By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
MANCHESTER — The two state gubernatorial candidates were quizzed separately in a town hall-style online forum on the state’s disability policy on Tuesday and took separate approaches to the freedom accounts. education, among other issues.
Democratic candidate Dr. Thomas Sherman was interviewed first, followed by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, in a live webcast hosted by Granite State Independent Living and eight other disability advocacy organizations.
It was hosted by Scott Spradling in Manchester at the Girls at Work offices.
The discussion also covered issues of adequate housing, remote access to government meetings and labor issues.
Sherman, a two-term Rye State senator, has been a coastal doctor for more than 30 years. He helped develop Medicaid in Concord and was active in disability cases in Concord.
Sununu, from Newfields, is the 82nd governor of the state who is in his third term and is seeking a fourth term.
An engineer by training, Sununu served as general manager of Waterville Valley Ski Resort before becoming governor in 2017 and executive councilor for District 3 from 2011 to 2017.
He too has dealt with disability issues in governance for over the past decade.
Sununu and Sherman said they support a decentralized, community-based approach to disability services.
The two were asked about state education freedom accounts that allow low-income families to receive, on average, about $5,000 in state funding to attend schools other than those in their community.
Some of these alternative schools do not offer special education and do not need to follow the Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Some are also allowed to refuse registration.
“This type of financial loss puts pressure on local school districts to provide special education services. How will you ensure that special students receive an equitable and inclusive education? the two were asked.
Sherman said he fundamentally disagrees with public education funds going to private and religious schools.
While there are instances where some students really need specialized services, “basically, until every child in New Hampshire has access to a great public school education, we shouldn’t be misappropriating those public dollars,” Sherman said.
“My first choice would be to stop the program. Make sure that none of the children who are currently in it are penalized. So it would have to be ensured that these children can continue. Still, they must meet the eligibility requirements every year,” Sherman said while acknowledging that this is a legislative decision and not a decision of the governor.
“But number two, if we’re going to continue this program … I would really do everything I can to make sure that schools that accept taxpayer money can’t discriminate based on disability,” Sherman said.
Sherman said, “To me, the current system is truly outrageous. It is outrageous that in the state of New Hampshire taxpayers’ money is currently going to schools that deny entry to people with disabilities.
Sununu pushed back against claims that communities were suffering financially from education freedom accounts, noting that every child should have the education that matches their needs and that many of those who leave leave because their special educational needs don’t. are not satisfied in their district.
“It’s not a blow to our schools,” Sununu said.
“They can take the state share which is about a third of the money. Two-thirds stay in public schools…for the student who isn’t even there, and that individual can go and seek services as they wish. They can go to a private school, they can do home tutoring, and they can get additional special education services, but let’s be very clear, no one loses their rights for IDEA…Your public schools are required to provide these services” , Sununu said.
He said he knew personally because one of his children needed these services “even though he was not going to this public school. So you have to make sure the system is there. Again, the idea that money is flowing from schools is completely wrong. First, if the child decides not to go, the public school still keeps two-thirds of the money so they can provide whatever special education services might be there. And a whole third of that part of the state doesn’t leave right away and the next year 100% stays in school. The following year, 50% of the state’s money stays in the school. In the third year, three years after the student leaves, he still receives 25% of the state money, even though he hasn’t been in this system for years. It is therefore, if I may say so, a democratic lie. This idea that money is flowing from schools. Our education trust fund has more money than ever before. So money is not the problem.
Sununu said the question “frightened me that someone thinks he is disenfranchised, he is not.”
“It’s your money,” he said. “Do you see any schools standing up and saying this program is bankrupting us?” Sununu said, and there was noise in the crowd.
“No. No. Then you find me after and you find me the school that says that and I’ll go find their finances and show you that we’ve invested more dollars per child than any administration. You can say that we’re taking money from kids and public schools. Well where was the complaints with (former Governor) Maggie Hassan, because I’ll tell you the previous administration didn’t invest as much as we did , but there have been no complaints there. We have to uphold adequacy. That’s the legal requirement. And adequacy isn’t just for public school children. It’s for everyone. the children, that they are following a traditional path, that they may have mental health problems and that they have to go to a special school for that. Are we going to leave them behind? No. The money is That individual’s rights are there, and I’m just asking people to explore that, look at the facts and actual data,” Sununu said.