New Hampshire’s new program to subsidize private education with public tax dollars has sparked a heated debate among lawmakers, educators, and parents. The program, known as Education Freedom Accounts, allows low and moderate-income families to use state funds to pay for private school tuition, homeschooling, or other non-public school expenses. Supporters say the program gives families more choices and opportunities, while critics say it drains money from public schools and lacks accountability.
How does the program work?
The Education Freedom Accounts program was passed in June 2021 as part of the state budget. It is one of the most expansive of its kind in the country, as it has no limit on the number of participants or the amount of money spent. The program is administered by a non-profit organization called the Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire, which also runs a similar program for low-income students funded by tax credits.
To be eligible for the program, a family’s income must be below 375% of the federal poverty level, which is about $99,000 for a family of four. The family must also have a child who is either entering kindergarten, first grade, or a public school for the first time, or who attended a public school in the previous year. The family can then apply for an account and receive the state “adequacy aid” that would have gone to their public school district. This averages about $4,600 per student, but can vary depending on the district and the student’s needs.
The family can use the money in their account to pay for a variety of educational expenses, such as private school tuition, online courses, tutoring, textbooks, curriculum, testing fees, and transportation. The family can also save up to 10% of the funds for future use, such as college or trade school. The non-profit organization is responsible for verifying the eligibility of the families and the educational providers, and for ensuring that the funds are used appropriately.
What are the benefits of the program?
Proponents of the program argue that it empowers families to choose the best educational option for their children, especially those who are dissatisfied with their public schools or who have special needs. They say the program promotes competition and innovation in the education sector, and that it can save money for the state and the taxpayers in the long run.
Some of the supporters of the program include Republican lawmakers, national conservative groups, and some parents and students who have enrolled in the program. For example, Anthony Henry, an eighth-grader from Derry, said he wanted to attend a private high school because he felt his public middle school was teaching him “slanted stuff politically”. His father, Charlie Henry, said he was considering the program to help him pay for the tuition. “As just a working guy, he’s considering going private, and I have to consider how do I pay for that,” he said.
Another parent, Jennifer Buck, said she enrolled her two sons in the program because they were struggling academically and socially in their public school. She said she used the funds to pay for a private online school and a tutor, and that she saw a significant improvement in her sons’ grades and confidence. “They are happier, they are learning, they are thriving,” she said.
What are the drawbacks of the program?
Opponents of the program contend that it undermines the public education system and the constitutional obligation of the state to provide an adequate education for all students. They say the program diverts money from public schools, which are already underfunded and face many challenges, such as teacher shortages, aging facilities, and COVID-19. They also say the program lacks sufficient oversight and accountability, and that it could lead to discrimination, segregation, and inequality in the education sector.
Some of the critics of the program include Democratic lawmakers, public school advocates, and some educators and parents who have filed a lawsuit against the program. The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, the New Hampshire School Boards Association, and other groups, claims that the program violates the state constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds for religious schools, and that it harms public school students and taxpayers. The lawsuit seeks to block the implementation of the program and to declare it unconstitutional.
Another parent, Sarah Gibson, said she opposed the program because she believed it would hurt the quality and diversity of public schools. She said she was concerned that the program would take away resources and students from public schools, and that it would create a two-tiered system of education. “I think it’s really important for our kids to be in public schools, to learn with kids who are different from them, to learn from teachers who are trained and certified, to have access to a broad range of subjects and extracurriculars,” she said.
What is the future of the program?
The Education Freedom Accounts program is expected to grow significantly in the next few years, as more families become aware of it and more lawmakers seek to expand it. The New Hampshire Department of Education estimates that about 3,000 students will enroll in the program in the 2023-24 school year, and that the state will spend about $24 million on the program, which is about 2% of what it spends on education in total.
However, the program also faces several challenges and uncertainties, such as the outcome of the lawsuit, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the political and public opinion on the issue. The program could also be affected by the federal government, which has recently proposed a $200 billion investment in public education as part of the Build Back Better plan.
The Education Freedom Accounts program is likely to remain a contentious and controversial topic in New Hampshire and beyond, as it reflects the broader debate over the role and purpose of public education in a democratic society.