Commentary: Budgets should represent shared values and priorities

An empty classroom
Cyberattacks, like the Colonial Pipeline one that spurred days of shuttered gas stations this spring, have also targeted school districts, such as Sunapee.(Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This year’s state budget bills are packed with extra provisions that are there simply because that is the only way they can survive. Some of these provisions have never been scrutinized by a finance committee or examined by the full General Court. Instead, these measures were sent directly from their committee hearing and into the budget bills with the hope that they become law without elected lawmakers having a chance to make changes or decide they were simply too extreme for New Hampshire.

In March, the Senate majority indicated that it would take the contents of Senate Bill 130, the private, religious, and homeschool voucher expansion program and place it into the budget. Three years ago, the New Hampshire House turned down a far more limited voucher plan in SB 193 for financial reasons, principally because the Legislative Budget Assistant estimated that it would downshift $99 million onto local property taxes. That program had an eligibility limited to 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level and contained caps on the number of participants, provisions far less generous than the voucher plan adopted by the Senate this year, and yet SB 193 was still deemed to be too much of a financial risk to our communities.

As Rep. Neal Kurk asked in his floor speech against SB 193 a few years ago, when talking about the downshifting this type of legislation would cause amid already challenging circumstances for school districts, “Do we really want to make things worse for local property-tax payers?” This is a question that remains unanswered today.

Should the SB 130 voucher plan be inserted into this year’s budget bill, it would be far more expansive than the one rejected in 2018 and could downshift an even greater amount onto local property taxpayers. To date there has been no financial analysis completed from the Legislative Budget Assistant, on this massive expansion of vouchers, yet it is now slated to be a part of our state budget.

We know the state will be paying more from the education trust fund if this voucher plan is included in the budget, but not to support our public schools. Instead, the state will be paying new money to parents who have already chosen to send their children to private, religious, or home schools. Over a three-year period we could be looking at nearly $100 million public tax dollars being spent on vouchers for people who are already sending their children to private, religious, or home schools.

And for those families who choose to remove their student from a public school, the state will be spending additional funds to temporarily lessen the blow of losing that badly needed funding. Rural and below average property valued communities will be hit the hardest by this initiative.

This expanded voucher provision also lacks meaningful financial oversight and the scholarship organization can keep up to 10 percent of the state aid formerly sent to our school districts. Not only are we subsidizing private schools using public dollars with this legislation, but we are also allowing a private third party to take money directly from our schools to recoup administrative costs in exchange for little to no oversight.

Putting school vouchers in the state budget completely cuts off the opportunity for members of the House to deliberate and vote on this major piece of legislation, which will drastically alter education funding in the state of New Hampshire. Our message to the Senate Finance Committee is do not put vouchers in the state budget and circumvent this important public legislative process. Let the House continue to work on its bill and, should they endorse it, send it over to you next year.

In fact, rather than a voucher program in our state budget, we would urge the Senate to use those resources to close the $90 million funding gap that students and taxpayers face because of the pandemic and the expiration of long overdue aid to our communities. The problem is bigger, no doubt, than this biennium’s budget, but this can be a bridge to undertake further changes to solve the inequities in our funding laid out by last year’s School Funding Commission report. We supported the passage of SB 135, which closes part of the two-year gap we face and urge this committee to commit the resources needed to finish the job.

Lastly, the section of HB 2 that comes from the so-called divisive concepts bill, HB 544, is a particularly offensive piece of legislation. The contents of HB 544 should not only cease to be a part of our state budget but should be removed from any further consideration by this body.

Attempting to put this sort of restrictive language into our statutes is fraught with peril in so many respects and undermines the very principles of democracy that this bill purports to protect. Our country is at a crossroads with respect to racial and gender equity and inclusion. These discussions in the classroom and in the workplace are tools we use in this country to combat systemic racism and gender inequality. New Hampshire educators are credentialed and skillful facilitators of learning. Passing this kind of legislation, especially in our state budget, to silence conversations will not only prevent the kind of inclusion we seek but set us further back.

This budget can be a better representation of the priorities the people of New Hampshire hold rather than a document pieced together to ameliorate the extreme minority of one political party. We have an opportunity to show the most important people we serve as educators, our students, that we support a strong public education for all by funding our schools and striving to be a more inclusive and just community.