Checks and Balances Proposed for Education Freedom Account Program

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Rep. Corinne Cascadden, D-Berlin, testifies before the House Education Committee Monday on her bill to require all Education Freedom Account students to take an assessment test.


CONCORD — Traditional homeschoolers turned out in force to oppose a bill requiring Education Freedom Account participants to take standardized tests.

The House Education Committee Monday also heard a bill that would prohibit the voucher program from paying tuition to religious schools or for religious services and materials.

House Bill 1610 would require all students in the Education Freedom Account program to take an assessment test annually. Under the bill, the Department of Education could develop its own test for the EFA program or use a standardized national test.

The prime sponsor of the bill, Rep. Corinne Cascadden, D-Berlin, said the bill is not intended to include students being homeschooled whose parents do not take state money.

Those homeschool students whose parents do accept EFA grants would be required to take the tests as would the other students in the program.

The results would be reported to the Department of Education and be made available just as the public school information is available on the agency’s website.

Opponents of the bill, many who homeschool their children without state money, said it would destroy the homeschool system and make New Hampshire one of the least friendly homeschool states, although Cascadden said several times her intent was not to impact those who do not take state money.

Other opponents said the educational goals of homeschools may not align with the state curriculum and those students would not fare well on the standardized tests and requiring all home school students to be tested would bankrupt local school districts and be an unfunded mandate.

“Standardized tests have a critical role in education,” Cascadden said, “but not every student responds well so there have to be exceptions to the rule we have to talk about. Kids are not things, they vary.”

The bill is not intended to impact the current law on homeschool students not in the EFA program, she said.

She noted the EFA oversight committee’s report recommended a metric be developed for student performance and accountability.

“This is in the best interests of students for transparency, for the public with accountability,” Cascadden said, “and as requested by the oversight committee.”

Rep. Mike Belcher, R-Wakefield, asked if the standardized tests are administered to homeschool students and over time you find deficiencies, what do you do.

Cascadden said she is not concerned about homeschoolers, but the recipients of public dollars, where they go and accountability.

Michelle Levell is the director of Granite State Home Educators.

“There is no compelling reason for this bill,” she said, noting just two years ago they passed a bill that leveled the playing field for homeschooled students.

Many states are thinking beyond the bubble and doing away with national standardized testing, she said, including Florida, Alabama and New York.

“Children are more than test scores,” Levell said. “There are other ways to address education.”

Amanda Weeden of Rochester said she is an unfunded homeschooler and will never be in any other education pathway.

“I want nothing to do with government money and extreme oversight,” she said, noting homeschoolers were pushed out of the conversation from the beginning of the EFA program and called it poorly written legislation that started this mess.

Weeden said an “entire side of the aisle has hitched its wagon to a program that is not transparent, and people are waking up to the long-term implications.”
She said it will be disastrous for home education in New Hampshire.

Angela Turcotte of Dover said mandating testing does not help any child learn, noting her children are learning being there today.

“This bill infringes on our rights choosing to be separate from the public school system I have no desire to be a part of,” Turcotte said.

The electronic comment system indicated 780 people were opposed to the bill, and 225 supported it.

The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.

Religious Schools

House Bill 1592 prohibits using education freedom account funds at religious schools or for religious education or training, and repeals provisions giving providers legal protections.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Timothy Horrigan, D-Durham, said using state taxpayer money for religious instructions or materials is a blatant violation of the state constitution and bad public policy.

He said the recent US Supreme Court case in Maine saying if state money is going to private schools it also has to go to religious schools is different than New Hampshire’s laws and constitution.

He said while there have not been any scandals with New Hampshire’s program, that may change as the EFA program is growing almost out of control.

Horrigan said the way the spending is reported it is difficult to determine all of the religious vendors receiving EFA funding, but his crude estimate is that 54 percent of the money goes directly to religious organizations or materials and it is probably closer to 75 percent, which means his bill would save the state a lot of money.

Rep. Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, questioned Horrigan about a number of US Supreme Court decisions, but Horrigan said he either did not know the decisions or disagreed with Cordelli’s assessment.

But he said, the program blatantly violates the state constitution.

Rep. Valerie McDonnell, R-Salem, said if a law-abiding family pays taxes that go to public schools, and some of that money is given back to the family, what is wrong with that money going to a religious school or some other program.

“It is their money after all,” she said.

Horrigan disagreed saying it belongs to all taxpayers and said most families do not pay enough property taxes to offset the grant from the EFA program.

Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, read a letter from Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut to the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, that stated the constitution does not permit funding for religious services or materials.

He questioned Matt Southerton, director of policy and compliance for the Children’s Scholarship Fund NH, which administers the EFA program, if any state money was spent on religious services or materials. 

Not to my knowledge, said Southerton. He said they have allowed purchases of books on religious history, but those are considered history textbooks.

“We do not make a value judgment,” he said.

Luneau asked if the scholarship fund has allowed state money to be used for any educational services or materials for religious instruction.

“Not to my knowledge,” Southerton said, “but I need to go back and get back to you.”

The electronic comment system showed 218 in favor and 42 opposed.

The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.

Garry Rayno may be reached at Rayno is’s State House bureau chief.

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