House Committee Seeks to Kill Senate Education Freedom Account Bill

Print More


Rep. Alicia Lekas, R-Hudson, introduced House Bill 1665 to increase the income threshold for Education Freedom Accounts to 500 percent of the federal poverty level Tuesday before the Senate Education Committee.


CONCORD — Lawmakers Tuesday grappled with increasing the income cap for the second straight year for the Education Freedom Account program.

The program began with an income cap of 300 percent of the federal poverty level three years ago, and it was raised to 350 percent last year and this session the Senate approved raising the threshold to 400 percent and the House approved 500 percent.

Public hearings were held on the two bills, House Bill 1665 and Senate Bill 442, turning out both opponents of the change and supporters who said the bills would open the program that provides about a $5,200 grant to participants, to people earning the median income in the state.

The House Education Committee after its public hearing on Senate Bill 442, to raise the cap to 400 percent, lower the Children’s Scholarship Fund of NH’s percentage for administering the program from 10 to 8 percent, extend the phaseout grants to public schools that lose students to the EFA program, and study how much the phaseouts pay school districts, voted unanimously — 17-0 —to recommend the House kill the bill.

The Senate Education Committee did not decide after its public hearing on its recommendation on HB 1665 to raise the cap to 500 percent.

The increase would allow the middle of the earning spectrum to participate in the program, the Senate committee was told.

Rep. Alicia Lekas, R-Hudson, said a 500 percent cap would cover most of the middle income families in the state, and moving it to 550 percent would capture all.

“Middle-income families pay the most, but get the least for it,” she said, and are not able to move their child from public schools to an alternative that is a better fit for their child.

“Finally, we can get the kids the education they need,” Lekas said. “The point is this is to get to the middle-income families so they’re not stuck in the wrong school, not stuck in something not working for their kid.”
Going to 500 percent of the federal poverty level would cap the income of a family of four at $156,000 and $102,000 for a parent and child household based on federal 2024 figures.

The current rate would limit income to $109,200 for a family of four and $71,540 for a family of two.

At the 400 percent threshold, a family of two would be able to earn up to $81,760 and a family of four up to $124,800.

The Reaching Higher Education group estimates this increase will bring the cost for next school year to $53.4 million.

The cost of raising the level to 500 percent is expected to be about $60 million to $70 million a year for the program.

The federal government estimates the median income in New Hampshire for a family of four is $133,447. 

Under the program a parent only has to qualify once under the eligibility rules, and the child will be in the program until he or she is 21 years old or graduates.

A number of parents appeared before the Senate committee in support of the program, all urging the lawmakers to approve the cap at 500 percent.

Mike King told how the program has made his children bloom and called the program pro family, noting, they homeschool their children.

He said instead of spending 35 to 40 hours at a school the program allows the family to spend time together.

King noted the change to 500 percent while allowing a few more families to participate, but noted some states like Arizona have universal access where everyone who signs up gets a $7,100 grant and some on IEPs (individual education plans) can receive up to $12,000 grants.

“It’s a movement nationwide even in Massachusetts,” he said. “There is a desire for something else other than public schools.”
The Arizona program is bankrupting the state with its budget billions of dollars in deficit. The Democratic governor of Arizona has tried to rein in the program but the Republican legislature has refused to change it.

Opponents of the change in New Hampshire noted that like Arizona and other states like Ohio, the students joining the voucher programs are not leaving public schools, but are already in private or religious schools or homeschooling programs making the grants a subsidy for parents who are currently paying for their children’s education.

“Every Granite State student has a right to a robust education in New Hampshire,” said Deb Howes, president of the Federation of Teachers NH, and the opportunities for a robust education need to be the same in Berlin and Claremont as they are in Bedford, Windham and Hanover.

She noted the recent superior court ruling that the state should be spending an additional $500 million for the adequate education for all students.

All the money spent on vouchers is not going to the state’s current obligation to fund public schools, she said, and expanding the voucher program will mean more money is not going to fund an adequate education for the rest of the state’s 165,000 students.

She said raising the cap to 500 percent will mean spending about $66 million with $45 million going to students who were in private or religious schools or homeschooling at a time when revenues are softening.

Mary Wilke of the NH School Funding Fairness Project told the two education committees it would be prudent to wait until a statutorily required performance audit of the program is completed before directing more state money toward EFAs.

She noted the commissioner of education Frank Edelblut is standing in the way of the audit refusing to release information held by the scholarship fund needed to do the audit.

The day before at the EFA oversight committee it was noted that information about the amount spent with each vendor has been taken down by the Department of Education, she said, and was told there was no requirement to post the information.

Wilke said she received the information from the scholarship organization after she called about it.

She asked what the commissioner was trying to hide, and noted the program is paid for with public money so there should be transparency and accountability, not stonewalling.

Sen. Timothy Lang, R-Sanbornton, said the Legislative Budget Assistant and the commissioner have reached an agreement and the audit will move forward.

Other opponents of expanding the program noted the cost of the program has always been more than was budgeted, going from $8 million when it was estimated to be about $300,000, to $15 million to about $25 million this school year and the scholarship organization said it already has 500 applications for next school year with parents expecting the threshold to increase.

Brian Hawkins of NEA – NH, said the eligibility is being expanded 43 percent with the 500 percent cap, but the cost is projected to increase by 9 percent, and that doesn’t make sense.

For the first three years, 75 percent of the students were not enrolled in public schools at all, Hawkins said, so that is all new state spending.

He too suggested they wait for the audit before making such a “dramatic increase” in the program.

But Andrew Yates of Yes Every Kid said a recent poll of people with school age children showed 74 percent favor choice in education to allow for pathways that are best for their children.

“If you limit options,” he said, “You stifle access to the education that best fits their needs.”

Four students from Acton Academy in Laconia, an approved educational facility that uses learning pods and peer groups, praised the education they are receiving and said it has allowed them to blossom.

One student said 45 percent of Acton’s students are on the EFA program, and increasing the cap would allow even more to participate.

But in the House, Lang, the prime sponsor of SB 442, told the committee his bill would do more than raise the income cap to 400 percent.

He said it would lower the rate the scholarship fund would be paid, it would extend the phaseout money for public schools who lose students to the EFA program, it would track the money for the phaseout to determine the cost, and would allow public schools to receive state adequacy aid for students who take a course in something like physics which is hard to find at alternative education programs.

Rep. Peggy Balboni, D-Rye Beach, noted the EFA student would receive a $5,200 grant and the school about $780 for the one student and asked if the money for the public school would come from the EFA grant.

Lang said the additional money would be attached to the average daily attendance of the school at the end of the school year.

Balboni asked how many classes could an EFA student take and not be a full-time public school student, and Lang said he did not know what the rules for the program say.

Balboni noted the state would have to spend additional money for the student to take the course while the EFA grant would not change.

Others questioned the safety of children under the EFA program as well as cost overruns, whether students were being tracked for academic success, and how supporters of the EFA program define success.

Lang said one of the ways is if students are engaged and parents are engaged in their students’ education.

Rep. Stephen Woodcock, D-Center Conway, questioned using engagement as a measure of success when 80 percent of the students in the program were already in private schools.

Lang said he didn’t know the exact number, but the cap is currently 350 percent of poverty so the family was already sacrificing to have their student in a private school. The additional money will make that child’s home life better as they can use the money for other family expenses.

Lang said the EFA program makes the sacrifices families make “a little bit softer. They can put food on the table somewhat easier.”

When the House Education Committee met in executive session to decide its recommendation on SB 442, committee chair, Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, moved to recommend killing the bill saying the House had already spoken on the issue and should leave it at that.

His motion was seconded by Rep. Mel Myler, D-Hopkinton, who said he opposed the bill because of the cost overruns over the last three years, the Department of Education’s inability to estimate costs, a lack of guidelines and there is no reason to expand the program.

Garry Rayno may be reached at

Comments are closed.