By GARRY RAYNO, In DepthNH.org
National School Choice Week is a week away and to celebrate, the House Education Committee has a number of hearings this week on the Education Freedom Account program.
Last fall, the program’s funding was challenged by the head of the American Federation of Teachers — NH claiming state law earmarks public education money for public education not private programs or schools and sought an injunction to block sending any more Education Trust Fund grants to parents.
“If the state desires to operate an Education Freedom Account or similar program, whereby it grants public money for parents to utilize for private use, it must separately fund it through additional taxation or another source of funds,” the suit claims, noting there currently is no mechanism for doing so.
While program advocates downplayed the suit, at the time, a constitutional amendment and a bill were introduced to change the state constitution and state statutes to allow Education Trust Fund money to be spent on the program. That would appear to imply “we got a problem Houston,” as the astronauts said aboard Apollo 13 many years ago.
Constitutional Amendment Concurrent Resolution 7, with prime sponsor Rep. Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, would remove a sentence from the state constitution that reads “Provided, nevertheless, that no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools or institutions of any religious sect or denomination.”
To date about 75 percent of the state funds spent for the freedom account program has subsidized tuition for students who attended private and religious schools before the program was launched in 2021 and not students leaving public schools for private or religious schools as advocates had predicted.
To date the program has cost the state $24 million and the private organization that manages and administers the program, which the suit also says is not legal, the Children’s Scholarship Program, is holding a School Fair Jan. 21 in Manchester to recruit more students in “celebration of school choice week.”
Cordelli is also the prime sponsor of House Bill 440, which would change the statute for the Education Trust Fund allowing the distribution of funds “to scholarship organizations approved under RSA 77:G that administers and implements the education freedom accounts program pursuant to RSA 194-F.”
The change would also allow the transfer of general fund money into the Education Trust Fund if it runs out of money and cannot pay its obligations.
Public hearings have not been set for either the proposed constitutional amendment or the bill changing the use of Education Trust Fund money.
However, there will be public hearings this week on two bills that would expand who would qualify for the freedom account program.
Currently program participants are limited to 300 percent of the federal poverty level or about $80,000 for a family of four and $52,000 in a two-person household.
The guideline is just for income and does not include a person’s assets.
Parents could own a lakefront home, but do not earn $80,000 the first year of eligibility, and their child or children may participate in the program for as long as they are school age.
House Bill 367 would increase the income threshold to 500 percent of poverty level which would be about $140,000 for a family of four and $68,000 for a two-person family.
The prime sponsor of the bill is Rep. Alicia Lekas, R-Hudson, and the public hearing will be held before the House Education Committee at 11 a.m. Thursday in Rooms 205-207 of the Legislative Office Building.
The same day at 9:30 a.m., the committee is scheduled to hear House Bill 464, which would also expand who is eligible for the scholarship program.
The bill would retain the 300 percent of poverty level threshold, but would add a child in foster care, or homeless or disabled, or has an educational hardship; or his or her parents travel for work like farm workers, are in the armed services or National Guard; or in a school in need of improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act or is designated as persistently dangerous; or if a child qualifies for the free or reduced lunch program.
The additional children added under this bill would bring it more in line with how it was sold as an opportunity for lower-income families to find the best educational opportunity for their child instead of subsidizing the tuition payments of children already attending private and religious schools.
However, the bill, with prime sponsor Rep. Erica Layon, R-Derry, could add a substantial number of children to the program.
The program’s average grant this school year is about $5,000 per student, so the state’s obligation could increase substantially. It would take 200 new students to add $1 million in annual costs.
The original estimate for program costs was $300,000 the first year and $3.3 million the second. Instead it was more than $8 million the first year with 1,500 students, and as of November, $15.2 million this school year with 3,110 students.
Another bill sponsored by Lekas would eliminate an income limit on the program, which could cost the state as much as $70 million if all eligible students participated under the current guidelines.
A public hearing on House Bill 331, which would eliminate the income threshold, has not yet been scheduled.
And the bills do not stop there.
House Bill 293 would allow communities to create their own scholarship programs.
So instead of the state being liable for the cost, the money would come from local property taxpayers to give to parents to allow their students to attend other schools or alternative training programs.
The bill, with prime sponsor Rep. Gregory Hill, R-Northfield, would allow a town to create a scholarship trust fund, much like towns do for fire trucks or police cars.
The fund could only be used by town residents under the bill.
A public hearing has not been scheduled for the bill.
The education freedom account program is one of the most expansive in the country and has few guardrails requiring the beneficiaries to document the success of their programs or requiring parents to educationally account for how the money is spent.
Perhaps a little more accountability would be in order before another $24 million is spent by the state.
The “free federal money” is going away soon and the state is going to have to fund this program with state taxes and that is going to be a harder sell.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.
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.