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Education Freedom Accounts return to the N.H. State House spotlight in 2022

School Bus N.H.
Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR
School bus lot in North Hampton, N.H.

New Hampshire's new voucher-like program for students, the Education Freedom Accounts, is shaping up to take center stage in education policy debates again in 2022.

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Education Freedom Accounts give taxpayer dollars to low and moderate-income families to pay for private school or other non-public school expenses. About 1,600 students enrolled in the program this school year, 70 percent of whom had not been attending public school in the last two years.

The state expects to spend over $8 million on the program this year, about one percent of what it spends on education in total.

New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Accounts program is one of the most expansive of its kind in the country. Republicans have hailed it as a win for families dissatisfied with their public schools, and it’s garnered support from national conservative foundations and lobbyists. Proponents say the high interest this year is a reason to expand it in 2022.

One bill, HB 1298, would raise income eligibility to 500 percent of the federal income guidelines (when originally introduced last year, the program had no income threshold).

The Education Freedom Account is currently paid for by New Hampshire’s Education Trust Fund, originally established to fund public schools with revenue from taxes on individuals and businesses. When families enroll in the Education Freedom Account program, they receive the state “adequacy aid” that would have gone to a public school district to help cover the cost of educating their child. This averages about $4,600.

But another Republican-sponsored bill, HB 607, would tap into local funds to expand Education Freedom Accounts. Under the proposal, residents could vote for their school district to set up a version of education freedom accounts, paid for by locally raised taxes that currently fund the public school.

HB 607 would dramatically increase the amount of money available to freedom account participants. That’s because local taxpayers spend far more than the state on public schools. So instead of receiving about $4,600 in state aid, participants would get an estimated $5,000 to $20,000 in their accounts, paid for by local taxpayers.

As Republican lawmakers seek to grow Education Freedom Accounts, Democratic lawmakers have introduced over 15 bills to clarify, limit or repeal them. These come amidst criticism from public school advocates and Democrats that the program lacks sufficient oversight and is siphoning money away from traditional public schools.

One bill, HB 1135, would require an audit of the program by the legislative budget assistant, including public reporting of student outcomes and expenditures. Another, HB 1120, increases oversight and restrictions on the kinds of education service providers eligible for payment through the Education Freedom Accounts.

Under the current law, if a family’s income surpasses the threshold they had to meet to first enroll, they can continue participating in the program. The logic, supporters say, is to give students continuity in their education even if family income grows.

But critics say it could leave the state on the hook for funding higher-income families’ private school tuition and other expenses. SB 237 cuts this clause allowing families to continue participating in the program even when their income increases.

Lawmakers will begin to debate some of these bills in early January.