By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome
Some people believe the more conservative wing of Republican lawmakers desires to transform New Hampshire into Texas North.
But in one instance, Texas has been more cautious or conservative than New Hampshire.
While Texas Gov. Greg Abbott may have a lot of support from Texans in his attempt to start a civil war over immigrants at his border with Mexico, he has yet to convince his Republican controlled Legislature of the value of an education voucher program.
The Texas legislature has turned down his priority plan for universal school choice or vouchers four times last year often basing the opposition on statistics from New Hampshire and other states with similar programs that indicate vouchers are more a subsidy to parents whose children already are in private and religious schools and homeschooling programs rather than providing alternative learning programs for low-income students who do not perform well in public schools.
One Texas House member citing the statistic that 67 percent of New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Account students were not in public schools when the program began, called the program a subsidy for the wealthy.
If the sponsors of several bills before the New Hampshire House have their way, that is exactly what the EFA will be as they try to remove any income cap on the program whose stated genesis was alternative educational opportunities for low-income families.
Thursday in the House, three EFA bills will be before the House and all three have a 10-10 partisan split from the House Education Committee and go to the floor with no recommendation.
Two of the three bills would either remove any income cap or have a list of situations that automatically would qualify a student for the program, making both bills about universal vouchers with no limits on parents’ income.
The first year of New Hampshire’s EFA program, the income limit was 300 percent of federal poverty, and that was increased last session to 350 percent.
House Bill 1665 would increase the income cap to 500 percent of poverty or over $150,000 for a family of four, which is just over the state’s median income, which means slightly more than half the families in the state would qualify.
And yes the greatest use of the EFA program money continues to be for tuition at private and religious schools and homeschool programs for kids who were not in public schools when the EFA program began in 2021.
House Bill 1634 would remove any income cap from the program and House Bill 1561 has nine categories with automatic eligibility, which together, provide parents with an opportunity to successfully find a reason to have their student or students qualify.
Reaching Higher NH estimates if all the students in private or religious schools or homeschools qualify for an EFA, it would cost the state about $105 million, which is a far cry from the $300,000 Education Commission Frank Edelblut claimed would be the first year cost of the program.
But his estimate was much less than the real cost — $8 million — the first year, and $15 million the second year and as estimated $25 million this school year.
That is money that comes from the Education Trust Fund which is used for the adequacy grants to all school districts and charter schools, special education costs, and transportation.
The fund currently has a $200 million surplus but that won’t last long if the program balloons to over $100 million a year.
While the Texas legislature has to date, held off Abbott and his dream of universal vouchers, that is not the case in other states.
To date about half the states have a voucher program of some kind, most not universal or as expansive as New Hampshire’s. A handful of states have universal programs.
If you wonder what can happen with these programs when they become universal, look at Arizona.
The state’s first school voucher plan using money that would have gone to public schools — like New Hampshire’s does — began in 2011.
A proposition for a universal plan was defeated by voters in 2018, but the Republican controlled Legislature approved a universal plan in 2022 and it was signed by then outgoing Gov. Doug Doucey.
Newly elected Democratic Gov. and former Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, tried to do away with the universal plan her first year in office, but was blocked by the Republican legislature. This year she wants some guardrails and transparency for the program, but the legislature is not likely to agree.
The Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program costs the state $1 billion annually and is the biggest driver in the state’s growing budget deficit of $400 million.
Criticism of the program includes using the state money for ski passes, piano purchases and other “luxuries.”
When the program expanded, about 75 percent of the new students were never public school students, much like New Hampshire’s experience.
Another universal program is in Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through expanding their voucher program to universal last year as he prepared to run for the GOP nomination for president.
Among the complaints after the universal program began, ironically, was state money was used for tickets to Disney World.
Idaho and Utah also have universal programs and Indiana’s covers 97 percent of the state’s students.
Most states limit eligibility for the program to less than 300 percent so currently New Hampshire is more generous than any state that does not have universal voucher programs.
For example, Maryland limits participants to185 percent, North Carolina 133 percent, Ohio 200 percent, and South Carolina to Medicaid recipients.
There are several other bills dealing with the EFA program that will come before the Legislature this year including two that would allow any student turned down for a hardship placement in another school district would automatically qualify for the EFA program the next year.
Another bill takes aim at the organization that administers the EFA program. It would require the Children’s Scholarship Fund to establish an affiliate in New Hampshire as it has in every other state where it runs their voucher programs.
This push to move money out of public education and into private entities is not unique to New Hampshire.
The last several years, many states have had bills similar to the one that made it through New Hampshire in the 2021-2022 biennial budget, as it had trouble standing on its own.
There is a great deal of dark money behind this push coming from familiar places like the Devos and the Koch Foundation and it is not all about the quality of education as they would like you to believe.
One of the last healthy bastions of unionized labor is teacher unions and many involved in the push for school choice want to see that change.
There is one bill in the Senate and one in the House that would establish the position of part-time teacher, someone who works less than 30 hours a week and does not need Department of Education credentials.
The war on public institutions is not always what it appears to be, but you can be assured at the heart of it is big money, taxes and small government.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.