The Bulletin Board

Senate approves bill allowing funding of religious schools

By: - May 13, 2021 4:08 pm
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The NEA said that nearly 90 percent of its members had already been vaccinated. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The New Hampshire Senate passed a bill Thursday allowing public school districts to enter into tuition agreements with private religious schools – a significant move in the direction of direct public funding of religious education.

In a 14-10 party-line vote, Republicans in the Senate voted “ought to pass” on House Bill 282, sending the bill on a path to Gov. Chris Sununu’s office. 

The bill would allow New Hampshire school boards to add religious schools to the list of options to reassign children whose parents request a school transfer. 

Under current law, if a New Hampshire parent believes it is in the best interest of their child to leave their current public school – and can convince the school board and superintendent with evidence – the superintendent can initiate a transfer to another public school within that school district.

Depending on what options are available, the superintendent may assign the student to a public school outside their district, provided there is a tuition-sharing agreement to tackle funding questions. 

Currently, the superintendent can also opt to send the student to a private school that has been approved by the school board with a tuition agreement between the schools, as long as the school is “nonsectarian,” or nonreligious. 

HB 282 would remove that latter requirement, allowing transfers to schools that are explicitly religious. Those transfers would be accompanied by tuition agreements that could result in public school dollars being transferred to religious education. 

Republicans in the Senate said the change would broaden school choice in the state and allow districts to make decisions based on the best schools available in their area. 

“It gives to the local school district the option of doing what is best for the students in that district,” said Sen. Bob Giuda, a Warren Republican. “Removing an option is to deny any sense of responsibility for the school board in making a righteous choice for the citizens and children of that community. This is a local control issue.”

But Democrats decried it as a violation of a state constitutional amendment barring state funding for religious schools – an amendment that has come under question after U.S. Supreme Court cases against similar state laws. 

“Today’s vote by my Republican colleagues to authorize public money to be spent on tuition payments to religious schools goes directly against the New Hampshire Constitution,” said Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat. “If the Republicans want to direct public money to religious schools they should do so through a constitutional amendment that allows the public to voice their opinion.”  

HB 282 would allow school districts to decide whether to give parents their choice of schools from a list of options, or to assign all transfers to one school of the school board’s choosing. 

In a debate ahead of the bill’s passage, Democrats argued the bill as written could allow districts to set up a tuition agreement with a religious school as the only option for parents, and said lawmakers needed more time to iron out the language.

Republicans demurred, arguing the bill simply empowered districts to assign schools to school-board-approved schools, religious and otherwise, and didn’t need amendment. 

With no changes added by the Senate, the bill will be fast-tracked to the enrollment process, the final step on the way to Sununu, who could sign or veto it. 

 

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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.

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