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With Interest In N.H.'s ‘Education Freedom Accounts’ High, Voucher Critics Point To The Cost

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Even in its early stages, New Hampshire’s law has served as a backdrop for national efforts to expand the “school choice” movement.

Anthony Henry isn’t sure where he wants to go to high school in a year. But he knows he doesn’t want it to be a public school.

This story was originally published in New Hampshire Bulletin.

The Derry native, who is entering eighth grade this year, says he’s been disheartened by content taught in his middle school – from videos diving into the background of Karl Marx to economics lessons on alternative theories to capitalism.

“I think they’re doing some slanted stuff politically,” he said.

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Those objections are enough to make Anthony and his father, Charlie, interested in leaving the public school system for a private high school.

“As just a working guy, he’s considering going private, and I have to consider how do I pay for that,” said Charlie Henry, standing outside a political event headlined by former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and former secretary of education Betsy DeVos in Concord Tuesday.

Neither Anthony nor Charlie were aware of a brand-new program in the state – passed in the budget in June – that lets certain families access a “savings account” of state education funding that can put about $5,000 toward private school tuition, homeschooling, or school costs.

“I don’t know enough about it,” Charlie Henry said. “. . . I’m more here so I can find out.”

But as the “education freedom account” program begins to take off, one thing is clear from early numbers: Plenty of other families in the state are aware.

Just two months after the program was passed into law, the state’s education freedom accounts have attracted a lot of interest, New Hampshire officials say.

The New Hampshire Department of Education is preparing to accommodate between 1,000 and 1,500 students into the program, Commissioner Frank Edelblut said in an interview with WMUR Sunday, far above the number of students expected when lawmakers crafted the budget.

The surge in interest has been called a triumph by supporters of the program, who say the savings accounts will create new educational opportunities for students from lower-income backgrounds who aren’t succeeding in public school.

But critics say the program as designed amounts to an uncapped financial burden on the state, and that the initial take-up figures indicate that it could be costlier than advertised.

Lawmakers budgeted $129,000 for education freedom accounts in the fiscal year 2022 spending plan, which covers the next school year. At an average award amount of $4,600, that amount of money would pay for around 28 students for the year.

If 1,500 students participated in the first year, the program would cost about $6.9 million to the state budget, opponents of the law note.

“No public school district would be able to come in this much over budget, and (Gov. Chris) Sununu and Edelblut should hold school privatization programs to the same standard,” said Megan Tuttle, the president of the National Education Association in New Hampshire.

The numbers given by Edelblut are estimates based on the number of families that have expressed interest; exactly how many students apply and are approved in the first quarter won’t be known for months.

The education freedom accounts are being administered by the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a nonprofit organization that was chosen as the sole organization to administer the accounts – and which receives 10 percent of the value of the accounts in administration fees. Under rules passed by lawmakers and the State Board of Education in August, the scholarship fund must file a report with the Department of Education in October indicating the number of applications that were approved for the first months of the program.

But even as applications continue to flow to the Children’s Scholarship Fund, lawmakers on the left and right are working on dueling proposals to alter it.

Republicans are already considering expanding the program. House representatives are exploring filing a bill that would either raise or eliminate entirely the income limit for eligible families, multiple lawmakers said. Currently, the income limit is 300 percent of the federal poverty level, which amounts to $79,500 in combined income for a family of four.

Raising or eliminating the cap could allow vastly more New Hampshire families to take up the program.

Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican, said the current income limits were designed to start the program cautiously.

“Because it’s a new program, I think we behaved judiciously by limiting the eligibility to 300 percent of the (federal) poverty level,” Edwards said. “You don’t want to start a brand-new program on full throttle.”

But, Edwards added: “We’re anticipating the possibility of expanding the program beyond the 300 percent poverty limit, so that we can debate it next spring, where we have data coming out of the fall to see what the uptake was.”

Edwards said Republican lawmakers have been discussing expanding the program as they consider the slate of legislation they will introduce.

But Rep. Glenn Cordelli, the vice chairman of the Education Committee and one of the architects of the education freedom accounts law, said he isn’t sure expansion is on the table so soon.

“There are lawmakers who are hearing from their constituents about the cap,” he said Tuesday, referring to frustration from some parents that they are not eligible for the grants due to their income level. “I don’t know if there will be any legislation introduced about that. We’ll wait and see. I am happy with letting the program roll out and get settled in for a year before we do anything there.”

Lawmakers have between Sept. 13 and 17 to file “legislative service requests” – mini-forms delivered to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services that indicate bills they would like to be drafted in time for the start of the next legislative session in January.

Meanwhile, Democrats – who have cited concerns over the costs to the state – want to move the program in the other direction. Pointing to the unexpected surge in interest in education freedom accounts this summer, Rep. David Luneau, a Hopkinton Democrat, said he would file legislation this month to limit the number of awards that can be issued each year.

“Sununu’s school voucher scheme takes money from our public schools and sends it to private, religious, and home schools,” Luneau said in a statement. “Now we are being told that millions more than expected in taxpayer dollars will be siphoned off for these vouchers. We need to put a cap on program costs based on what was presented to the Legislature by the commissioner, so that New Hampshire can plan appropriately.”

Even in its early stages, New Hampshire’s law has served as a backdrop for national efforts to expand the “school choice” movement.

On Tuesday, Pompeo and DeVos, both former Trump administration officials, came to make their pitch that the New Hampshire program, noted by both critics and proponents as being the most expansive program of its kind in the country, represents a way forward for education.

Republicans thronged the Capitol Center for the Arts Tuesday, including Edelblut and lawmakers who helped pass the education freedom accounts law.

During a two-hour event sponsored by the conservative advocacy organization Club for Growth, DeVos and Pompeo applauded New Hampshire’s initiative. And they framed the effort to allow public money to help students attend private schools as essential to closing the country’s achievement gap when compared to other developed countries.

“Kids that come from parents who have resources can often make choices about their children,” Pompeo said. “One of their parents can stay home. People can send their kids to a school that teaches their children what they want them to learn. What New Hampshire has done, and what we are advocating for here today, is to give those other parents, those parents who don’t have all of those options, the same opportunity. The same chance.”

But to Luneau and other Democrats, the potential benefits of the program are outweighed by the cost.

“All New Hampshire students need to be able to count on a strong, robust public education,” Luneau said. “. . . It would be fiscally irresponsible to let this program continue with no checks or balances on how many taxpayer dollars are being spent on it.”

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.