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Sununu, Sherman battle over EFAs

New Hampshire Union Leader - 9/21/2022

Sep. 21—MANCHESTER — During back-to-back appearances, Gov. Chris Sununu and Democratic nominee for governor Tom Sherman battled Tuesday over the Education Freedom Accounts Program that gives property taxpayer support to parents who send their children to private, religious or alternative public schools.

A coalition of groups serving the disabled community sponsored a two-hour forum at Girls at Work Inc. in Manchester.

Sherman, a two-term state senator from Rye, said if elected he would ideally want to suspend the program, which would honor existing contracts that parents now have, but not approve any more student scholarships.

"You have to realize there is almost no accountability for those funds," said Sherman, who voted against creating the program, attached to the two-year state budget Sununu signed in June 2021.

At the very least, Sherman said he wants to ensure these alternative programs would have to provide the same level of services to students with disabilities.

"If we are going to continue this program ... I would really make every effort I could to make sure those schools that accept taxpayer dollars cannot discriminate on the basis of disability and must have a program to provide the same level of services that those public schools now provide," Sherman said.

Sununu rejected the claim that private or religious schools that receive these students do not have to provide equal access to students with disabilities.

All these schools must ensure that any students with disabilities get the services they need either at these alternative schools or at their local public schools, he said.

"This is a Democrat falsehood, the idea that money is flooding out of the schools," Sununu said.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) requires that all students have access to these services, he said.

"You cannot lose your rights as an individual with IDEA," Sununu said. "Let's be very clear; nobody loses their rights under IDEA. If anybody tells you differently, they are mistaken."

Both embraced more remote access

Both Sherman and Sununu said they wanted to continue to provide more remote access to meetings of the Legislature and other state agencies that grew out of the COVID pandemic.

"You need it. That's the new way of doing things," Sununu said, adding that New Hampshire will be the first state in the country to make use of all federal grants that the state could receive to expand access to high-speed internet service into rural areas. "It doesn't work unless you have broadband and real connectivity."

Sherman said he would extend this remote access to state legislators as a number of House members with chronic illnesses have been unable to take part in legislative sessions since the onset of the pandemic.

"If you can't be there because of chronic illness and disability, that whole group is not able to participate and to me that is wrong," Sherman said. "We need to make sure the public can participate if they need to and the legislators should be able to participate remotely if they need to."

Regarding affordable housing, Sherman said he would amend his own housing strategy to include for some grants to be set aside to guarantee more housing units that are built are handicapped accessible.

Sununu has unveiled the InvestNH Fund, the use of $100 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act grants to build more affordable, multi-family housing across the state.

The governor said there were 17 different constituencies that sought their own part of this fund and he decided it was counter-productive to dilute it in that fashion.

In the future, Sununu said lawmakers could use some of the large budget surplus to create such a program that could attract federal matching dollars.

The Granite State Independent Living was the lead sponsor of the forum.

Other sponsors included ABLE-NH, Disability Rights Center-NH, the N.H. Council on Developmental Disabilities, Community Support Network Inc., the Council for Youths with Chronic Conditions, the Brain Injury Association of N.H., the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire and the Parent Information Center.

Scott Spradling acted as moderator for the event.


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