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Most education freedom account recipients not leaving N.H. public schools, department says

A photo of lawmakers and the Education Commissioner sitting around a series of desks.
Ethan DeWitt
/
New Hampshire Bulletin
Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut (left) addresses lawmakers on the Education Freedom Savings Account Oversight Committee to present data on the number of students participating in the accounts.

New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Account program continues to see a higher than expected take-up rate since it launched in September. But the proportion of students using it to leave their public schools continues to be relatively low.

As of March 1, just 204 of the 1,800 students that were enrolled in the program this school year had attended a public school the prior year, according to data presented by the Department of Education to a House and Senate EFA oversight committee Monday. The other 1,600 recipients were either already being homeschooled or attending private school, or were too young for school.

Created by the Legislature in the 2021 budget, New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Account program allows qualifying families to access the state’s annual per-pupil education funding grant – which traditionally goes to public schools – and use it toward educational expenses such as private school tuition, online courses, or homeschooling materials. Those grants average $4,600 per year; families must make below 300 percent of the poverty level, or $79,500 for a family of four, to qualify for them.

Unlike some states that have their own education savings account programs, like Arizona and Tennessee, New Hampshire’s program does not limit the funds to students who are leaving their public schools; any student whose family meets the income requirements may participate. About 89 percent of New Hampshire students using the EFA program did not attend public school in the past year, according to the department.

Republicans and “school choice” advocates have praised the structure of the state’s program for providing financial opportunities for students who don’t fit into public schools and supporting families that had already chosen to leave public schools. Democrats have warned that the broad eligibility of the program could prove financially unwieldy in the years to come. The program has so far cost the state $8 million, officials say.

But the numbers so far have allayed one concern: that the program would result in a flow of students leaving school districts. So far, 0.13 percent of all New Hampshire public school students have left to take an EFA, the Department of Education reported Monday.

Many public school districts have lost one or two students to EFAs, a town-by-town breakdown released by the department reveals. Manchester has lost 27 as of March 1; Nashua lost 9.

Department of Education officials noted that the level at which public school enrollment has dropped has stayed relatively steady for 10 years. Between 2012 and 2019, the state saw an average overall loss of 2,936 students per year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, from 2020 to 2022, state public schools lost 3,170 students on average per year.

Out of those 3,170 students, 6.43 percent of departures in the last year occurred among students who took Education Freedom Accounts, department data shows.

Under New Hampshire’s program, districts that lose students are compensated using “phase out” grants that give them a shrinking percentage of grant money for the lost student each year for three years. Based on the number of students that have left public schools and taken on EFAs so far, the state is poised to pay out $477,000 in grants in the 2022-2023 school year and $715,781 in the 2023-2024 school year.

One Democrat on the oversight committee, Rep. Sue Mullen, a Bedford Democrat, argued that the relatively low percentage of EFA recipients that have directly left public schools should refute the concept that EFAs exist because public schools are failing students.

“If kids are leaving the public school and they’re going to the parochial school, and they’re using the EFA, that’s a value-based decision,” she said. “That’s a family choice that doesn’t require demonizing the public school to justify the fact that they’ve chosen to get an EFA.”

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.

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