by Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin
For Wendy Santiago, moving her son out of the public school system didn’t feel like a luxury. It felt like a necessity.
By his third year in the Concord school system, Santiago’s son had been the subject of regular bullying, she testified to lawmakers.
“He would come home from school with ripped pants, and at times I would receive calls from the school principal that my son had been forcefully pushed to the ground by other students,” she said. One time his injuries required medical attention. After that, Santiago decided to pull him out.
To do that, she used the state’s “education freedom accounts” program, the voucher-like system that lets parents spend their child’s per-pupil state education funding toward private and homeschool expenses. Currently, the program, which remains politically controversial, is available to families making up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $90,000 for a family of four.
This session, Republican lawmakers are trying to expand who can access the program. And they’re using stories like Santiago’s to support their case.
House Bill 367 would raise the program’s income threshold to 350 percent of the federal poverty levels, allowing families of four making up to $97,500 in combined income to access EFAs.
And House Bill 464 would allow any family of any income level to access EFAs if the child meets one of a specific set of circumstances, including that: they are in foster care; they are a migratory child; they are homeless; they have at least one parent serving full time in the U.S. military; they are an English language learner; they are a victim of three or more bullying incidents as defined by statute; they have a documented approved manifest education hardship that interferes with their learning; or they live in a school district that meets the statutory definitions for low-performing and persistently dangerous schools.
Both bills have passed the House and are being considered by the Senate Education Committee. Supporters of the bills said they would extend state financial assistance to more families who want to access nonpublic schools because their public schools are not a good fit.
Speaking to HB 464, Rep. Erica Layon, a Derry Republican and the bill’s prime sponsor, said there were “a number of different student groups that would benefit greatly from having no income cap on eligibility.”
But opponents of the move have raised financial concerns. The expansion would raise state spending on EFAs, and could require the state to pull back on funding to public schools, critics have argued.
“As a taxpayer, I am just shocked by the fact that the Legislature would be considering passing a bill where the cost is indeterminable and completely open-ended and that could run into the millions and millions of dollars,” said Louise Spencer, a Concord resident and co-founder of the Kent Street Coalition, a progressive advocacy organization.
The question of whether to grow the EFA program has been politically volatile. When the New Hampshire House passed a bipartisan budget earlier this month, lawmakers left out a Republican proposal to expand the education freedom accounts program to higher earning families. The item was removed in order to strike a compromise with Democrats and pass the budget in the narrowly divided House.
But the proposed expansion could still pass this year as part of the standalone bills being considered by the Senate.
For supporters of the expansions, the bills are meant to help people depending on their challenges, and not necessarily their income level.
“We recognize that there are issues in schools and all children don’t fit …,” said Rep. Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican and the House Education Committee chairman, speaking to the Senate committee.
Raising the threshold to 350 percent of the poverty level is important, Ladd said, because “we have a number of families that are at that level of income due to the fact that there’s two folks working within the family.”
Santiago said her son’s experience with bullying is a case for making EFAs available to any family whose student has three or more documented bullying cases.
“I can see firsthand the emotional damages of a hostile learning environment on students. Children who face bullying stay in a fight-or-flight-like mode, costing (them) the ability to retain an understanding in the academic work that is expected of them.”
But others, like Spencer, argued that the focus on EFAs as a means to address bullying and other hardships was flawed.
“Every single problem addressed in this bill can be addressed if we just renewed our commitment to our public schools and fixed the problems that we find there,” Spencer said. “What about the children left behind? It’s fine if you have a parent who can advocate for you, but so many of our kids don’t.”
The bills will move to the Senate floor for approval after the Education Committee votes to issue a recommendation and suggest amendments. If approved, the bills will go to the Senate Finance Committee before returning to the Senate floor.
This story was written by Ethan DeWitt, a reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.
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