For the Monitor
It was one of the top issues Molly Kelly highlighted when she announced her candidacy for governor in April.
“I’ll veto any plan that takes money from public schools to pay for vouchers for private schools,” the former state senator from Harrisville said in a video launching her campaign.
Six months later, with the Nov. 6 election fast approaching, Kelly is once again emphasizing the issue as she hopes to oust Republican Gov. Chris Sununu from the corner office.
The issue is front and center in Kelly’s latest campaign commercial on television, and the two candidates clashed over the topic at their most recent debate on Wednesday.
It remains to be seen whether the issue will give Kelly enough momentum to close a wide gap between her and Sununu, an imbalance of 10 to 11 percent in the two most recent public opinion polls.
The governor, a strong supporter of the so-called school choice movement, highlighted the issue during his successful 2016 campaign. As governor, he pushed hard for Senate Bill 193, which would have set up a voucher-like system for families who remove their kids from public schools and provided $3,500 in state funds to spend on their child and put them in an education savings account to spend on an alternative form of education.
Sununu and other supporters of the measure argued it puts the power of the purse back in the hands of the parents, who should be the ones to decide which schools are the best fit for their kids. School choice advocates also claim the bill would have a limited fiscal impact on public schools.
But opponents, including Kelly, countered that the measure would divert much-needed funding from public schools.
The bill passed along party lines in the GOP controlled state Senate last year. But it was defeated in May in the Republican-dominated state House of Representatives.
Kelly argued in Wednesday’s NHPR debate that the bill “weakens public school education.”
And the next day, speaking at the Portsmouth Rotary Club, she argued that passing the measure would lead to a rise in property taxes.
“The program would stick local property taxpayers with the bill,” Kelly claimed.
In her new TV ad, Kelly cites a May report from Reaching Higher NH, a nonprofit public policy group. Their study stated that the price tag for local school districts from the state Senate version of the bill could have been $21 million in the first year and $260 over 13 years, based on 3 percent of eligible students using the educational savings accounts.
“It’s wrong to take more than $260 million dollars from our public schools to pay for vouchers for private and religious schools,” Kelly said in the ad.
Sununu pushed back at the debate, saying the legislation would have capped the liability on each town.
“Spending less than one percent of the budget to provide opportunity for kids where the four walls of the classroom don’t work is a tremendous opportunity for them as individuals,” Sununu said. “And by the way, my bill allowed the local money to stay in the school. The dollars per child went up in every school because the local money stayed even though the child had another option to go somewhere else.”
He pledged to work with lawmakers next year to try and pass the program.
“I’d love to see it come back. You know why – it helps the most needy. It provides equal opportunity for those who don’t have other opportunities out there.”
The next morning, Kelly used Sununu’s words to warn that “my opponent has promised that if re-elected, it would be his signature piece of legislation.”
Kelly’s highlighting of the issue comes after she launched a three-week full-court press over paid family and medical leave. Some Republicans argue that Kelly’s emphasis on such issues is a sign that she’s still trying to shore up her Democratic base.
“It’s amazing that Kelly’s campaign is entirely a base play. Not any effort to make even the slightest play to the middle,” Greg Moore, state director for the conservative-leaning Americans for Prosperity, wrote in a tweet.
But Democrats say spotlighting this education flash point will help win over independent or undeclared voters, who make up around 40 percent of the state’s electorate.
A non-partisan analyst, University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala, noted that toppling a popular incumbent requires bold moves.
“Kelly’s path to victory does involve winning over a good portion of those independent voters who are, generally speaking, satisfied with the job the governor’s doing,” Scala said. “She needs to give those voters a reason to fire Chris Sununu.”
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