Education Freedom Accounts program nets 1,000 additional students
The war over public education was on full display last week in the battle over PragerU’s financial literacy course and the State Board of Education’s 5-0 decision to approve it.
Despite opposition from the vast majority of speakers and letter writers, the board — stacked with school choice advocates by Gov. Chris Sununu — voted 5-0, with board chair Drew Cline abstaining.
While the controversial organization’s foot in the door was lamented by many after the vote, the on-line financial literacy course will not “cost” the state anything, which cannot be said about the biggest battleground in the education war, the Education Freedom Accounts program.
Last week, Kate Baker Demers, the executive director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund NH, which administers the program, told the freedom account oversight committee about 1,600 new students joined the program for this school year bringing the total number of students to around 4,200, but noted those were rough figures and the Department of Education should be posting the exact figures soon.
While the program is growing, only one major change was made the last legislative session, which increased the financial threshold from 300 percent of poverty to 350 percent.
That increases the threshold for the current school year from $59,160 for a family of two, to $69,020, and for a family of four from $90,000 to $105,000 annually.
Once a family qualifies for the program there are no future financial limits on earnings.
Demers told the oversight committee 200 plus students’ families qualified under the higher income threshold than would have under the former limit.
Last school year, the Department of Education data indicates 3,196 students participated in the program with the average grant per student $4,860 with a total cost of more than $15.5 million without administrative expenses.
The program for the first two years was about $24 million over budget as the department’s estimates of student participation was much lower than reality.
For this school year, there are about 1,000 more total students participating, Baker Demers said about 600 students left the program to either return to public schools, who graduated (111), moved away or for some other reason.
Along with the 1,000 increase in students, lawmakers increased the state’s basic adequacy grant from $3,787 per student to $4,100, and also increased the amount of additional aid for students in low-income families, and with special education needs.
That is likely to make the new average per pupil cost go over $5,200 per student.
That would increase the total costs not counting administrative costs from the scholarship fund organization — to about $22 million this year, an increase of about $7 million.
The state budget contains $30 million in each year of the biennium for the program, so total costs are likely to bump against the $60 million if there is much growth in the program next year.
Most programs with increases like this would be curtailed and limited with talk about halting runaway growth, but that does not appear to be a big concern of the majority party, which has pushed the program along with Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and Sununu.
Democrats are the ones seeking to put guardrails around the program that draws its money from the Education Trust Fund, the source of all state education aid that is not the Statewide Education Property Tax.
The House bill drafting request period ended Friday and there are numerous bills seeking changes to the Education Freedom Accounts program, some impossible to determine what they would do and others more easily parsed.
The Senate bill drafting period begins Sept. 28 and runs through Oct. 12, so additional bill requests for changes in the EFA program may be introduced this session.
Some of the House bills to be introduced may sound familiar.
Rep. Timothy Horrigan, D-Durham, has proposed a bill that would prohibit using the EFA grant money for religious schools.
One of the single biggest uses of the money is to pay tuition at religious schools. Demers told the oversight committee last week, 65 percent of the grants her organization distributes to parents go for tuition payments.
The money is not paid just to religious schools, but to secular private schools and about $30,000 was paid last year to public schools which automatically qualify as program providers.
And it is no wonder that tuition costs are the majority of state money for the program, as tuition payments are on the top line of uses for EFAs in an omnipresent social media ad from American for Prosperity, an arm of the Koch brothers network.
Rep. Mel Myler, D-Hopkinton, has proposed two bills dealing with the program’s finances.
One bill would require parents whose children participate in the program to meet the income threshold annually, not just the first year their student is in the program.
The other bill would require the EFA program to live within its budget provided by lawmakers, which would be $30 million for this year and next.
The first two years the program was significantly over budget but the trust fund has been running a surplus and absorbed the extra draw.
If the trust fund does not have sufficient resources to pay for EFA program grants, the law establishing it calls for the general fund to automatically fund the additional cost.
You do not see many provisions like that in other state programs.
Horrigan also seeks to introduce another bill “relative to using EFA funds to purchase school uniforms.” The filing with Legislative Services does not indicate if the money could or could not be used for the uniforms, but most likely prohibit that use.
Another bill would require students in the EFA program to have standardized assessment data to determine their progress. Currently they can take any national test or have a student’s portfolio reviewed by a certified teacher, which is the same requirement for homeschool students.
But the information is for the parents not education officials as a means of financial accountability for spending state tax money.
The bill was requested by Rep. Corinne Cascadden, D-Berlin.
The only Republican to propose a change to the EFA program is Rep. Joe Sweeney, R-Salem. His bill is “relative to qualifications for student eligibility in the education freedom accounts program,” which could be an increase in the financial threshold or expanding automatic eligibility to special needs students, those in poorer performing districts, children with parents in the military, etc. as was proposed last session in a bill that did not pass.
There are bound to be more bills dealing with the EFA program as it is one of the most controversial for both sides of the political aisle.
The program was sold as an opportunity for low-income families to send their child to a program more appropriate for their learning skills than a public school.
But that has not been the biggest driver and represents a small percentage of the students enrolled.
About 75 percent of the participants in the past were enrolled in private schools — either religious or secular — and in home school programs.
Whether that figure remains in similar proportion is not something anyone will know until the Department of Education shares its data on its website.
Until that data is available, it is difficult to determine if the program is simply working as a subsidy for private and religious schools or really is doing what it was sold as, an opportunity for lower-income parents to have greater options for their child who does not do well in public schools.
School choice is one thing, but it is paid for with taxpayers’ money just like every other state program, and there needs to be far more accountability for how effectively that tax money is spent.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.