July 19, 2024 7:42 am
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Inside the New Education Freedom Account Enrollment Numbers

Credit: iStock

by Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin

By the time Kelly Santos found the Education Freedom Account program, she felt out of options.

The Hudson resident had fought for years for disability accommodations for her son James at his public school, beginning in the first grade. By his fourth grade year, she had arranged letters from teachers and had paid $5,000 for a neuropsychological exam to prove to school administrators that he needed help. But without a formal evaluation, the accommodations did not appear.

“I fought to keep him with his community and his friends,” she said, speaking to members of the State Board of Education this month to advocate for the program. “Special education did not work for me because I could not get past step one, which is evaluation.” 

Santos applied for local charter schools, but lost the lotteries necessary for admission. Then she found the Education Freedom Account program, and with it, an opportunity to send James to Second Nature Academy in Nashua. 

It’s changed her son’s relationship to school, she says.  “When I asked James, ‘What’s the difference between your old school and your new school?’ he said to me: ‘Mom I was sitting in a prison and I was bored… And when I went up to my new school that was the key that let me out of jail,’” Santos said.

“If it wasnt for the EFA, we would have been stuck without a school to go to,” she said. 

The program is continuing to see similar interest. More than 4,200 New Hampshire students are participating in the Education Freedom Account program this school year – a 158 percent jump from the first year’s enrollment.

But most new participants are not following Santos’s exact path: 28 percent of the 1,577 new students this year transferred directly from public school. The others were either homeschooled or attending non-public schools before they transferred.

In total, the state will spend $22.1 million toward EFAs this school year, up from $8.1 million in the 2021-2022 school year and $14.7 million in the 2022-2023 school year, according to numbers released by the Department of Education Thursday. That money comes out of the state’s Education Trust Fund, which spends about $1 billion per year on public education. The enrollment grew by 20 percent since last year. 

Launched in 2021, the Education Freedom Account program allows parents to take the state education funding dollars that would go to their child’s public school and use them for private and homeschooling expenses instead. To qualify, families must have an income below 350 percent of the federal poverty level – or $105,000 for a family of four.

Republicans, including Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, have hailed the initiative as a means for lower-income families to receive assistance to enroll their children in programs they might not otherwise be able to afford, providing alternatives if the public school is not a good fit.

But Democrats have criticized the program as wasteful and unnecessary, and argued that the Education Trust Fund dollars should be exclusive to public schools. Democrats have attempted unsuccessfully to both repeal the program and restrain it, including by requiring that students be attending public school before they can receive the vouchers. Currently, the vouchers are also available to qualifying families that don’t attend public schools. 

This year, the Republican-led Legislature increased the eligibility for the program by raising the income cap from 300 percent of the federal poverty level – where the program started – to 350 percent. Some Republicans, including gubernatorial candidates Chuck Morse and Kelly Ayotte, have proposed removing the income caps entirely in the future.

An examination of the latest numbers reveals some differences between public school students and EFA recipients. There are 4,211 students who receive EFAs and just over 160,000 students in New Hampshire public schools this year.

Of the students receiving EFAs this year, about 44 percent are enrolled in free or reduced price lunch program, meaning their families make below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $55,500 for a family of four. That represents a higher proportion than in public schools, where 26 percent of students are in the free or reduced lunch program.

Of all EFA recipients, 6.3 percent are receiving additional state funding for special education services. In public schools, 20 percent of students receive special education funding. 

The state is spending an average of $5,255 per EFA recipient this year, according to the Department of Education. That’s a higher amount than in previous years and comes after the Legislature raised the base amount of state funding that schools receive per pupil in the two-year budget passed in June. The state is spending $6,161 per student in public schools this year, according to the department.

Among the 4,211 students receiving EFAs, 1,577 are new to the program this school year and 2,634 are returning. Since the last school year, 109 students have graduated, 75 have re-enrolled in public schools, and 524 have made “other exits,” a category not defined by the department.

In a statement Thursday, Edelblut praised the increased numbers, saying “it is apparent that New Hampshire families are taking advantage of this tremendous opportunity that provides them with different options and significant flexibility for learning.”

“With three years of data under our belt, we know that students are coming and going from the program, which is exactly how it was designed – to allow various options for personal learning needs that may fluctuate from year-to-year based on whatever path is appropriate in the moment,” Edelblut said.

Megan Tuttle, president of the National Education Association of New Hampshire, the state’s largest teacher’s union, disagreed, accusing Edelblut of “(focusing) his energy on a small sliver of the population that was never in public schools.”

“Let’s be clear – vouchers take scarce funding away from public schools and give it to private and religious schools that are unaccountable to the public,” Tuttle said in a statement Friday. “Taxpayer funds should be spent to resource neighborhood public schools to ensure they are desirable places to be and to learn, where students’ natural curiosity is inspired.”

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.