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The message was clear: New Hampshire’s education freedom account program is here to stay.
In a series of votes on the House floor last week, the Republican majority rebuffed efforts to restrain the latest education funding program, which allows parents to use the state’s public school funding allocation for their child and put it toward home school, private school, and other costs.
The program set off partisan disagreements when it was first proposed in 2017. Now, a year after its passage, Democrats have attempted introducing legislation to reduce its scope, from capping its budget to adding transparency and reporting measures into statute.
“The program is more expansive than any other voucher program in the country,” said Rep. David Luneau, a Hopkinton Democrat. It was placed into the state budget bill with little debate and with strong public opposition.”
In vote after vote, Republicans in the chamber rejected the proposed additions, arguing the program is working as intended. The votes adhered to increasing philosophical divides over how to fund public schools and how they should operate, and they solidified a push toward “school choice” movements since Republican lawmakers retook power of the Legislature in 2020.
“The education freedom account program is attacked because more children entered the program than originally estimated, because it is successful,” said Rep. Glenn Cordelli, a Tuftonboro Republican. “To repeal the program would send the message to families that New Hampshire supports a one-size-fits-all education system and children must struggle within a system that causes them to experience negative psychological and educational outcomes.”
Here’s what passed – and failed to pass – among the House’s education bills last week.
Aiming for restrictions, repeal
Amid the 33 education bills that churned through the House during its three-day session last week, a majority dealt with the education freedom accounts. Most of those came from Democrats hoping to change the program.
Created within the state budget last year, the education freedom account program allows families whose household income falls below 300 percent of the federal poverty level – $79,500 for a family of four – to apply for the accounts. The program allows parents to withdraw their child from a public school and use the annual state allocation for that school toward expenses outside of public school, including tuition, online programs, and supplies. It also allows eligible families whose children are already enrolled in private school or home schooling to receive the state grants that would go to their child if their child was enrolled in public school.
Administered by a scholarship organization that contracts with the state, the Children’s Scholarship Fund, the program has so far attracted more than 1,800 students, according to the New Hampshire Department of Education.
In one bill rejected on the House floor, House Bill 1669, Democrats proposed requiring that the state’s Department of Education run the program rather than the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which they argued would save the state money.
In another attempt, House Bill 1355, Democrats proposed requiring the CSF to refer cases of misuse of funds to the state Attorney General’s Office. Republicans said the law could penalize families that made mistakes. The law was struck down.
Republicans voted down a Democratic proposal requiring that organization to compile the list of “education providers” – ranging from private schools to textbook companies to tutoring services – on its website. Republican representatives countered that the organization already does this; Democrats argued the requirement should be put into statute.
And the House rejected an attempt to require that the education providers be in operation for at least a year before accepting education freedom account funding, with Republicans arguing the bill ignored the uses of the freedom accounts that did not involve schools, such as tutors and therapists.
At one point, House Democrats stopped biting at the edges, advocating for a bill that would repeal the education freedom account program altogether. That bill, House Bill 1683, was killed, 189-166.
“The minority believes it is financially irresponsible, lacks accountability, and leaves students and taxpayers susceptible to fraud and abuse,” wrote Luneau in a report to the House. “Other bills to address these flaws were rejected. The minority believes the only responsible move is to repeal the program.”
Republicans, for their part, fielded no bills to expand the education freedom account program. “There is a saying that if it is not broke, don’t fix it,” Cordelli said. “Thus, for us, the saying should read: ‘It’s not broke, so find (the bill) inexpedient to legislate.’”
But the House did pass a bill that would broaden eligibility for a precursor program: the education tax credit program. That program, created in 2013, provides scholarships for students by allowing businesses to donate to the scholarship fund that administers the program and receive a credit on their business taxes.
Currently, the tax credit program, like the newer education freedom account program, allows families making up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level to apply for the scholarships, which are limited by the number of donations. House Bill 1298 would raise that income cap to 500 percent, or $132,500 for a family of four. The bill passed, 159-152.
‘Divisive concepts’ and ‘teacher loyalty’
As House Republicans have blocked efforts to restrain the education freedom account program, they have also defended another sweeping change added last year: a ban on certain concepts around race and structural oppression being taught in K-12 schools.
On the House floor last week, lawmakers killed House Bill 1638, which would require families to take grievances against teachers under the new law to the teacher’s superintendent before taking it to court or to the state’s Commission for Human Rights. And they voted down House Bill 1080, an attempt by Democrats to repeal the entire statute.
But the House also blocked opportunities to expand the new law. It shelved House Bill 1313, a proposal to extend the law to public colleges and universities. And it killed House Bill 1255, a bill that would amend a Cold War-era “teachers’ loyalty” statute to bar teachers from advocating for socialism and other philosophies.
The parties clashed over COVID-19 regulations in schools, too. House Republicans passed House Bill 1241, a bill barring public schools from implementing vaccine requirements for COVID-19. They passed another bill, House Bill 1131, barring districts from implementing mask mandates. And they voted down House Bill 1113, an attempt by Democrats to prevent the Department of Education and the State Board of Education from limiting remote learning opportunities. Last month, the board passed rules barring schools from entering into mandatory remote learning except in cases of inclement weather or where requested by a parent.
“Studies have reported learning loss of over one-half a school year,” Cordelli said. “We should do all we can to keep our schools open and providing in-person instruction.”
Rep. Marjorie Porter, a Hillsborough Democrat, argued the new rule impinges on schools’ ability to make safe decisions on an individual basis.
“The minority believes that systems and tools are in place and staff have gained the skills to make remote learning a viable option in times of emergency,” Porter said. “… Schools should be able to stay nimble if they need to be.”