Opposition Turns Out for Bill on Expanding Education Trust Fund Uses

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Rep. Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, explains House Bill 440, which would expand the uses of Education Trust Fund money, to the House Education Committee Friday in this screenshot.


CONCORD — A bill to expand the uses for the state’s Education Trust Fund ran into opposition Friday as opponents said it would give the new Education Freedom Account program a blank check without accountability.

The prime sponsor of House Bill 440, Rep. Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, said the bill simply “cleans up and codifies” what is in legislation elsewhere in statutes and comes at the Department of Education’s request. He noted the current trust fund statute does not address money for kindergarten or leases for charter schools.

“This bill clarifies (sections of law),” Cordelli said, “so there is a full picture of what comes out of the Education Trust Fund.”

However, those testifying in opposition at a public hearing Friday before the House Education Committee, said the bill is not a “housekeeping measure” but an attempt to divert millions of dollars to the Education Freedom Account program from public schools without sufficient accountability.

“The program was funded for two years as a pilot program and now you are giving it a blank check,” said David Trumble. “Why take a huge gamble. You built a program with no foundation for it and now you want to build a tall skyscraper on it.”

HB 440 would allow the Education Trust Fund to be used to pay for Education Freedom Account grants to parents and for phase-out grants to school districts losing students to the program.

The bill also changes the funding for the state’s portion for charter school leases from the general fund to the Education Trust Fund.

The Department of Education would be able to use 1 percent of the money in the Education Trust Fund to administer the EFA program, under the bill.

The Legislative Budget Assistant was not able to determine the cost of the changes in the bill because the department had not responded at the time of the bill’s printing, but noted the 1 percent going to the department would be $10.6 million in the current fiscal year, and $11 million in fiscal year 2024 and $11 million in fiscal year 2025.

The use of the fund for the EFA program is being challenged in court as the plaintiffs claim the program uses money earmarked for public education for private programs.

The suit challenging the funding for what has been described as the most expansive voucher program in the country, claims money raised by the Lottery Commission, and money from the Education Trust Fund may only be used for adequate education grants to school districts, citing the law creating the fund in 1999.

The suit, brought by Deb Howes as a citizen taxpayer, who is also president of AFT (American Federation of Teachers)-New Hampshire, seeks an injunction blocking the state from using any more of the Trust Fund Money to fund the EFA program.

Speaking at the public hearing, Howes reiterated her opposition to the bill, saying it is not a housekeeping measure.

“If money is coming out of (the Education Trust Fund),” she said, “does not mean it should be coming out of it.”

Public school and district tax money is not limitless, Howes said, noting it is all coming out of taxpayers pockets.

“When you run short of money,” Howes said, “you are going to shortchange the 160,000 kids in public schools.”

Caitlin Davis of the Department of Education was asked by several committee members if the bill reflects current operations for the agency for the use of trust fund money.

Davis said there is one change which would have the trust fund pay for the state’s portion of charter school leases, which is now coming from the general fund and is about $500,000 a year.

She said the program has been in place for three or four years and was paid for with general fund revenue during that time.

When asked whether the fund was paying the phase out grants and other aspects for the freedom account program, she said she could not comment because of the litigation.

“The majority of the language (in the bill) is correcting or codifying existing practices at the department,” she said.

Committee member Rep. Stephen Woodcock, D-Center Conway,” noted Cordelli said the bill was at the request of the department and wondered why it would put it forward when litigation was ongoing.

The department is requesting codification of some practices and updates to current law, she responded.

Louise Spencer of Concord noted what she called the bill’s hypocrisy. “This bill is really a challenge from people who say they support public education,” she said, “and at the same time they do not want to raise taxes. You cannot do both things with this bill.”

Spencer said the bill takes money that would otherwise go to public schools and uses it for other things while many on the committee have failed to support bringing more accountability to the freedom account program.

“The governor does want to not raise taxes in a way you would see it when looking online in legislation or bills passed,” Spencer said. “but those tax bills will be paid and will be paid by property taxpayers in those districts.

“This is a bill so unfair to our schools and taxpayers.”

The freedom account program was projected to cost $3.3 million this biennium, but instead has cost $27 million, and Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut has requested $30 million in each of the next two fiscal years in the new biennial budget lawmakers will finalize this year.

Although the program was sold as an opportunity for lower income parents to find the best educational opportunities for their children, about 75 percent of the funds have gone to tuition payments for students who were in private and religious schools prior to the program beginning.

There are a number of bills this session both seeking to expand the program and to limit it and also make it more accountable.

The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on HB 440.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

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