After big legislative wins in 2021, conservatives rack up few education victories in 2022

By: - June 9, 2022 6:30 am
House members fill the House chamber

The New Hampshire House rejected a “parental rights” bill in a narrow 171-176 vote. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

New Hampshire’s conservative “school choice” movement notched sweeping victories for education legislation in 2021. But 2022 has proven less fruitful.

A “teacher loyalty” bill to bar educators from advocating for socialism failed to advance this year, after its sponsor pulled it from consideration.

A bill to create a local-taxpayer-funded version of the state’s new education freedom account bill was tabled by the House in January by a bipartisan majority. Another bill to allow residents to set budget caps over school districts was also unsuccessful. 

And in perhaps the closest-watched and narrowest defeat of the year, legislation to establish a “parental bill of rights” fell in a tight House vote, after LGBTQ+ rights groups criticized it for requiring schools to “out” transgender students to their families.

“There were definitely some surprises this session,” said Christina Pretorius, policy director at Reaching Higher New Hampshire, an education think tank. 

The string of minor defeats for “school choice” and “parental rights” advocates this year stand in contrast to 2021, when conservative advocates passed two major laws: one to bar certain topics around race, gender, and sexuality from being taught in schools, and another to create “Education Freedom Accounts” allowing parents to use public education funds for private school or home schooling expenses. 

This year, political observers say, lawmakers in both parties have been unwilling or unable to advance, repeal, or amend those efforts. 

“The vast majority of those bills on both sides didn’t go anywhere,” said Anna Brown, director of research and analysis at Citizens Count, a nonprofit legislative tracking website. “It really seems like the Republican majority wanted to take a wait and see approach and let the law stand as it is.” 

While each legislative defeat was caused by its own set of political forces, Brown says the different circumstances this year could explain some of the changes. 

The teaching restriction bill and education freedom account bill were each added to the 2021 budget trailer bill – a massive omnibus piece of legislation that can be an easy vehicle to push hotly debated legislation forward. Without that trailer bill in 2022, similar efforts faced stronger headwinds.

“There’s a lot of pressure to pass the budget because there’s so many things to negotiate and there’s really that push to rally the caucus and get this through,” Brown said. “Whereas when you have an individual bill, well, gosh, there’s like a thousand of them. For any one bill going one way or another, there’s way less pressure.” 

Defeats for Republicans and Democrats 

In vote after vote, Republican lawmakers appeared uninterested in tinkering with what they had passed in 2021.

House Bill 1255, the bill expanding the state’s “teacher loyalty” statute, received a torrent of opposition earlier this year, prompting its sponsor, Rep. Alicia Lekas, a Hudson Republican, to advocate that it be killed to allow the concerns to be addressed in the future.

A separate attempt to expand the income eligibility for the state’s education tax credit scholarship program from the current cap of 300 percent of the federal poverty level to 500 percent was defeated, too. That effort was seen by some observers as a potential precursor to future legislation expanding the education freedom account program, which is also currently limited to families making 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $83,250 for a family of four.

Conservative education advocates struggled in other endeavors. House Bill 1393, the budget cap bill, was intended to allow three fifths of voters to limit school budgets to a set amount and allow that cap to rise with inflation. Democrats assailed the bill for creating a mechanism for a small band of voters to hobble a school district, and pointed to a vote in Croydon this year in which 20 residents slashed the district’s budget in half – a vote later overturned – as a warning.

Another bill allowing school district voters to allow local education tax dollars to be used by parents for private education and home schooling was tabled in January, after some Republicans balked at local financial concerns. 

“We had heard concerns around what it would do to not only local school district budgets, but also the impact that would have on property taxpayers since those would be locally funded school vouchers,” Pretorius said of the bill, House Bill 607.

House Bill 1639, a bill that as introduced would have made the annual “youth risk behavior survey” opt-in for parents, ultimately failed to advance past the committee of conference process in May. Under current law, the anonymous, opt-out survey measure students’ exposure to alcohol, drugs, and sexual experiences.  Some conservatives argued that parents should more easily be able to refuse to participate.

An effort to limit the number of required subjects in New Hampshire schools to English language arts, math, science, and social studies – leaving world languages, arts, computer science, physical education, and other areas optional for school boards – also did not advance. Instead, lawmakers passed a bill that added more categories to the required number, including personal finance literacy, economics, and Holocaust and genocide education. 

Democrats, out of the majority in both the House and Senate, saw their own string of defeats. Bills introduced to pare back or repeal entirely the teaching restriction bill and the education freedom account bill – or to add financial restrictions and ease the impact of the bills – were defeated swiftly

Some bipartisan successes

Despite a lack of major action this year toward either party’s priorities, Democrats and Republicans did come together over some bills.

Senate Bill 420 would establish “extraordinary need grants,” providing $25 million targeted to schools with lower proportionate property values compared to the number of students. That bill, which is heading to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk, also contains a provision that would allow schools to continue to use 2019 and 2020 free and reduced price lunch student attendance data to calculate how much additional state aid they should receive. Those numbers have been hard to gauge for recent school years due to a federal free lunch program that negated the need for low-income families to report their income. 

Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 234, a bill championed by Sununu that requires school student ID cards to include the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

And they found agreement to study approaches to attracting and keeping teachers in the job, after a difficult two years for educator burnout. 

“Every district, every part of the state – we’re hearing that they’re having a lot of trouble recruiting new teachers, retaining workers, for a variety of reasons,” Pretorius said.  

Uncertain future legislative direction

As House and Senate lawmakers gear up for primary and general election campaigns this year, the future of education legislation will rest strongly on who controls the chambers after November.

Republicans could redouble their vows to expand upon their 2021 laws, create new mechanisms such as local budget caps and locally funded education freedom accounts, and pass a parental bill of rights bill that requires school disclosures of actions around students’ gender identity. 

That appears to be a high likelihood. Parental rights has proven to be an animating political force for conservatives, and candidates may incorporate promises into their campaigns. And many of the sponsors of the failed bills – from parental rights to teachers’ loyalty to local education savings accounts to local school district budget caps – have said they will bring the efforts back in the next session. 

Democrats could run campaigns promising to repeal those laws or significantly curtail them. 

But lost in the bulk of the last two years’ debates lies a more existential problem: how to reform the state’s school funding system to address persisting financial inequities from town to town. The issue could receive urgency depending upon the outcome of a Supreme Court decision over a lawsuit against the current system brought by school districts.

The $25 million extraordinary need grant bill will help some schools, but it will not close what Reaching Higher has estimated is a $69 million overall funding gap for schools in the coming school year. 

And while schools have been benefiting from an infusion of federal funding brought about by a series of COVID-19 relief bills, that buoy is time-limited. 

“Schools have, you know, the unprecedented federal investment through the American rescue plan, and they’re able to use those very flexible funds in ways that they need to, but that funding will expire in 2024,” Pretorius said. “And it’s going to be really important that the state starts having that conversation of okay, what happens next?”

Some lawmakers may feature the school funding formula in their campaigns. But after a year of relative inaction over education, some observers are skeptical of a breakthrough soon. 

“This is a story that we’ve been talking about for three decades, really, and I’m not sure that there’s necessarily the political will within the New Hampshire legislature to tackle that problem,” said Brown. 

She added: “… Before we get another ruling from the court.”

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]