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  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Fifth-graders Becca Barlow, left, and Skylear Young stand for the Pledge of Allegiance Friday, February 24, 2012, with their classmates at Birch Hill Elementary School.


  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Fifth graders stand for the Pledge of Allegiance Friday, February 24, 2012, at Birch Hill Elementary School.


  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Fifth graders stand for the Pledge of Allegiance Friday, February 24, 2012, at Birch Hill Elementary School.


  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Fifth-graders Becca Barlow, left, and Skylear Young stand for the Pledge of Allegiance Friday, February 24, 2012, with their classmates at Birch Hill Elementary School.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Education bills in Concord seek improvement, but opponents claim devastating impact

New Hampshire legislators kicked off 2012 with controversy in education. And by all accounts, they’re not done.

In January, legislators voted into law HB 542, which gives parents the right to object to any course material in their child’s curriculum – so long as they find a reasonable alternative approved by the district and pay for any associated costs.

Educators called it a “bureaucratic headache” and experts across the country questioned the need for such a unique law, but bill proponents said it gives parents some authority in their child’s education.

The war of words continues, as several more Statehouse proposals could have significant impact on education in New Hampshire.

Among them are bills that could adjust education funding to local districts, deregulate home schooling or force changes to the local curriculum. And while attempts to require schools to offer an elective Bible course or teach evolution-as-theory in public schools have failed, mandates to teach financial literacy and require exemption policies for sex education have received support. There is also a bill to require students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, which will go before the House for a full vote Wednesday.

State legislators say the bills will improve education overall and help students and school districts excel going forward. House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt said a foundation of excellence in education is important to grow jobs and stimulate business growth in New Hampshire, which are two of the GOP leadership’s key points in their 2012 agenda.

However, education officials and opponents argue that many of the bills do just the opposite and stand to potentially dismantle the state’s public education system entirely.

Private vs. Public

One of the most fierce disagreements is focused around two bills, HB 1607 and SB 372, which intend to achieve one goal: to establish an education credit program that would offer scholarships to students who attend private, religious or home schools.

Students would receive an average of $2,500 per year if they choose to attend a private school or public school outside their home district, and home-schooled students would be eligible for up to $725 in annual scholarship money.

Businesses would fund the scholarships and receive an 85 percent tax credit in return, on either the business profits tax or the business enterprise tax.

Bettencourt, sponsor of HB 1607, and Sen. Jim Forsythe, R-Strafford, sponsor of SB 372, said the legislation will create more competition in education and offer lower-income families the chance to attend private schools.

“Competition brings out the best possible product,” Bettencourt said. “My hope is that it will improve education overall.”

He cited education tax-credit programs launched by eight other states, which have expanded opportunities for hundreds of students across the country – particularly low- and middle-income families, he said.

Eighteen of 19 studies about educational choice programs have improved public education, he said, and public schools in New Hampshire will rise to the same competitive challenge.

But state education officials said students leaving public school to attend private school would cause a steep drop in state funding.

Early estimates from the state Department of Education show that New Hampshire could lose more than $7.75 million in state grant funds currently given to local cities and towns. The state estimates it would lose $4,100 in state aid for every student who leaves public school, and the estimates are projecting Nashua could lose 160 students and $367,430.

The School District would lose that amount each year for three years if the students remain enrolled in private school. However, school districts that receive no state grant funds, like Portsmouth, would not be financially affected.

Deputy Commissioner Paul Leather did not return messages seeking comment, but the state has offered public announcements against the legislation.

Bill Duncan, leader of the organization Defending New Hampshire Public Education, said the bills will cause a significant drop in public-school enrollment, and any funds lost by school districts will need to be replaced by property taxes, which come straight from the taxpayers’ pockets.

“It’s going to cost school systems big time,” he said. “It’s being sold as rich people have choice and lower income people should have school choice as well, but to put all this public money into private schools with no accountability is entirely unjustified. The bill is really about privatizing schools.”

Duncan has a limited background in education, but he studied at the U.S. Naval Academy and owned several businesses in New Hampshire. He is now retired, but he started Defending New Hampshire Public Education because he holds strong beliefs about the value of public schools.

“Public schools are the foundation of our democracy and our workforce,” he said. “They’re a community asset. Not just for the kids in school, but for the whole community.

“The idea that our own Legislature could be attacking public schools in a way that’s so apparent ... it’s offensive to me.”

However, Bettencourt resents that assessment and maintained his view that the intention is to improve education in New Hampshire.

“People are trying to characterize this as an assault on public education; that’s completely, intellectually dishonest,” he said. “I believe in public education. Public education was great for me. I also believe one size does not fit all, and students learn in different ways. They should have options to find something that best fits their learning style.”

Cutting out the courts

Another piece of “signature legislation” is CACR 12, Bettencourt said. The constitutional amendment, sponsored by Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, would give the Legislature full power to establish standards for public education and to decide the amount and direction of state education funding.

The bill already passed the House, but if passed by the Senate, it would go to the voters on the ballot in November.

Bettencourt said the amendment gives control back to legislators and local communities, rather than the Supreme Court, over public education. The bill also stops the state from targeting education funding to needy communities and caused significant instability with funds, he said.

“It’s a constant race to the courthouse every time an education funding plan is passed by the Legislature,” Bettencourt said. “Communities never know what they’re going to be getting year to year because it’s contingent on litigation. That needs to stop.”

There has been some bipartisan support, including from Gov. John Lynch, but Duncan called the bill a “disaster” and said it “badly needs to fail.”

Targeting needy communities is already something the state can do, he said, and the only reason the Legislature wants to pass the bill is to remove the judiciary aspect.

“The issue is pretty well put to bed right now,” Duncan said. “The only need for an amendment is to take the courts out of education.”

The Portsmouth Herald also reports that there have been more than 50 attempts to put an education funding amendment on the ballot since the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the state had the constitutional responsibility to set standards for public education.

Searching for savings

One bill that could affect higher education in New Hampshire is HB 1692, which would eliminate the chancellor’s office at the University System of New Hampshire by July 2013.

The bill will offer savings to the University System and give the four member colleges – University of New Hampshire, Plymouth State University, Keene State College, and Granite State College – more autonomy, Bettencourt said.

The bill would transfer the position’s power and responsibilities to the board of trustees and four college presidents. It also would drop the number of student and alumni representatives on the board from two students and four alumni to one of each, and many of the 71 employees at the chancellor’s office would be lost.

Primary sponsor Rep. Robbie Parsons, R-Milton, believes the four college presidents and key staff below them are capable of doing the work currently done by the chancellor’s office. Parsons said the university system could save “millions of dollars” by closing the office.

“The more I delved into it, the more it looked like it was another agency that had outgrown what it was originally intended to do, both financially and in employees,” Parsons said.

Bettencourt said eliminating the chancellor’s office is another way to get rid of unnecessary bureaucracy in the university system, and it should result in substantial savings and lower tuition for students.

“That piece of legislation is directly on point to our agenda,” he said. “We want our students to go to universities with as low tuition as possible and come out with the least amount of debt possible.”

However, all four presidents of the member colleges spoke out against the bill – arguing that the bill would be intrusive and disruptive to the reorganization process already underway in the university system.

As each bill makes its way through the Statehouse, Duncan said he will keep an eye on each piece of legislation that could impact New Hampshire education. That’s what started his crusade for the organization Defending New Hampshire Public Education.

“I saw a wide range of anti-public education bills and I was alarmed, simple as that,” Duncan said. “People ought to know and be able to respond. A lot of the worst bills have failed, but the trouble is that you can’t tell ahead of time. You can’t separate the ones that might fail from those that might succeed.”

Cameron Kittle can be reached at 594-6523 or ckittle@nashuatelegraph.com. Also check out Kittle (@Telegraph_CamK) on Twitter.