New Hampshire’s GOP legislative majority got right to work after Organization Day, with the Fiscal Committee quickly approving a federal charter school expansion grant the day after the State Board of Education unanimously approved its first Learn Everywhere accredited program. Democrats had successfully blocked both these programs in the previous session, but the new GOP majority wasted no time getting them passed.
Republicans plan to continue that momentum in January with a bill to establish education freedom accounts (EFAs). Similar bills narrowly failed in the ’17-’18 biennium, during which the NHGOP had a larger majority than they do today.
Legislative leaders aren’t taking anything for granted this time around. Both the House and the Senate have filed versions of the bill, a move generally saved for high-priority legislation to ensure a backstop in case one fails. Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) filed the upper chamber’s version, while Acting Speaker Sherm Packard (R-Londonderry) took over the prime sponsor role of the House version after the death of Speaker Dick Hinch.
Governor Sununu isn’t taking any chances either. In a virtual event last week with the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, Sununu took the opportunity to advocate for the EFAs. “You can sum all this up with: It’s gotta be about outcomes for the kids, not outcomes for the system,” the governor said. “We have to stop worrying about the system as much as the kids.”
“This isn’t about the traditional school choice battle,” Sununu said. “If you’re thinking about it that way, you’re way behind.”
Even with majorities in the House and Senate and control of the corner office, this Republican-led initiative is hardly a sure thing. In 2017-18, Republicans had to battle teacher’s unions, fellow Republicans, and poor attendance.
Despite slimmer majorities, the wind may be at the back of the GOP this time around, partially due to the pandemic and what that meant for education services. Current polling shows that nearly 3-in-4 Granite Staters approve of education freedom accounts when the program is described to them.
Meanwhile, traditional public school attendance continues to decline in New Hampshire, a trend that’s accelerated during the COVID-19 classroom shutdowns. “The reason is no mystery,” according to The New York Times. “With public schools mostly shifting to remote or hybrid learning, parents are pulling their children out entirely, opting to keep them at home or looking for options that offer more in-person instruction.”
As a result, Catholic school enrollment in the Granite State has soared, and evidence from across the country indicates more parents are choosing homeschool as well. Education Freedom Accounts are designed for families looking for an option other than the local, traditional classroom setting.
“People that traditionally weren’t involved in this discussion are stepping up and saying, ‘wait a minute, where is my money going? Why isn’t my kid in school?” said Sununu, “and they’re getting involved in this discussion about where their money — not our money, their money — is being spent. That’s gonna raise the level of debate to where it needs to be.”
The governor and legislators aren’t fighting this battle alone, either. Respect New Hampshire, “an independent community dedicated to giving Granite Staters a voice in state and local government” according to their website, is hosting a virtual roundtable Tuesday centered on education freedom accounts with Rep. Glenn Cordelli (R-Tuftonboro) and Kate Baker Demers, the Executive Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund – NH. The group has also launched a petition drive to build support.
Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire, a conservative-libertarian political advocacy group, also plans to promote the legislation by engaging their grassroots activists.
“Education Freedom Accounts are a great step towards giving every child access to a personalized education that fits their unique needs and talents,” Sarah Scott from AFP-NH tells NHJournal. “This pandemic has underscored that students and families need a more customized approach to education.”
Challenges remain. Republicans only have a 212-187 majority in the House, and on any given day there are anywhere from a handful to several dozen legislators absent, not counting the GOP legislators that voted against the measure just two years ago, in 2018.
In their favor, though, is that only four of the sixteen GOP Reps that voted to send the bill to its polite death remain: Reps Dan Wolf (R-Newbury), Bob Elliot (R-Salem), Thomas Laware (R-Charlestown), and Joseph Guthrie (R-Hampstead).