made that every purchase had a legitimate educational purpose. This program is in desperate need of independent accountability by someone unconnected with the scholarship program or any of the service providers. The public deserve to know that the hard earned money they pay in property taxes is spent wisely. Spending public tax money deserves an audit and deserves crucial accountability. The program as currently run has neither.

SB141 does not go as far as we believe it should. We believe strongly that public education dollars belong in public schools that serve all students in a geographic district, which is where the overwhelming majority of students in this state receive an education. We hear a lot about the popularity of this voucher program, which serves 3200 students. There are more than 160,000 students and their families that rely on traditional, neighborhood public schools. Public schools are not the factory models that voucher supporters make them out to be (of course they have a vested interest in making public schools sound as unattractive as possible!) Public schools are the heart of their communities where students from different backgrounds can learn together, side by side in a classroom community. They are a place where every student is welcomed and accepted.

Schools and education service providers that accept vouchers do NOT have to accept every student, which is one of our reservations about this bill and one of our major objections against voucher programs. We feel that is an important accountability measure that should be written into law.

However, as long as the voucher program exists in New Hampshire we believe the program should have safeguards for Granite State students and Granite Staters hard earned tax dollars. While we would like to see more safeguards and have suggested 2 above, we urge you to at least make a start and adopt the provisions of SB141 by voting Ought to Pass.

Debrah Howes

President, AFT-New Hampshire

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