Apr. 13—CONCORD — A new pilot project that could make school districts eligible to get $60 million more in education aid came under attack from conservatives who charge it would be an unconstitutional invasion of family privacy.
Greg Moore, state director of Americans for Prosperity, told the Senate Education Committee it would violate the spirit of a personal privacy amendment to the state constitution that 81% of voters approved in 2018.
“This concept is not new, but it is a bad concept,” Moore told the Senate Education Committee. “There may well be reasons why someone would want to sign up for one program, but not for another, and that is their choice.”
The House-passed plan would have New Hampshire join 27 states that allow state health care agencies to share Medicaid enrollment information with state educators.
The goal is to identify and automatically make students from poorer families eligible for a free or reduced school lunch even though their parents never filled out an application for the benefit.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump and Biden administrations waived requirements and made all families eligible for these meals.
That’s because so many parents across the country didn’t bother with the paperwork because many of their children were learning from home.
State officials report enrollment in the subsidized lunch program here has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
“We have seen so many children, for whatever reason, whose folks have not filled out the forms,” said Rep. Mary Heath, D-Manchester, a former deputy education commissioner. “This is an important number, and we want it to be as accurate as possible.”
More fed aid possible
House Education Committee Chairman Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, said a House working group on reforming education aid saw this as a way for state officials to locate all poor families in New Hampshire.
This could result in not just increasing state education aid by $60 million, but also making New Hampshire eligible for millions more in federal aid based on the state’s extent of income poverty, Ladd said.
“Is seeking information through this program going to net us a higher revenue stream? This whole issue is extremely important,” Ladd said. “This is not something we should let go in terms of eligibility for adequacy.”
House budget writers attached this plan as an amendment to a non-controversial bill (HB 1627) that would create an administrator to manage the state’s Education Freedom Account program.
In response, House conservatives were so upset by this change to the bill that they tried to sink it by trying to add six unrelated pieces of legislation to it.
All those attempts failed, and the House passed the bill, 203-131.
House Republicans voted, 130-48, against it.
Jessica Gorhan, deputy director of NH Hunger Solutions, urged the Senate to embrace this change.
“This ensures the most at-risk school children will receive nutritional meals without their parents having to fill out cumbersome forms,” Gorhan said.
Rep. Alicia Lekas, R-Hudson, said the federal pilot project requires New Hampshire to set up this program before applying for entry into it.
Since 2006, the Department of Health and Human Services has shared with the Education Department enrollment data in other anti-poverty programs such as federal welfare, the Women, Infants and Children Program, food stamps and foster care aid.
Caitlin Davis, state education division director, said her agency only uses basic identifying information from those transfers to qualify these children for free lunches.
An administrative tweak to process Medicaid cases would be necessary because some of them make more income than the other welfare programs and would only qualify for a reduced-priced meal, Davis said.
Moore said the Senate last month approved a “closed loop referral” bill (SB 423) that puts privacy and security restrictions in how the HHS uses “personally identifiable information.”
“This bill would run counter to that approach,” Moore said.