By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The Senate Education Committee Tuesday voted to recommend a bill that would expand the Education Freedom Account program by increasing the income threshold.
The committee voted 3-2 down party lines to approve House Bill 367, which just barely passed the House last month on a 187-184 vote.
The bill is one of three House bills to be approved on the new school voucher-like program that has been way over budget for the first two years of operation.
HB 367 would increase parents’ income threshold for a child to be eligible for the program from 300 percent of the federal poverty level to 350 percent or from $82.410 to $105,000 for a family of four.
Before it was enacted, the program was estimated to cost the state $3.3 million for the first biennium, but instead it has cost about $22 million drawn from the Education Trust Fund which also pays for the adequacy grants schools receive under the current funding formula.
If the program costs more money than the Education Trust Fund can provide, then state general funds will pay for the grants to parents.
Much of the money for the program has gone to subsidizing tuition costs for students who were in private and religious schools prior to the program’s start.
The program was sold as an alternative for low- to moderate-income parents to find the best educational fit for their children if they do not do well in public schools.
However, students leaving public schools for alternative programs have been a small percentage of the over 3,000 students currently in the program.
The two Democrats on the Senate Education Committee, Sens. Sue Prentiss, D-Lebanon, and Donovan Fenton, D-Keene, said in a statement the program’s approval two years ago has led to the devaluation and detriment of public schools.
“It is truly unfortunate that a tremendous amount of misinformation continues to circulate around the true cost of EFAs on the taxpayer, local adequate education funding and the heart of this country – our public school system,” they said. “This program lacks oversight, and efforts to implement means testing measures have been rejected twice by this body. We are not aware of any other program that could spend over $60 million and have such little accountability over the expenditure of taxpayer funds.”
Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, who has been one of the program’s biggest advocates for several years, has asked for $30 million in each of the two years of the upcoming biennium for EFAs, or $60 million.
Prentiss and Fenton noted their Republican colleagues expressed support for low-income and food insecure Granite State families, but the legislation does nothing to address food insecurity.
“We implore our Senate colleagues to recognize that accountability measures must be put into place, and remember that the true value of public schools goes beyond just education,” they said in their statement.
Edelblut defended the Senate Committee’s vote saying education freedom accounts are expanding and popular in states across the country.
“Anytime we are able to support families and provide students educational pathways to help them succeed, it is a good day in New Hampshire,” Edelblut said. “Across the country, just as we are doing in New Hampshire, state leaders are expanding choice options for families because it is good for children.”
Most of the EFA bills in the House, some to expand and others to rein in the program, came out of the House Education Committee without recommendations due to tie votes with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on the committee.
The ranking Democrat on that committee Rep. Mel Myler, D-Hopkinton, called the Senate committee’s vote irresponsible and disappointing.
He said the voucher program was enacted two years ago under the guise of providing “school choice,” but it has been used primarily to subsidize students already attending private school and greatly exceeded its budget.
“Because private school students who otherwise receive no state funding were made eligible and applied in droves, the cost of school vouchers has exceeded Department of Education projections by over 600 percent through just two years,” Myler said. “Expanding voucher eligibility to higher-income households without limiting future applicants to public school students will require taxpayers to subsidize another influx of students already attending private school.”
Myler said the education department has not attempted to determine the cost of expanding the income threshold or how many existing private school students would become eligible for vouchers if income eligibility is expanded.
The Senate would be irresponsible to pass this legislation without doing its due diligence on what this would cost, he said, noting the bill should be killed.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.