Distant Dome: Changes Proposed for Education Freedom Account Program 

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Garry Rayno is InDepthNH.org's State House Bureau Chief. He is pictured in the press room at the State House in Concord.

By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome

Few programs in state government have an open-ended budget limit, instead most have to stay within the budget lawmakers set.

Some federal programs where the state shares the costs such as Medicaid do not have set limits, but have to serve all who qualify under federal guidelines.

But the fairly new Education Freedom Account program approved three years ago in the state’s two-year budget package has no limit on what is spent from the state’s Education Trust Fund. Sort of like Santa Clause this time of year.

Although the program is fairly new, many attempts have been made to change it during the past two years and this the third session since its passage is no different.

Supporters want to expand the eligibility for students, while opponents and skeptics seek to put restraints and accountability measures on the program that has grown 158 percent since its inception, while the cost has increased 174 percent in figures released earlier this year by the Department of Education.

For the current school year, 4,552 students are in the program as of November, up from 3,025 at the same point last year, and from 1,635 for the 2021-2022 school year.

The costs have grown from $8.1 million the first year, to $14.7 million the second year and $23.8 million this school year as of November.

One of the bills to be introduced this year, House Bill 1512, would limit the program to the amount of money stated in the current biennial budget, which is $19.8 million for the current 2024 fiscal year and for the 2025 fiscal year.

And those familiar with the program’s history should not be surprised the current estimate from the DOE is $23.8 million for this school year, as the program has constantly been more expensive than the department has estimated.

Last year lawmakers raised the income limit for participating in the program from 300 percent of poverty to 350 percent.

That increases the threshold for the current school year from $59,160 for a family of two, to $69,020, and for a family of four from $90,000 to $105,000 annually.

Once a family qualifies for the program there are no future financial limits on earnings and several bills dealing with the program reiterate that for the upcoming year.

Two bills to be introduced in the 2024 session would increase the income limit for the program.

House Bill 1634, with Rep. Alicia Lekas, R-Hudson, would eliminate any income cap for a student to participate in the program, so a millionaire sending their child to an expensive private school would be able to receive approximately a state subsidy of $5,300 of state tax money for tuition costs.

Another bill sponsored by Rep. Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, would raise the income limit from 350 to 500 percent of poverty.

That would increase program eligibility for a two-person family to those earning $93,600 or less a year and a four-person family to those earning $150,000 or less.

And both bills would not change the provision that once a family qualifies for the program there is no subsequent income limitation.

House Bill 1594, with most of the Democrats on the House Education Committee sponsoring the bill, would require a yearly recertification of a family’s income level for participation in the program.

A fiscal note from the Department of Education indicates the bill would decrease the number of students currently participating in the program which is 4,552 as of November.

Senate Bill 525 would also require an annual review of a family’s income to continue participation in the program. Sponsored by state Sen. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, the bill would also require the Legislative Budget Assistant’s Audit Division to randomly audit 33 percent of the participants to determine if they comply with the income limitations.

House Bill 1677 would reiterate that a family would only have to meet the income guidelines the first year they apply and would be able to continue in the program until the child graduates from high school or leaves the program.

The bill with prime sponsor Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, would also allow any student who was denied participation in the program the previous year due to income guidelines to automatically be enrolled the next school year.

Students in school districts performing at 49 percent or below in statewide assessments would be automatically eligible for the freedom account program.

The Department of Education said it can not determine how many additional students may be added to the program under the bill or the additional costs.

Senate Bill 442 would also allow students whose enrollment transfer requests were denied the year before, to automatically qualify the next school year regardless of their parents’ incomes.

The prime sponsor is Sen. Timothy Lang, R-Sanbornton, and 11 other Republican state senators.

Another bill lists a number of instances when students would automatically qualify for the program and is sponsored by some of the Republican leadership, including House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, whose wife is an EFA provider, House Majority Floor Leader, Joe Sweeney, R-Salem, and House Deputy Majority Floor Leader Joe Alexander, R-Goffstown.

Under the bill a student would be eligible for the program:

Whose family income is equal to or less than 350 percent of the federal poverty level, with no future check;

Who is concerned about the spread of contagious diseases such as COVID-19, the common cold, the seasonal flu, pneumonia, or other similar diseases;

Who has been bullied three or more times;

Who identifies as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, or non-binary;

Who tested in the bottom 25th percentile in state standardized testing the most recent academic year;

Who is diagnosed with an eating disorder or a mental health illness by a licensed healthcare provider;

Who lives in a district where drinking water exceeds PFAS standards;

Whose district scores in the bottom 10th percentile in standardized testing,

And whose district’s guidance counselor determines it is in the best interest of the student.

The DOE says it is unable to determine how many more students may qualify for the program or the additional costs.

Another bill would also allow students into the Education Freedom Account program whose parents petition the district’s superintendent claiming a change in schools is in the student’s best interest.

On the other hand, House Bill 1654 would require the State Board of Education to annually review all program providers to determine if they comply with all state and federal anti-discrimination laws. Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, is the prime sponsor of the legislation.

House Bill 1592 would prohibit using education freedom account funds at religious schools or for religious education or training.

The bill, with prime sponsor Rep. Timothy Horrigan, D-Durham, would also repeal provisions giving program providers independence from state rules and legal proceedings related to the program.

Horrigan also sponsored House Bill 1418, which would prohibit using freedom account funds to purchase school uniforms.

And House Bill 1652 would allow school districts to establish local education freedom accounts for students to attend other schools and alternative programs, but by using local tax money to establish a new scholarship fund.

The bill’s prime sponsor is Rep. Kevin Verville, R-Deerfield, who sponsored a similar bill last year that was killed in the House.

Those 12 bills are but a small percentage of bills the House and Senate education committees will take up this year as the culture war on education continues in New Hampshire although it is losing steam in much of the rest of the country.

The House Education Committee has 107 new bills to process this upcoming session.

Senate bills have not been assigned to committees as yet.

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

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