Education Freedom Account expansion could cost up to $82 million
CONCORD — It was Education Freedom Account expansion day before the House Education Committee Wednesday.
The committee held hearings on four bills that would expand the program to students who are not currently eligible.
The bills range from removing any salary cap from the program to students who were denied a manifest hardship the previous years. Another bill would increase the salary cap to 500 percent of the federal poverty level.
Bill sponsors and supporters said the program should be expanded to allow more students to participate and give their parents more options for their children’s education.
But opponents of the expansion proposals wondered where it would end with the Reaching Higher NH organization estimating the effect of one or more of the bills could increase the cost of the program by $82 million next year to over $100 million.
The program is funded through the Education Trust Fund, which is also used to pay state education aid to school districts.
This year the EFA program is projected to cost about $24 million and the average grant is $5,300.
The four bills had significant opposition on the House electronic sign-in and pre-filed testimony site with from 900 to over 1,000 opposing the four different bills with highest support about 125 people for one bill.
Megan Tuttle, President of NEA-New Hampshire, said New Hampshire students and taxpayers cannot afford a universal voucher program.
“Every family wants their children to have access to high-quality educational opportunities in their community that meet student needs and prepare them for success. But the package of House bills considered today to establish a universal voucher system would actually diminish educational opportunities by diverting even more state funds from our public schools, which 90 percent of Granite State students attend,” she said. “In rural communities that lack access to private schools, the impact of this legislation would be even harder felt.”
Studies indicate voucher program costs can quickly escalate and impact funding for public schools as happened in Arizona, Tuttle noted.
But supporters said students deserve to have a quality education regardless of their zip code, to feel safe and have the learning method that best suits them, which is what the Education Freedom Account program aims to do.
“We send kids to school based on zip codes and their birthday,” said Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton. “Parents have no options. They say go to the local school.”
He said the state sends additional money to districts lacking the resources they need but it is not sufficient to prepare students for the future.
“At some level, it rewards bad behavior of the system,” Hoell said. “If a school is not doing a good job, it is our job to make sure students receive the education they need.’
This school year about 4,700 students qualified for the voucher program, and the vast majority of the grants continue to go to pay tuition at private and religious schools and for homeschooling costs for students who were in those education environments before the program began in 2021.
House Bill 1665 would raise the family salary cap from 350 percent of poverty, which was approved during last year’s session, to 500 percent of poverty.
The change would increase program eligibility for a two-person family to those earning $93,600 or less a year and a four-person family to those earning $150,000 or less according to the latest federal government figures.
The current caps are for a family of two, $69,020, and for a family of four, $105,000.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, said raising the cap will essentially align it with the medium family income in the state, meaning about half of the state’s family would qualify for EFA grants.
That would mean the program would still serve families with lower income, he said.
Rep. Hope Damon, D-Sunapee, noted there is no fiscal note on the bill from the Legislative Budget Assistant estimating the bill’s cost because of a lack of data from the Department of Education.
Committee Chair Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, noted they are but one committee and the LBA is doing the best they can and is providing more information quicker than other years.
But he noted the four bills have to be out of the Education Committee by Feb. 15.
Rep. Muriel Hall, D-Bow, asked Cordelli if the fiscal note mattered to him, and he said, “I’m just trying to do what I think is right.”
Rep. Peggy Balboni, D-Rye Beach, noted the legislature raised the cap from 300 percent to 350 percent last year.
“Are we looking at 600 or 750 percent next year,” she asked. “When does it end?”
House Bill 1561 has a list of situations making a student automatically eligible for the EFA program without regard to parents’ salaries.
Under the bill a student would be eligible for the program:
Whose family income is equal to or less than 350 percent of the federal poverty level, with no future check;
Who is concerned about the spread of contagious diseases such as COVID-19, the common cold, the seasonal flu, pneumonia, or other similar diseases;
Who has been bullied three or more times;
Who identifies as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, or non-binary;
Who tested in the bottom 25th percentile in state standardized testing the most recent academic year;
Who is diagnosed with an eating disorder or a mental health illness by a licensed healthcare provider;
Who lives in a district where drinking water exceeds PFAS standards;
Whose district scores in the bottom 10th percentile in standardized testing;
And whose district’s guidance counselor determines it is in the best interest of the student.
Several members of the committee said the bill would amount to a universal voucher program, but the sponsor said it would help students who are not having their needs met in public school.
“Students deserve to feel safe and achieve success through their education, that is exactly what HB1561 aims to achieve.,” said Rep. Joe Sweeney, R-Salem, the bill’s prime sponsor. “HB 1561 stands as a beacon of inclusivity and personalized educational pathways, aiming to ensure that more children in New Hampshire, irrespective of their unique background or challenges, have access to an education system that best fits their individual needs.”
But Debra Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the bill is inappropriate because it does not use state tax dollars in the most effective way to help all students, which is greater support for public schools.
“Students have so many needs right now,” she said. “We don’t want an expanded voucher program aimed at dividing our communities and dividing the parents of our public schools.”
The money going into a voucher system makes it harder for the state to fulfill its constitutional obligation to every student in the state and to every property taxpayer in the state, Howes said.
She said the program promises things it cannot deliver like making elite education available to students because the grant is not enough to begin covering the cost of attending Phillips Exeter or St. Paul’s school.
Instead Howes said it is an education welfare program for parents who already had their children in private or religious schools and homeschool programs.
“Our kids deserve better than this,” she said.
House Bill 1634 would remove any limits on the salary of parents for a child to be eligible for the program.
The prime sponsor of the bill, Rep. Alicia Lekas, R-Hudson, used the Supreme Court’s Claremont ruling as justification for the bill.
She said the court said every child in the state has a constitutional right to a good education, and that is what the EFA program offers.
Lekas said it should cover all the children in the state, not just those whose parents make less than the current cap.
She called her proposal the most constitutionally fair way of funding education for the state’s students.
David Trumble of Weare said the state’s constitutional obligation to fund an adequate education for the state’s students takes precedence over the EFA program for alternative education.
He noted the recent Conval court decision saying the minimum cost of an adequate education is around $10,000 and until the state meets that level of funding, it has no business expanding or funding the EFA program.
The state has no constitutional duty to fund the EFA program, Trumble said, but has a constitutional right to put limits on it.
House Bill 1677 would allow students to automatically qualify for the EFA program if the school district they attend has proficiency below 49 percent in the national assessment tests.
Hoell, the prime sponsor, said the bill would allow parents to move their child to a better performing school or a more appropriate alternative program.
But several committee members questioned if Hoell understood how the national assessment works noting proficiency is expected to be the equivalent of a score of 85 and if 50 percent of students achieve that, that is not a bad score.
Damon noted there is no testing standard in the EFA program and wondered how a parent would know if their student is doing better in an alternative program than in a public school.
Hoell said if the parents do not see the performance they want, they can send him or her back to public school and not have to write the check for the alternative program.
Damon wondered if a more objective assessment would be needed beyond the parental observation as they are talking about a taxpayer-funded program.
“I am a strong supporter of free market solutions on using money wisely,” Hoell said. “You will write a check to do what is best for your children.”
The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the four bills.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com. Rayno is InDepthNH.org’s State House bureau chief with 40 years reporting experience.