Expansion of EFA Program Approved But Universal Eligibility Killed

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Rep. Linda Tanner, D-Sunapee, speaks in opposition to expanding eligibility to the Education Freedom Account Program Thursday on the House Floor.


CONCORD — It was a mixed bag for the state’s Education Freedom Account program Thursday as the House killed two of three bills that would have expanded eligibility but approved the third by one vote.

The House killed two bills that would have meant universal eligibility for the program, and passed the bill that increases income eligibility from 350 percent of federal poverty to 500 percent, making about 70 percent of the state’s families eligible for EFA grants. 

House Bill 1665, which passed 190-189, now goes to the Senate for action.

Currently about 4,200 students participate in the three-year-old program at a cost of about $25 million this school year. The current biennial budget allocates $60 million for the EFA program over the two years.

The three bills would have increased the families eligible for the state grants ranging from $4,100 to $8,000 per student to be used for alternatives to public schools.

Currently about 75 percent of the funding goes to pay tuition at private and religious schools and homeschool expenses for students who were not in public schools when the program began in 2021.

Opponents of the bill noted the use of the money for private and religious schools and said the proposed changes would allow families making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to use the money for an elite private education they could well afford to pay themselves.

They said the proposed expansion is contrary to the stated purpose of the program when it was originally enacted to help low-income families afford an alternative educational setting that better fits their student if he or she is not successful in public schools.

“Instead of spending more money pulling students out of public schools,” said Rep. Linda Tanner, D-Sunapee, “we should make funding more equitable and stop passing legislation that puts more pressure on teachers and educators.”

Supporters of the voucher program that when it began was considered the most expansive in the country, said not all children feel safe or are successful in public schools and their “one-size fits all” approach to education.   

The program allows parents to find the best education environment for their students where they can be more successful and more comfortable.

They said all families deserve to participate in the EFA program and not discriminate against those who currently do not qualify due to income.

They called the program wildly successful having grown from 1,600 to more than 4,200 this school year when the average grant per student is $5,255.

“New Hampshire needs to see the people standing up for the best education possible for every New Hampshire child, that is what this is about,” said the prime sponsor of HB 1665, Rep. Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro. “Too often kids are stuck in a school by their address where their minds are getting filled but there is no fire to kindle.”

House Bill 1561 has nine categories with automatic eligibility, which include fear of contracting the common cold, or COVID19, or if a student is bullied, or if the drinking water in the district is contaminated with PFAs for example. Opponents said taken together, the list provides parents with an opportunity to successfully find a reason to have their student or students qualify.

The bill was killed on a 197-185 vote.

House Bill 1634 would remove any income cap from the program. The bill was killed on a 193-188 vote.

The EFA program was first approved with an income cap of 300 percent of poverty, but was raised last session to 350 percent, which is about $109,000 for a family of four.

House Bill 1665 would increase the income cap to 500 percent of poverty or over $150,000 for a family of four.

Reaching Higher NH estimates if all the students in private or religious schools, or homeschool programs qualify for an EFA, it would cost the state about $105 million, which is a $82 million increase over this school year’s cost.

When the program began, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut claimed the first year cost of the program would be $300,000 and the second year about $3 million. However the first year costs were $8.1million and the second year costs $14.6 million.

The money for the program comes from the Education Trust Fund which is the source of money for adequacy grants to all school districts.

School districts that have students leave to join the EFA program lose the adequacy grant for that child as the money follows the student.

Rep. Alicia Lekas, R-Hudson, and the prime sponsor of HB 1634 said every child deserves a good education not just those in public schools, noting the EFA program funds the student and not the system.

“We shouldn’t be funding the system,” she said, “we should be funding the students.”

But opponents of the three bills said the program needs more accountability and transparency in order to ensure taxpayers dollars are being spent for educational purposes and not fraudulently.

Rep. Mel Myler, D-Hopkinton, said the program should not be expanded until a performance audit is done this fall and completed.

He said it is impossible to determine if the program is fiscally sound because of the lack of safeguards.

Myler noted a universal program in Arizona is bankrupting the state and the conservative state legislature in Texas rejected a similar program, “just as we should do today.”

But Cordelli quoted Horace Mann who started common school, which became public schools as saying “in the sacred cause of education all parents have given us hostages to our cause.”

“Hostages are wrong Horace in this live free and die state,” Cordelli said. “We do not do hostages to any school.”

After the vote, Megan Tuttle, president of the NEA — NH said while her organization is thankful universal access to EFA was voted down, the expansion is a concern. 

“NEA-New Hampshire is grateful bipartisan lawmakers rejected a bill to establish universal vouchers, however, we remain concerned that today’s vote to expand vouchers to higher income families brings us closer to that reality, which would blow a hole in New Hampshire’s state budget and jeopardize the future of state funding for public schools,” she said. “It continues to be immensely disappointing that a majority of state lawmakers are hyper fixated on expanding this unsustainable program at all costs while ignoring the state’s chronic underfunding of our public schools, which the vast majority of Granite State students and families attend, trust, and rely on.” 

Officials from Reaching Higher NH said HB 1665 marks a significant policy shift and estimates it will cost state taxpayers $66 million beginning in fiscal year 2025.

“Our communities and taxpayers have been struggling for decades because the state has underfunded our public schools,” said Christina Pretorius, Policy Director at Reaching Higher NH. “The choice to increase funding instead for a program that research shows doesn’t improve student achievement, and instead causes catastrophic academic harm, will have significant long-term implications for the future of education in New Hampshire.”

But House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, accused Democrats of playing politics with children’s education. 

“By failing to provide this flexibility to all children, we are playing petty games with their futures, putting politics over people,” said Osborne, whose wife is a provider under the EFA program. “This is discrimination against every family who may not fall under an arbitrary level of poverty set by the federal government.”

He said supporters of the program look forward to the time when every child will have access to their chosen education pathway.

Americans For Prosperity — NH, a Koch Foundation funded organization that has been a major advocate for the EFA program, said it looks forward to future expansions.

Sarah Scott, deputy state director of AFP, said the House made an important step in ensuring that every Granite State student has access to the education they need to succeed.

“AFP-NH will continue to work with lawmakers and activists to get this important expansion of education freedom across the finish line,” she said.

The House still has two other bills dealing with education choice to vote on this session.

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

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