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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: School choice bill faltering

By DAVE SOLOMON
April 01. 2018 1:54AM
Gov. Chris Sununu, in November 2017, surrounded by students who are either attending private schools or want to, urges lawmakers to pass SB 193, while House Education Committee Chair Rick Ladd cheers him in the background. (Dave Solomon/Union Leader file photo)



Gov. Chris Sununu has invested a lot of his political capital in a school choice bill known as Senate Bill 193, which would create a scholarship program from state education funds for qualified parents to send their kids to private schools, if they so choose.

But the bill's prospects in the House are far from certain. There's still a chance that Republican majorities in the House and Senate will eventually give the Republican governor the school choice bill he wants, but supporters like Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, are becoming frustrated.

And they're taking that frustration out on the chairman of the Finance Committee, where the bill has bogged down since early January.

"SB 193 has reached a roadblock in House Finance apparently at the behest of Chairman Kurk," said Reagan, the bill's primary sponsor, referring to Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare. "He doesn't give sound reasons. He seems to change his reasons from meeting to meeting. I've never seen a bill held up for so long in committee with a lack of decision by the chairman."

Reagan said as soon as one objection is resolved, another one pops up.

"I know some of the members feel bullied about how this is being handled," he said. "I go to leadership and am not getting solid answers there either, so we can only hope for the best for those who would like to seek another venue for their children's education."

The House has already passed the bill once, in a 184-162 vote in January based on a positive recommendation from the Education Committee. But the bill has been changed in so many ways since then, there's no telling how the vote would go the second time around.

Yet another iteration of the bill is expected to be presented to Finance Committee members on Wednesday.

Reagan said he agreed early in negotiations with the House to take out the eligibility for religious schools at the behest of the Finance Committee, only to have it restored later. Starting the program at first grade rather than kindergarten was taken out, then put back in.

Kurk has declined to answer questions on the bill, choosing to say that he will determine his position once he sees a final version.

Democratic Rep. Marjorie Smith of Durham, clerk of the Finance Committee subdivision that has been working on SB 193, comes to Kurk's defense.

"Neal is the chair. He is a very powerful member of the House and people pay attention to his position, and the price he pays for that is things that are good, bad, or indifferent fall onto his shoulders," she said. "Chairman Kurk is in no way alone on the Finance Committee, on both the Republican side and Democratic side, of people who feel strongly about the problems with this bill."

Language changes made to pick up two votes, end up losing five more, according to Smith.

"They're trying to do the same thing they did when the bill was in the Education Committee," she said. "Keep on adding things to the Christmas tree until they can get to a majority vote."

The stakes couldn't be higher, with the state poised to create what school choice supporters say could become a national model. President Trump's Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is said to be watching closely.

If Sununu is able to deliver New Hampshire Education Freedom Savings Accounts to DeVos as a national model, there's speculation she would make the state a pilot for "Title I portability," in which the national money follows the child.

Sununu has made clear his belief that "investing in kids, not institutions" is the future of education funding.

The Finance Committee has until April 26 to submit its report to the full House, and could well press right up against that deadline.

"The speaker and governor have clearly read the tea leafs and thus have kept on trying to change the bill and delay its vote," said Smith. "They have counted, and they have realized that they don't have the votes in the Finance Committee, and it's very possible they will not have the votes on the floor of the House."

Smith says Sununu may have picked the wrong fight.

"The governor enthusiastically pushed right-to-work as his leading effort in the first year of his term, and lost, and I think anyone could have told him he would lose," she said. "I don't know what the outcome is going to be on 193, but I don't think it was especially clever of him to pick this for his imprimatur.

"It seems silly to me that he would put his reputation for success on the line by taking these strong positions, unless he was absolutely positive he had all the votes."


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