Yesterday Governor Maggie Hassan vetoed House Bill 1637, the school choice for small towns bill, also known as the Croydon bill. The bill would have facilitated programs such as the one in Croydon that enables small school districts to tuition out students of any grade level if it is not available within their resident district. It would have benefited more than a dozen small districts across the state and those with declining student enrollment.
The bill’s intention was to clarify that local schools boards may contract with private schools for grade levels not available in-district and these arrangements are consistent with state statutes and practices. Two particular state laws already enable these arrangements. RSA 194:22 allows for districts to have tuition agreements with other schools using taxpayers’ dollars. This statute specifies that public districts may contract with “other literary institutions.” What else could that refer to other than private schools? A second statute, RSA 193:1, section I (a), addresses school attendance and specifically states that attendance at a private school is a substitute for attending a public school. The state currently acknowledges public-private school agreements with Kimball Union Academy in Meriden as well as Bishop Guertin, a private religious high school in Nashua. The state also permits school districts to have tuition contracts with private schools across state lines including the Lyme school district’s arrangements with Thetford Academy and St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont, and Chatham’s tuition agreement with Fryeburg Academy in Maine.
In her veto message, Gov. Hassan claims that NH public schools are uniquely positioned to provide an “adequate education” that meets state accountability standards. This statement is also used by the state Department of Education and the Attorney General in their lawsuit against the Croydon School Board.
The state’s “guarantee of an adequate education” as required by the Claremont decisions has nothing to do with quality or achievement levels. RSA 193-E, the statute that defines an “adequate education,” only specifies the criteria and substantive educational content. If the state’s accountability system provides a solid educational standard for achievement, then why are most of NH’s schools failing even by their own criteria? The implication of achievement and success cannot be substantiated when the state’s assessment results and graduation rates are examined.
This argument also ignores accountability to parents. They have the choice to enroll their children in programs, or withdraw them if the school does not meet their expectations. That is the accountability mechanism inherent in free markets and competition. It does a better job ensuring educational success and satisfaction more than the state’s “adequate education” matrix.
Also Gov. Hassan falsely states that HB 1637 would remove voters from the approval process of tuition agreements between public school districts and private schools. Districts may already contract with various schools to provide education to their resident students and the bill did not alter any statutes that address that process.
Finally, and most egregiously, Gov. Hassan’s claim that HB 1637 violates the NH Constitution is ignorant of the facts. Several NH Supreme Court cases and opinions — Nursing Education Case, 99 NH §519 (1955); Sweepstakes Case, 108 NH §268 (1967); Property Tax Credit Case, 109 NH §578 (1969); and Choice in Education, 136 NH §357 (1992) — state that money may go to religious schools for specific purposes, but prohibits those funds be used for “sectarian education.” If local districts’ contracts specify that tax dollars are not used for “sectarian education,” then they would not violate the NH Constitution or the Blaine Amendment. For example, tax money may be used to support students participating in sports programs or science classes that their resident district does not offer. Not excluding religious schools in HB 1637 is also consistent with the US Department of Education’s publication called “State Regulation of Private Schools” (2009). On page 179 it references Opinion of the Justices, 115 NH §553 (1975) to say that tax money may be used for various programs including “services” as long as it does not include religious instruction. It also appears on the US DOE’s website, in the Office of Innovation and Improvement, New Hampshire, Private Schools. To exclude religious schools from school choice programs would be discriminatory and inconsistent with existing use of tax money at religious institutions.
It is very revealing that Governor Hassan specifically references the National Education Association, the NH School Administrators Association, and the NH School Boards Association as opposed to HB 1637 and in support of her veto. It clearly shows her alliances. Instead of supporting students, parents, and local districts, Gov. Hassan aligns her decisions with high-power unions and lobbying organizations.
While it is disappointing that the Governor vetoed this common sense bill, it was not a surprise. The debate was consistently divided along party lines. Gov. Hassan’s veto message echoes the same misinformation that Sen. David Watters and Rep. Mary Gile said on the Senate and House floors respectively. Every Democrat senator voted against HB 1637, as did most of their counterparts in the House roll call. This is most unfortunate as school choice is often a non-partisan issue across the United States, particularly in urban and economically-challenged areas because providing educational options is one of the most powerful tools to improve outcomes.
The state DOE and Attorney General’s lawsuit against Croydon in NH Superior Court is pending; we expect a ruling very soon. While HB 1637 did not succeed, it sent a strong message that choice programs are supported by parents, districts, and the legislature. We hope the court is listening.
For more information on HB 1637, read the following articles.
New Hope for HB 1637
Choice Without Strings Attached
Disaster in the Senate
Saving School Choice
School Choice for Small Towns Hits Snag in Senate
Testimony for HB 1637
HB 1637 — School Choice for Small Towns
Guarantee an Adequate Education?
For more background on Croydon’s choice program and lawsuit, read the following.
Croydon’s Day in Court
Injunction Hearing for Croydon vs the NH DOE
Response to the NH DOE and Attorney General
It’s About Control, Not the Kids
The NH DOE Continues to Bully Croydon
The DOE Wants to End School Choice
Innovative School Choice Program in Croydon