By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
It’s time for some honesty about the state’s new Education Freedom Account program and who benefits from the use of state taxpayer dollars.
The program was sold as a way to provide the best model of education for individual students outside of the public school system.
Under the program, the state would pay what it would have paid to the public school in aid, and parents and students could use the money for an alternative program that best suits the student.
Public schools would continue to receive state aid over a three-year period, dropping from 75% to 25%.
Initially, there were little to no guardrails on who could participate, how the money could be spent, or for special education and other federal requirements or against discrimination, or privacy. , although the final product addressed most of these issues – not as fully as many had hoped – and was passed into the state’s two-year budget package last year because it perhaps did not. not be adopted as a stand-alone program.
Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, a key advocate for the program, told lawmakers last year it would cost about $130,000 in year one and $3.3 million in year two.
Instead, in the first year, the state’s obligation was over $8 million to serve approximately 1,500 students, a figure far exceeding what Edelblut anticipated.
And instead of leaving public schools to participate in one of the nation’s most expansive voucher programs, about 90% of participating students were in private and religious or home-schooled schools and other nonpublic programs.
This meant the state had a new $8 million obligation added to the burden of the Education Trust Fund, which until recent years was always in deficit and needed general funds to pay the bill. aid to state education.
During this financial year, the State’s obligation increased.
The Ministry of Education issued a press release on Friday saying that the number of participants in the program had doubled in the second year.
The program has grown from 1,572 students last year to 3,025 this school year, an increase of 1,463 students.
The additional students bring the state tax liability to $14.7 million this school year for a two-year total of about $23 million, which is significantly higher than $3.4 million.
In the press release, Edelblut notes this year that about 400 — that is, likely fewer — of the 1,463 students were public school students last year, or 27% of new entrants.
The information it lists on students leaving public schools shows that 694 students left public schools to join the program in its first two years, and also includes an additional 272 students who left public schools during the year. 2019-2020 school year due to COVID-19, and stretches back a decade to include 294 students who left public schools through the Education Tax Credit scholarship program that began in 2012.
His total for students leaving public schools is 1,260 or 42%.
The honest total of public school students leaving for the education account program is 694 students or 23%.
Using either number, Edelblut’s 27% or 23%, three out of four students did not leave a public school to join the program.
Three-quarters of the $23 million over two years is a new state obligation that was not budgeted for in the biennial budget that contained the EFA in the budget footnote.
In a press release, Edelblut said, “While it exceeded our expectations, it is exciting and encouraging to know that families in New Hampshire now have the opportunity to determine the best educational paths for their children and that students economically disadvantaged will also have various options. to meet their personal learning needs.
This is a bit dishonest in two respects, as 75% of students were already on “best educational paths” before the program started, and less than half of students would be considered economically disadvantaged under the student aid system. state education using free and reduced curricula. lunches as a trigger.
Information provided by Edelblut shows that 1,521 of the participants are not eligible for free and reduced lunch while 1,504 of the students are below the poverty line and are eligible.
Of the 3,025 students, 187 students, or 0.6%, are eligible for special education aid, and only 10 are ESL students.
And only three students do not read well at the third-grade level.
The vast majority of EFA students, 82%, are white, which is below the statewide average of 93%, with the second largest population being Hispanic or Latino at 7%, which is above the state average of 2%.
Black students make up 5% of students in the EFA program, compared to a statewide average of 1%.
EFA students make up 1.9% of students in the state.
In his press release, Edelblut said, “The cost to taxpayers would be approximately $65 million if the 3,025 students, all of whom are eligible, attended a traditional public school.”
He uses a statewide average cost per student of $21,386 for the 3,025 students to arrive at this figure which is $64.7 million.
But three-quarters of students were not in public schools in the last two school years who joined the program, which would reduce the cost to taxpayers for students who attended public schools before joining the EFA program at $15.5 million.
The state will also pay schools losing students three-quarters of what it would have paid in student aid this year, so the savings are still less than those of state taxpayers.
Many students and parents who participate in the program are pleased to be able to tailor the educational opportunities to their students and appreciate the openness it provides for children.
Students testified in public hearings this year about how the program helped them talk about the new technology available and the out-of-classroom alternatives they valued.
And others talked about finally finding a program that challenged them or empowered them to be themselves.
For many, the program is a godsend, but advocates need to be honest about what’s really going on and most of it uses state tax money to pay for private and religious schools, and education programs at home, not children leaving public schools to find a more suitable educational environment.
The information provided by the Ministry of Education does not indicate where the EFA money is being spent.
In the first year of the program, the majority of the money went to religious school tuition and there is no reason to believe that has changed.
So, perhaps in the interest of honesty, the name of the program should be either “the religious/private school relief act” or “the nibbling that keeps on giving”.
Let the children thrive and let the citizens of the state see where the money is going and how well their tax money is being spent. That’s what accountability is, and this program has fallen short of that measure since its inception.
Garry Rayno can be reached at [email protected]
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state events for InDepthNH.org. During his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. Over the course of his career, his coverage has spanned the spectrum of news, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electrical industry deregulation and presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.