Valley News – Republicans voice support for expanding NH’s “educational freedom program” program

Editor’s Note: This story was first published New Hampshire Bulletin.

CONCORD – Nearly two years after creating the “freedom program” for the educational cause, a growing number of New Hampshire Republicans are looking to expand who can access it.

In an October 25 Bulletin/NHPR debate, Gov. Chris Sununu said he would support raising the revenue caps on the program. In an interview with WMUR on Tuesday, he repeated that opinion. And one Republican lawmaker has already created two pieces of legislation to do so.

“I would do it to expand it,” Sununu said at a news conference Wednesday. “It is because there is such a demand. We’ve created a product – we’ve created an opportunity for families, and more families than we expected want it.”

Any increase in the income limit would be a transformational expansion of the program. And any effort to do so is likely to be dominated by fiercely ideological debates in the program, regardless of which government controls it.

Created in 2021 as part of the budget biennium, EFA programs allow parents to access a portion of public education funds and use them for non-public school expenses such as private school and household expenses. Participating families receive a per-pupil matching grant that would be given to the local public school, which averages about $4,600 per student.

The program is currently targeted at lower- to middle-income families: Families must demonstrate that they are below 300% of the federal poverty level in the first year. This year, that level is about $83,000 for a family of four.

Now, after higher-than-expected initial starts, Republicans have cap that poll. A bill by Rep. Alicia Lekas, a Hudson Republican, would raise the cap from 300% to 500% of the federal poverty level — increasing the limit for a family of four to about $139,000.

A separate bill filed by Lekas ​​for next year would eliminate income limits altogether.

“He said, ‘Well, the state pays 10 dollars per kid,'” Lekas ​​said in an interview. “Why isn’t it for every kid? Why do we take some kids out of state and not other kids?”

Even when restricted to low-income families, the EFA program is politically divisive. Conservatives and “school choice” advocates said the program — one of the largest in the country — offers financial opportunities to students who are struggling in public school and who want to explore a non-public school option. Opponents of the program, which include Democrats and public school advocates, say it burdens the public education system and points out that many families who receive the money never attended a public school.

In the first two years, the participation program has exceeded the initial prominence. About 1,600 students have signed up for the 2021-2022 school year; That number has nearly doubled this year, to just over 3,000.

Republicans like Lekas ​​say the take-up rate indicates high demand for the program. Expanding the income threshold could help families who are in financial trouble, but only by taking away funds, Lekas ​​said.

“I know families that looked at it, that counted on it, and then found that their income level was a little too high,” said Lekas.

To Lekas, any income cap is a compromise for the program, because any cap necessarily leaves some families doing slightly too much to qualify. Lekas ​​prefers to remove the income cap entirely; He filed both papers in different ways.

The group’s key target group, he said, are the wage earners.

“Once again we are from the middle of the matter and we are left out of everything,” he said. “And we can’t send our kids anywhere. We can’t do these things for our kids. And yet we receive neither money nor money, but pay taxes.

Democrats, meanwhile, say the plan is already too big a drain on the state Education Trust Fund, which spends about a billion dollars a year on public schools.

They argue to open up the system to families who have never shared in public school resources, now paying matching student aid they would never have otherwise. In some states with similar programs, such as Arizona, school choice programs are limited to students who are in public schools and want to leave them.

And they say that raising the income threshold will open up the program to a new group of Granite States that don’t even participate in the public school system. That could suggest a new state spending spree.

“It’s reasonable to expect any family that would call 300% or 500% for a sponsor,” said Rep. Dave Luneau, a Hopkinton Democrat on the House Education Committee. “I said, why don’t you? It’s five, six, seven thousand dollars. Why don’t you apply to the author?”

He added: “We are not talking about students who leave public schools to go to private schools. We’re talking about our neighbors down the road who both send their kids to (Manchester private school) Derryfield.”

Exactly how much the 500% federal poverty eligibility expansion will cost the state is unknown. The State Budget Assistant Legislature calculated that if every eligible student used EFAs and every student received the maximum benefit, that would save the state up to $70 million a year, Luneau said. It is a hypothesis, an almost impossible upper limit designed only to demonstrate the potential state of total exposure.

Meanwhile, the EFA expansion program is facing political hurdles — even as Republicans defend control of the Statehouse. Earlier this year, the Republican-led Senate rejected a House-passed bill to increase the income limit on the Public Education Tax Credit program — which funds schools for nonpublic school units — from 300% to 500% of the federal poverty level, which is things funded by taxes.

But that program has a different structure than the EFA program and has more limited funds. Senate Republicans argued that raising the tax credit program’s income limits would mean lower-income families would have fewer opportunities to receive the money.

Whether the hesitancy of Republican lawmakers is not related to the EFA proposal — which has no financial goals built into the statute — is not clear.

While Sununu said he would support the return of the caps, he did not dispute what the goals would be to support, whether it was a cap or the elimination of the cap altogether.

“I haven’t even seen their bills, so I can’t say if I’m in favor or not,” he said. “But I think we have a strong argument, but we also have to look at the data. Who are the families, where did they come from, what other metrics are we thinking of?

Luneau said the entire program is flawed and should be repealed. And he disagreed that the program opened up new opportunities, pointing out the low percentage of beneficiaries who actually left public schools.

“When you continue to raise the limit, the system doesn’t open new doors,” he said. “But it essentially gets the state in the business of paying for private school tuition.”

But Lekas ​​argues that families at the higher end of the income spectrum don’t need to use the money, since they already have the resources to send their children to top private schools and don’t need the burden of applying for public funding. money

And he said, the basic equity program will be expanded as a fund.

“Why should some people be cut out of things that others can take?” she said. “They all pay taxes, right?”

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