School Choice for Small Towns Hits Snags in Senate

The Senate Education Committee held a public hearing for HB 1637, the school choice for small towns bill, on Tuesday, April 12th. This bill would allow school boards to give parents choice of other public and non-religious schools if the district does not offer that grade level. It recognizes that districts can provide an education without being the direct producer of it.

It was very similar to the public hearing for the House Education Committee in that the main opposition came from the NH School Board Association and an attorney for the Department of Education. Their arguments were also the same, and as equally shaky.

Once again Dean Michener of the NH School Board Association claimed that school choice programs would cost districts more money, completely ignoring that there is a cap based upon AREA agreements. As an example, the Croydon school board has an AREA agreement with the Newport School District that serves as the basis for their school choice program. If parents select a school with a higher tuition, parents must pay the difference. With the Crodyon program, four students are attending the Newport Montessori school which is a $16K savings to the district this year alone. Additionally Mr. Michener said that districts could face lawsuits if these alternative private schools “failed to provide an adequate education.” In fact, an “adequate education” does not define a high quality standard, but the legal hoops that a public school must clear to operate in NH and meet Claremont requirements. As it stands, it is surprising that public school families have not yet filed a class action lawsuit for the system’s failure to provide a high quality education. In part it could be based on the 2015 statewide assessments that showed the state’s poor performance across the board. Only 58% of NH students across all tested grade levels are Level 3 or better in English Language Arts. For mathematics, the scores are even lower at only 46%. That means that not quite 3 out of 5 students are at Level 3 or better in English and less than half are in math. No district or school has faced consequences for these results.

The other party opposed to HB 1637 was Erin MacIntire on behalf of the state Department of Education. She reiterated the same claims that the DOE and Attorney General have said at the House Education Committee’s public hearing and those made to the Croydon School Board and at the November injunction hearing. Ms. MacIntire claimed that only public schools can “guarantee” an “adequate education.” She said it is the statewide testing, graduation rates, and education levels that provide accountability and that private schools inherently do not have the same mechanisms in place. Again, these requirements do not ensure a quality education, but set requirements that meet the federal waivers that the state DOE has promised, including compliance with a uniform statewide assessment that is aligned with Common Core standards.

Ms. Leah Wolczko testified in support of HB 1637. She was a teacher for five years with the Londonderry and Manchester districts. She said that students were routinely “robbed of the opportunity to achieve their potential” because they were forced through a system that did not satisfy their unique needs. She advocated that students need options; they are not standardized. Ms. Wolczko believes HB 1637 allows school boards to work with parents to provide the best “fit” for students, which should be the focus of our entire educational system.

A friendly amendment by Sen. Kevin Avard and Rep. Greg Hill, #1343s, was introduced that would complement HB 1637 as passed by the House. This amendment would clean up the placement of the changed language within statute, primarily indicating it as a responsibility of the district rather than the parents.

HB 1637 (2016) 1343s Avard Hill-page-001
HB 1637 (2016) 1343s Avard Hill-page-001
HB 1637 (2016) 1343s Avard Hill-page-002
HB 1637 (2016) 1343s Avard Hill-page-002
HB 1637 (2016) 1343s Avard Hill-page-003
HB 1637 (2016) 1343s Avard Hill-page-003







Rep. James Grenier prepared a competing amendment with the Department of Education that would require participating private schools to adhere to the same [College and Career Readiness] standards and the same statewide assessments (Smarter Balanced Assessments) that public schools must use. Although Rep. Ralph Boehm’s name appears on the amendment, he completely disavowed it, saying it was not in keeping with what he envisioned for the amendment. Attorney MacIntire said this was a “good starting point.”  This was a thinly veiled hint that the DOE would demand additional concessions.

HB 1637 (2016) 0678h Grenier
HB 1637 (2016) 0678h Grenier

Unfortunately since the public hearing, attempts to reconcile the competing amendments has been futile. The Department of Education attorney and Attorney General have insisted on concessions that would destroy critical distinctions between public and private schools. A compromise amendment could not be reached without sacrifices that would be unacceptable to legislators and parents who value autonomy of private schools.

Although Senator Molly Kelly and opponents said this legislation is unique to one town, it is not. Rep. Virginia Irwin made it clear that while it is inspired by the Croydon school choice program and current legal battle with the state Department of Education, is it not exclusively about a single district. In the hearing it was likened to Claremont as it was the catalyst for other broader legislation across the state. Also, 14 other districts across the state currently do not provide all grade levels within their own district and must make tuition agreements.

In testimony Rep. JR Hoell refuted the presumption that HB 1637 is against the NH Constitution’s prohibition against public money going to benefit private organizations. He likened it to Pinkerton, a private academy, and Bishop Guertin, a private religious high school, that already has contracts with public districts. The state also allows school districts to have agreements 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. It was also interesting to note that the state routinely contracts with private businesses for other services such as road work.

At various points in the hearing, Senator David Watters asked if the bill would permit boards to close public schools and transfer all students to private schools. Mr. Michener of the NHSBA said it would allow districts to transfer all their students to private schools, although the bill is intended to allow individual choice by families to other public schools or non-religious schools, not whole-sale placement by a district. It is meant to give parents a way to find a better “fit” for their children’s education. To counter the senator’s presumption, Representatives Virginia Irwin, James Grenier, and JR Hoell said that to do so would be political suicide by any board, and that the statutes already permit districts to close their schools and enter into tuition agreements with nearby public school districts. HB 1637 does not present any new options for districts in this regard.

When Ms. Christy Whipple, Head of the Newport Montessori School, testified, she mentioned that the school already has placement arrangments for students with special education needs although they are not exclusively a special ed school. Clearly the state DOE allows districts to make tuition agreements with them already. Also, teachers at NH private schools are licensed similarly to those at public chartered schools, in that they are not required to have 100% of all faculty with certification. More than 90% of their teachers have certification, but the rest have not renewed it for various reasons. This refuted one of the opposition’s claims that private school teachers are somehow “less” than those at public schools.

It is expected that the Senate Education Committee will exec HB 1637 on Tuesday, April 19th, but they may do so at any time. Please contact them in support of the Avard-Hill amendment, and ask them to issue an Ought to Pass with Amendment recommendation. This will greatly impact how the entire senate votes when it comes before them. The following is the committee’s contact information. Brief and polite phone calls are most effective, but emails are also helpful. Particularly mention if you are a constituent.

John Reagan, Chairman
(603) 271-4063

Nancy Stiles, Vice Chairman
(603) 271-3093

Kevin Avard
(603) 271-4151

Molly Kelly
(603) 271-3207

David Watters

For more information about HB 1637 and the Croydon school choice program, read the following.
Testimony for HB 1637
Croydon’s Day in Court
HB 1637 — School Choice for Small Towns
Guarantee an Adequate Education?
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