LACONIA — The Laconia School District has signaled its strong disapproval of a school voucher bill now making its way through the Legislature.
While the board took no formal vote at its meeting Tuesday, comments from individual members showed that all but one believed the bill would harm the school district by decreasing the amount of aid the district currently gets from the state.
The board took up the issue at the request of Superintendent Steve Tucker who, at the Feb. 2 meeting, said a bill to create a universal school voucher program in the state would hurt the city’s public school system.
The bill — HB 20 — calls for the establishment of so-called education freedom accounts, which would allow families whose children leave their local public school to redirect state aid to the educational program of that family’s choice.
The school district would lose between $3,787 to $8,458 for each student who left the public school system, according to a summary of the bill’s impact provided to the board by the administration. The average would be just under $5,000 per student.
Board member Dawn Johnson, who also serves in the state House of Representatives, and is the only board member to favor the bill, told fellow members the bill is not in its final form and she urged members to postpone taking a position until all the legislative details have been ironed out.
“Some of the wording has changed,” she said. “The changes have been back and forth.”
Fellow board member Laura Dunn said that the fact that the bill is in such a state of flux indicates that the bill is flawed.
“If they keep going back to make a lot of changes that shows that not enough thought was put into it,” she said. “There are a lot of holes in this bill.”
While HB 20 has received a lot of attention, there is a second bill that has also been filed that would provide payments to parents who choose to have their child educated outside the public school system.
HB 607 would provide $7,341 for every child in the Laconia system whose family took advantage of the program, according to the administration’s analysis. Unlike HB 20, HB 607 would require the measure to be adopted by local school districts through a warrant article. But it makes no mention how the local adoption measure would apply to city school districts.
Johnson said the program that would be established under HB 20 could benefit the Laconia School District because one of the options families would have would be to move their child from one public school system to another.
“If we have really good programs, that could attract students (to switch),” she said.
Board member Aaron Hayward said based on the language currently in HB 20 the money which parents would receive under the bill “comes from state funds, which means it comes from taxpayers.”
Tucker said it is unclear how much the bill will cost taxpayers because there is no fiscal note attached to the bill.
Another board member, Joe Cormier, criticized Johnson for “lobbying for non-public schools.”
But Johnson stood by her position.
“If it’s what’s best for the kids, then I have no problem supporting it,” she said. “We need to do what’s best for students and not what’s best for teachers or best for taxpayers.”
The state Department of Education has estimated that upward of 2½ percent of students in grades 1 through 12 statewide would participate in the program that would be established under HB 20. That translates to 4,230 of the state’s 169,204 public school students. Of those students, the largest segment — 75 percent — would be students who switch from a public school to a private school. Another 15 percent would be students already enrolled in a private school, while 10 percent would be students who are currently being home-schooled, although it is not immediately clear whether current home-schooled students would qualify under the HB 20 program.
Tucker said the driving force behind the bill is the Department of Education’s calculation that the cost of primary and secondary education is expected to increase from about $3.6 billion to $3.9 billion statewide by the beginning of the next decade, even if the enrollment declines by more than 16,000 students by then.
“Cost is driving this bill,” he said.