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Bill seeks cap on funding for N.H. ‘education freedom accounts’

A photo of a boy painting and using a pencil.
Kisanapong Detraphiphat/Getty Images
Moment RF/New Hampshire Bulletin
The EFA program saw more than 1,600 students enrolled as of Nov. 1, according to the Department of Education.

New Hampshire Democrats continue to seek ways to add curbs to New Hampshire’s “education freedom account” program, even as they attempt to repeal the law. And Republicans continue to counter that the program is working as designed.

In the House Education Committee Wednesday, Democratic members put forward their latest effort to add financial restraints to the program, which allows New Hampshire parents below a certain income level to use state public school funds toward private education or home schooling.

One bill introduced, House Bill 1684, would cap the program at $3.3 million in disbursements in its second year – a significant cutback from its current $8 million projected annual budget. Another, HB 1516, would prohibit local tax dollars from the statewide education property tax from being used to finance the program.

The bills come as Democrats charge that the voucher-like program has overshot its intended budget in its first year and could pose a risk to the state’s education trust fund, which funds the state’s contributions to public schools. Despite an initial projection from the Department of Education that the program would have fewer than 30 takers in its first year, the EFA program, which passed into law in summer 2022, saw more than 1,600 students enrolled in the program as of Nov. 1, according to the Department of Education. The estimated $8 million cost exceeded the department’s initial prediction of $129,000 in needed funds.

Democrats say the high take-up rate could prove costly to the state in the long run. Students do not need to be enrolled in public school to participate in the program. And once enrolled, students can stay in the program until they graduate from high school or turn 21.

To counter potential future expenses, Democrats say, the program should have an upper cap.

“We budget here in New Hampshire,” said Rep. Dave Luneau, a Hopkinton Democrat. “We budget the number of caseworkers we have at the (Division for Children, Youth, and Families) looking out for the interest of our kids. We put a budget on the developmentally disabled waiting list. …It’s not unthinkable to budget things here in the state. And what that also does is it holds our leaders accountable to making reasonable estimations when putting forward a budget.”

But to Republicans, the higher-than-anticipated take-up rate – and cost – is a signifier of the program’s success. Driving the mass signups is widespread dissatisfaction among parents with public schools during COVID-19, Republican legislators argue. And capping the budget could mean cutting off funding that’s already flowing to low-income families to be used toward education, they said.

“There is some concern about the number of students,” said Rep. Glenn Cordelli, a Tuftonboro Republican. “I’m more concerned that there are 1,800 students having an opportunity to get the education they need. …And I am not willing to implement a budget for this program and kick kids out of a program that might be very successful for them. I think that would be disastrous for many children who would experience that situation.”

Neither side looked closer to coming to agreement on the topic Wednesday. The committee voted along party lines, 10-8, to recommend killing HB 1684.

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: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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