New Hampshire Public Radio
Posted: 12/28/2021 16:24:56 PM
Modified: 12/28/2021 4:24:28 PM
New Hampshire’s new voucher-type program, the Education Freedom Accounts, is poised to take center stage in education policy debates in 2022.
Education Freedom Accounts give taxpayer money to low and moderate income families to pay for private school expenses or other non-public school expenses. About 1,600 students have enrolled in the program this school year, 70 percent of whom had not attended public school in the past two years.
The state expects to spend more than $ 8 million on the program this year, about one percent of what it spends on education in total.
New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Accounts program is one of the largest of its kind in the country. Republicans hailed it as a victory for families dissatisfied with their public schools, and it garnered support from national conservative foundations and lobbyists. Supporters say the high interest this year is a reason to expand it into 2022.
A bill, HB 1298, would increase income eligibility to 500 percent of federal income guidelines (when it was originally introduced last year, the program had no threshold for income).
The Education Freedom Account is currently funded by the Education Trust Fund of New Hampshire, originally established to fund public schools through tax revenues from individuals and businesses. When families enroll in the Education Freedom Account program, they receive state “matching aid” that would have gone to a public school district to help cover their child’s education costs. This averages out to about $ 4,600.
But another Republican-sponsored bill, HB 607, would tap local funds to expand education freedom accounts. As part of the proposal, residents could vote for their school district to set up a version of educational freedom accounts, paid for by locally levied taxes that currently fund the public school.
HB 607 would dramatically increase the amount of money available to Freedom Account participants. This is because local taxpayers spend much more than the state on public schools. So instead of receiving about $ 4,600 in state aid, participants would get about $ 5,000 to $ 20,000 in their accounts, paid for by local taxpayers.
As Republican lawmakers seek to expand education freedom accounts, Democratic lawmakers have introduced more than 15 bills to clarify, limit or repeal them. These come amid criticism from public school advocates and Democrats that the program lacks sufficient oversight and embezzles money from traditional public schools.
A bill, HB 1135, would require an audit of the program by the legislative budget assistant, including a public report on student outcomes and spending. Another, HB 1120, increases oversight and restrictions on the types of education service providers eligible for payment through Freedom of Education accounts.
Under current law, if a family’s income exceeds the threshold they had to meet to enroll, they can continue to participate in the program. The logic, proponents say, is to give students continuity in their education even as family income increases.
But critics say it could leave the state on the hook to fund private school tuition and other expenses for high-income families. SB 237 removes this clause allowing families to continue participating in the program even when their income increases.
Lawmakers will begin debating some of these bills in early January.
These articles are shared by the partners of The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.