Private Christian academies see boost from ‘education freedom account’ funds
Shortly after Gov. Chris Sununu signed New Hampshire’s “education freedom account” program into law, the staff at Laconia Christian Academy sprung to action.
Beginning in late June last year, the small private school began informing the families who already attended their school and qualified for the new grant program. The program, which allows parents in the state to access state funds to use toward private school or home-schooling costs, is open to both public school and private school students.
The school contacted families through the summer, following up with multiple phone calls. And it launched a social media campaign to inform new families of the state program.
Within months, the efforts had paid off. All but two of the families whose children already attended the school applied for the funding. And the existence of the program brought many more.
“We had a 36 percent enrollment growth last year,” said Rick Duba, the academy’s head of school. “And … based on pre-enrollment now we’re already up about 10 or 12 percent rolling into next year. So that’s a very concrete difference that it made for us.”
Laconia Christian Academy is receiving one of the highest levels of EFA funding in the state, according to figures released by the Department of Education last month, taking in 4.05 percent of the $2.4 million that had been spent by families as of March 1. But it’s not alone. Small private schools across the state – many of them Christian – have received the majority of the education grants in the program’s first year, taking in about 62.34 percent, according to numbers from the New Hampshire Children’s Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit that distributes the funding.
Computer hardware, textbooks, online programs, and instructional materials come in a close second.
Passed by lawmakers last year, the program allows families making 300 percent of the federal poverty level – $79,500 for a family of four – to apply for and access the state’s public school funding grant for their child. The Children’s Scholarship Fund then uses an online software application called Class Wallet, which allows parents to upload invoices for allowable expenses under the law or purchase supplies directly through the program. The program prohibits reimbursement requests for items that aren’t covered by the program.
Categories that are allowed include tuition for in-person learning; tuition for online learning; tutoring services; individual classes at public schools; textbooks; computer and internet hardware; educational software; school uniforms; standardized testing fees; summer education tuition; career or technical education tuition; behavioral, physical, or speech therapists; and transportation fees to get to a school.
According to the latest numbers, $2.4 million has been spent of the total $5.9 million that has been allocated to families so far. Out of the parental expenditures, 62 percent, or $1.5 million, went to tuition and fees at a private school; 13.5 percent, or $324,742, went to computer hardware or internet connectivity devices; 12.9 percent went toward textbooks; and 3 percent went to summer education programs and specialized education programs.
Among the education providers receiving funds, Amazon was the biggest beneficiary, taking in 18.2 percent, or $437,736 of the total funds. A breakdown of that spending shows $211,295 going toward computer hardware and $168,117 going toward textbooks or other curriculum materials.
After Amazon, the list of recipients largely comprises private religious schools. Trinity Christian School in Concord was the biggest school recipient, taking in $135,712, or 5.64 percent of the $2.4 million. Laconia Christian Academy, Mount Royal Academy in Lancaster, Concord Christian Academy, Dublin Christian Academy, and Ossipee Cornerstone Christian Academy were all in the top eight recipients. The ninth spot, at $50,439 reimbursed, went to Staples.
The numbers came as other figures released by the Department of Education indicated that the majority of EFA recipients this year were already attending private schools or were being homeschooled when they applied for EFAs. Out of 1,800 students that have entered the program so far, about 204 had been enrolled in a public school the year prior, department data shows.
Not all of the reimbursement requests have been successful, Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and CSF Executive Director Kate Baker Demers noted, presenting the numbers to the House and Senate EFA oversight committee earlier this week.
As of March 1, 4,933 orders had been approved by the organization, 535 were rejected for falling outside the eligibility criteria, and 205 requests have been deemed incomplete. The CSF has approved around 100 orders a day, Baker Demers told lawmakers.
For Laconia Christian Academy, the new money has not affected which students are being admitted, Duba said, noting that the school accepts students on a “need blind,” nondenominational basis. But the additional funding that attaches to some of its students will allow the school to pull back some of the financial aid it provides to those students – which come as discounts – freeing up more of its budget for teacher salaries.
And he said the money has helped local families who were interested in attending the school but couldn’t afford it; tuition is around $11,000 and financial aid can cover up to 60 percent of it. Some families attended, dropped out to home school, and then re-enrolled when the EFA program passed, Duba said.
“There are a lot of families who would have liked to have had educational choice and could not,” he said. “Even with what we were doing in-house,” he added, referring to the school’s existing financial aid program.
Since its passage, the EFA program has been sharply criticized by public school teachers unions, public school advocates, and Democrats, who argue it will become a drain on the state’s Education Trust Fund, which supplies the state’s share of public school funding. Critics have singled out the ability for existing private school students to access the program – a feature absent from other states’ education savings account programs – which they say is too broad.
To Duba, the program is working as intended by giving choice to students in the Lakes Region. Many new families entering his school have mentioned frustration with COVID-19 policies such as mask mandates, something that Laconia Christian Academy did not put in place when it began the school year last fall.
“If I said I was going to open the exact same way the public schools in the Lakes Region opened, we wouldn’t have grown by 35, 36 percent,” he said.
But the flow of new students into the academy has also brought growing pains to the school. In coming years, the school may need to raise a capital campaign to build more facilities, he said.
“I’m losing my office,” he laughed. “My office is going to be a classroom next year.”
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