By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The state’s Education Freedom Account program and whether it should be expanded or reined in was an all-day topic over seven bills Tuesday before the House Education Committee.
The bill’s ranged from removing the income cap on the program to requiring the program to live within its budget, which is substantially smaller than program costs in its first two years.
Other bills dealt with program providers, special education students, student safety and requiring parents to re-certify their income yearly instead of only for the first year of participation.
Program supporters said its popularity proves it is needed as public education does not adequately serve every student’s needs, and removing the cap would allow the program to expand to help more students.
But others said the program needs guardrails as it has cost nearly $30 million the first two years instead of the $3.1 million Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut predicted in promoting the program two years ago.
And they said much of the money has gone to pay tuition to private and religious schools and homeschool expenses for students who were there before the program began, and not students leaving public schools to find a better fit educationally.
House Bill 331, which would remove the income cap of 300 percent of the federal poverty level to be eligible for the program, received the most debate Tuesday.
David Trumble of Weare said the bill would have at least a $100 million baseline cost if all the 20,000 students in private, religious or home school environments participated in the EFA program.
“This skims over the downshifting of costs to local communities,” Trumble said, “that could lose 10 percent of their students and not save anything off their budgets.”
He said the $100 million could be better spent on property poor school districts who need the money now.
“This will hollow out our public schools,” Trumble told the committee.
The prime sponsor Rep. Alicia Lekas, R-Hudson, said when the EFA program was first designed there was no cap on parents’ incomes.
“The intent was to be open to every kid in the state, because they are all our kids,” she said. “All parents pay taxes. There is no means testing for public schools, why should there be means testing for this?”
It uses only state money, she noted, and said every child in the state should have an opportunity for an adequate education.
Supporters said the program allows students to find the best educational opportunities such as smaller class sizes, avoiding bullying or alternative learning experiences.
The Executive Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund NH, which administers the program, Kate Baker Demers said the bill would allow those parents who fall just above the eligibility level to join the program.
She said most of the students enrolled in EFA program seek alternative choices because they have been bullied, or have special needs that are not being met in a public school, they are below grade level and they seek a smaller class, or above grade level.
“I am reasonably certain most people I talk to are happy with their public schools,” Demers said, “Some seek a smaller elementary class size and then go to their own high school.”
She said if the cap is removed, judging from other states’ experience with the program will be about 5 percent.
“Those who do not need the money are not going to go through the application process,” Demers noted. “We are talking about an adequacy grant for every child in the state, to limit it by a particular demographic does not make sense.”
There has been a lot of talk about funding and how much things cost, she said. “Children are not funding units,” she said, “but they are humans and children.”
But others said if state money is to be used for non-public education, there should be accountability and transparency that shows how well the students are doing.
Deb Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said every child in New Hampshire should have the opportunity to be in the same, small-sized classroom as the learning centers some ERA students attend.
“But in order to do that, you need the people in this building or across the street to fulfill their constitutional duty to provide and fund an adequate education,” Howes said. “This bill will not get you any closer to it.”
She said what is being proposed “is not fair, it is a giveaway.”
The electronic sign-in system indicated 656 people opposed the bill and 83 supported it.
A bill that would allow local districts to establish their own education freedom accounts funded through their property taxes, also had significant opposition with 551 opposed and 65 in favor.
House Bill 538 would allow a community to set up its own voucher system with a 60 percent majority vote at the annual school district meeting.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kevin Verville, R-Deerfield, said it is enabling legislation upholding the state’s long tradition of local control.
“This bill would let a district decide if local education money should follow the child.” he said. “This would allow any New Hampshire family to select the educational opportunity they believe is in the best interest of their children. It is a win-win for the families and the districts.”
Under his bill, which is similar to one he introduced last year that failed to make it out of the House, a student would be eligible for a grant up to $9,600 to use for an alternative education program, which he said is enough to help even poor families find an opportunity for their student.
Once a child is approved for the program by the district, the money would be sent to the organization administering the state EFA program, which would be the Children’s Scholarship Fund —NH, Verville said. And once approved the student would receive a yearly grant until he or she graduates, even if the district decides to end the program.
He said there is no income cap on the program so it would be available to every child in the district that approves it.
There would not be an exodus of students leaving public schools, Verville maintained, noting most private schools are filled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eventually the market will respond and children will have more opportunities, he said, noting the public education system has been turned into a monopoly.
And he said it needs to be more than just public funding of children.
Trumble said the bill would seriously cripple the property poor communities that cannot afford to lose the money and would have to cut the programs that hold their schools together.
“When the money is sucked out of schools, it will gut our local schools,” Trumble said. “This is basically an attempt to do to all state schools what happened in Croydon last year.”
At a poorly attended school district meeting, a selectman moved to cut the school budget in half, and it passed, but the community worked to hold another meeting and restored the money.
Referring to the state EFA program, he called it a pilot program that actually only helped 200 students leave public schools for alternative programs, and now the same people want to turn the education system upside down.
He said the EFA program moves kids from higher performing public schools to lower performing religious schools.
“It is a pilot project that doesn’t work, it does not work around the country and does not work around the world, ” Trumble said, “because some people think education is a product like buying coffee. Education is not a product.”
Howes said with income caps, the bill asks struggling families to reach into their pockets to pay for some kids to go to St. Paul’s or Phillips Exeter.
People want stability and predictability in their schools, she said, while the bill would lead to bare bones education.
Five of the bills heard Tuesday are attempts to bring more accountability, transparency and oversight to the state EFA program.
House Bill 432 would require parents to certify their income annually. Under the program now, once a parent is eligible by proving their income is 300 percent of the federal poverty level or less, they do not have to financially qualify again as long as their student remains in the program.
Current income levels are $43,740 for a single person, and $90,000 for a family of four.
A proposed bill would increase the levels to 500 percent which is $72,900 for a single person and $150,000 for a family of four.
The prime sponsor of the bill, Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, said the bill simply would have the family recertify every year, in the event of a significant change in income from one year to the next.
There are numerous federal and state programs that require yearly certification, he noted, from SNAP to subsidized housing.
Committee member Rep. Mike Belcher, R-Wakefield, noted that inflation could be high enough that some may not qualify and asked if Luneau knew the percentage that may be impacted.
Luneau said 300 percent of the federal poverty level is about the median household income statewide, although he knows it changes from area to area.
He noted the figures are adjusted each year, and reminded Belcher the cap is three times the federal poverty level.
The sign-in showed 102 people in support and 18 opposed.
House Bill 573 would limit the program to its budgeted amount.
In the current biennium the program’s budget was about $3.1 million but to date the cost has been more than $25 million. Edelblut has asked for $30 million in each of the next two years for the biennial budget lawmakers are currently reviewing.
Luneau, the prime sponsor of the bill, noted the Legislative Budget Assistant’s Office estimated the state’s exposure could be $70 million two years ago when the program was approved if all the private, religious and home school students joined the program.
He said state support for public education is set by the number of kids in public schools the year before, but the EFA is a blank check.
The budget needs to be followed, Luneau said, and the current costs are not even close to what the commissioner projected they would be.
The special education budget is set and if costs run over then districts receive prorated funding, he said, and noted the tax credit scholarship program has not gone over budget.
“We do this all over state government, the cities and towns do it,” Luneau said about staying within budget. “It’s exactly what we do.”
If the commissioner were in the private sector and made this kind of mistake, he would be without a job, Luneau said, noting it was phony budgeting.
Bonnie Dunham of Merrimack, a long-time advocate for disabled individuals, noted every two years she and others come to Concord to beg for the money for the area agencies so their clients will feel they have value and dignity, the money they need just to survive.
“This is like a program with a platinum card with no credit limit,” she said.
The sign-ins were 104 in favor and 64 opposed.
House Bill 621 would require parents of ERA students who return full-time to their public school, to return any unused money to the Education Trust Fund and freeze their accounts.
The bill also requires the Children’s Scholarship Foundation to report any suspicious activity or spending to the Attorney General’s Office for investigation.
Demers said any money left over in the child’s fund could be used for tutoring or buying notebooks or something like that.
She said the funds are distributed four times a year and any child returning to public school would not receive the next installment.
She explained the process the organization uses to check all purchases and use of the funds.
Several committee members did not know the funds could be rolled over from year to year, in order to have more money available when the student is in middle or high school and expenses are higher.
The sign-ins were 85 in support and 16 opposed.
House Bill 603 would require providers for the EFA program to be in business for one year prior to being able to seek reimbursement for their services.
The bill would also require providers to meet the same health and safety standards as public schools and to do criminal background checks on employees working directly with students.
The sign-ins were 101 in support and 65 opposed.
And House Bill 446 would require the Children’s Scholarship Fund to explain in writing to parents their rights for children covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
If the child is in the EFA program and is in a for profit educational institution, they lose their rights to special education services through the public schools and for federal funding.
The sign-ins were 102 in favor and 15 opposed.
The committee will decide on its recommendations for the seven bills at a later date.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.