It’s hardly a surprise that the N.H. Department of Education under Commissioner Frank Edelblut and legislators grossly understated the potential hit to state support of public schools from the state’s newly created school voucher program. It’s equally unsurprising that school choice advocates are already clamoring for an expansion of the so-called Education Freedom Accounts program, even before its effect on public education can be gauged.
Under the EFA legislation signed by Gov. Chris Sununu in June as part of the sweeping, non-budget-related, budget trailer bill Republicans forced through the Legislature, parents earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level — which is $79,500 for a family of four — can apply to have the state education funding that would otherwise go to their public school redirected into an account to pay for private school tuition, home schooling or other authorized education costs. The account size for each family is expected to average $4,600, but the hit to the public school is actually greater, as 10 percent of each account’s amount goes to the independent organization administering the account.
Laughably, the Legislature bought into Department of Education modeling that predicted 28 accounts during the 2021-22 fiscal year and appropriated $129,000 in the budget for them. Last week, however, reports surfaced quoting Edelblut that the department is preparing for up to 1,500 applicants, which would divert almost $7 million of state support from public schools. At the same time, school choice advocates have begun calling for an expansion of the program, including raising or eliminating entirely the income limitation for eligibility.
Supporters of the EFA program argue that the strong early interest in the program indicates strong demand for offering parents an alternative to their local public school. That remains to be seen. Even with the state EFA subsidy, low-income parents seeking to send their children to private schools will need to find ways to cover the remainder of the tuition that exceeds the subsidy at most schools, and an initial report on the number of EFA applications that will actually be received and approved is not due until October.
Far more incredulously, supporters insist that the school voucher program will end up reducing local taxpayer costs, though they typically qualify that claim with the words “eventually” or “over time.” Even if that were to prove true, the time between now and “eventually” will only result in reduced state aid and will mean more public school costs that must be covered by local property taxes. This is because public schools are obligated – by the state as well as the federal governments — to maintain certain programs and services and to provide adequate facilities whose costs are often fixed or won’t diminish on a per-student basis if parents choose to remove their children from public schooling. This will inevitably leave local residents with a different kind of school choice — increase tax rates or accept a diminution of their schools’ quality.
Voucher supporters are no doubt sincere in their belief of the importance of offering more school choice to parents. Edelblut, however, rather baldly laid bare the goal of the EFA program when he testified at a legislative hearing this spring that the idea of the program is to lure kids out of public school, and opponents are rightly concerned that state-funded school choice should not come with a diminution of the public’s commitment to public education that so many depend on.
But no matter which side of the argument proves correct — eventually — it would be foolish to expand the EFA program before its impact can be fully assessed. The ramifications of the EFA program for public schools must be far better understood before local taxpayers are asked to pay more.