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6 Things You Need to Know About The Bill To Expand School Choice In N.H.

N.H. State House dome.
Allegra Boverman for NHPR

New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a program to expand school choice for thousands of K-12 students. It’s called an Education Savings Account, and it would give taxpayer dollars to families to pay for tuition at private and parochial schools, or other options.

If passed, it would be one of the most sweeping programs of its kind in the country. Here’s what you need to know about it.


1) How would the Education Savings Account program work in New Hampshire?

The program proposed in Senate Bill 130 allows families to use taxpayer dollars to help pay for alternative education programs or a private school of their choice.

Participants would receive money from the state that typically goes to traditional public schools in the form of per-pupil “adequacy aid.” This averages $4,600 per pupil, but it ranges from $3,709 and $9,000, depending on whether the student is low-income, learning English as a second language, or has special education needs.

The ESA program would be administered by a scholarship organization selected by the New Hampshire State Board of Education. Families would access their account online  to pay for approved expenses such as laptops, tutoring services or tuition.

2) Who’s eligible for this program?

Students whose family makes 300 percent or less of the federal poverty guidelines. That would be $79,500 for a family of four. Families are eligible as long as the students are not enrolled in public school full-time. If families doing a home-based education program enrolled in an ESA program, they would no longer be registered as homeschoolers by the state, and they would have to follow ESA rather than homeschool law.

Students who have never attended public school and are already enrolled in a private school qualify. Low-income students who currently receive tuition assistance through the state’s Education Tax Credit Program could also enroll in the program to receive additional funds.

Maria Brown (center) decided to pull two of her five children out of the Manchester public schools during the pandemic. She says frustrations with remote learning made a lot of families rethink school choice.

It is difficult to estimate how many students would enroll in the Education Savings Account program.

An analysis of census data from the University of New Hampshire estimates that 69,000 school-age children in New Hampshire come from families that meet the program’s income requirements. But sponsors of the bill say most families are satisfied with their local public school, and only about 2% of eligible students are likely to take advantage of the program.

Maria Brown (photo above) pulled her kids out of public schools during the pandemic. Listen to this story to find out how COVID-19 has shaped the school choice debate.

3) How much will the Education Savings Account program cost?

Both sides of the debate have developed models to predict how much this program could cost or save taxpayers. But the truth is, we don’t know yet. This uncertainty is in part because school funding in New Hampshire is convoluted.

It costs an estimated $17,616 to educate a student at a public school in New Hampshire. The state covers some of this through per-pupil adequacy aid, but local taxpayers cover most of it.

A student with an Education Savings Account will receive somewhere between $3,709 and $9,000 from the state. So at first glance, a student enrolled in this program costs taxpayers less than a public school student.

But this isn’t enough money to cover most private school tuition. If a family enrolled in the ESA program wanted to send their kid to a Catholic high school, for instance, they would likely have to find additional scholarship aid or funds to cover the annual tuition of approximately $14,000.

Critics of the program say this shortfall could make the ESA nothing more than a middle-class subsidy. But supporters say it helps families achieve educational independence if they can find the rest of the money.

These supporters say that as students leave public schools for the ESA program, those schools will realize savings and schools will cost less to run.

But if a student leaves a public school for this program, that doesn’t automatically lead to savings for the school.

Most fixed costs - staffing, facilities, transportation - won’t change if a few students leave. Critics say that even with a two-year “phase-out” grant to help schools adjust to the departure of students for Education Savings Accounts, the program won’t lead to savings for local schools, and it will leave the state on the hook for millions of dollars.

4) Do these programs exist in other states?

Yes, there are seven other education savings account programs in the country. The oldest started a decade ago in Arizona.

Others, such as the program in Mississippi, cater only to students with special education needs. During her tenure in the Trump administration, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sought to establish a nationwide Education Savings Account program, but it did not gain traction. One of the advocates of that plan, McKenzie Snow, recently took a top post at the New Hampshire Department of Education.

5) This bill is a major priority for Republican lawmakers. Why do they say it’s so important?

Supporters say that families for whom public school doesn’t work should have the freedom to choose what options work best for them.

They say the patchwork of educational options during the pandemic - with some schools fully remote for nearly a year, and nearby districts and private schools open five days a week - illuminate the need for greater parental choice. And they say students - not school districts - should get state adequacy aid.

They also point to New Hampshire’s trend of declining student enrollment as the state’s population ages. The public school system in New Hampshire is going to have to evolve as it shrinks, they say, regardless of whether an Education Savings Account program pulls a few thousand students out of public school.

In testimony supporting the program, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, a longtime advocate for school choice, points to studies suggesting that voucher-like programs and education savings accounts improve outcomes for students and save taxpayers money.

This research is assembled by EdChoice, a national organization that advocates for school choice and is affiliated with the conservative think tank State Policy Network.

Academic researchers in education policy say that there is no consensus on whether programs like ESA’s improve student outcomes; some research suggests that while families may be happier with school choice options, some voucher-like programs actually have a negative impact on student performance and can cost states more than projected.

Credit Graphics by Sara Plourde/NHPR
NHPR's COVID & The Classroom is a reporting project looking at the effects of the pandemic on New Hampshire's students, parents, teachers, and schools.

6) What kind of pushback is this program getting?

The bulk of criticism comes from those who historically oppose school choice: teachers’ unions, school boards, public school leaders, and Democrats.

They say that money intended for public schools should stay there and not be diverted to private and religious schools. They also say these types of programs have less oversight and fewer mechanisms for assessing student performance.

SB 130 says the organization administering the program is responsible for oversight, but it leaves it up to the organization to set specific standards. The law requires the organization to collect an annual assessment for each participating student. It says the organization “may include policies” that ensure “appropriate use and rigorous oversight of all funds.” There’s also an advisory committee that includes parents and providers, and another, made of lawmakers, to recommend changes to the law as needed.

Critics also raise concerns about discrimination and equal access.

Private schools can reject students’ applications, whereas public schools are required to take all students.

SB 130 requires any education service provider receiving ESA funds to comply with all state and federal anti-discrimination laws. But these laws don’t always apply to religious schools.

The program has been billed as expanding options for families with special education students who are struggling in traditional public schools. However, some disability rights advocates warn that by enrolling in this program, students with disabilities and special education plans forfeit certain rights they had while in public school.

This story is part of NHPR's COVID & The Classroom reporting project. Visit the project page here.

Editor's Note: This story was edited to clarify the proposed program's rules for homeschool families.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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