Efforts underway at State House to expand NH Education Freedom Accounts

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The NH State House in Concord. File Photo/Hannah Schroeder, Keene Sentinel

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CONCORD, NH – Several bills pending in the NH Legislature this session would expand a state program that uses millions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize private education expenses for about 4,500 students across the state.

These Education Freedom Accounts, often called school vouchers, have been the focus of debate in the House and Senate.

Supporters say the program, implemented in 2021, provides important educational choices for children whose needs aren’t met in traditional public schools. Opponents assert the program drains financial support for those schools.

The House Education Committee took testimony on four bills on Jan. 17 to expand the voucher system. The full Senate passed an expansion bill, SB 442, on Thursday, 13-11, with most Republicans in favor and all Democrats against.

Current law requires that in order to participate in the program, a student’s family income has to be no greater than 350 percent of the federal poverty level, or $105,000 per year for a family of four.

SB 442 would lift that income requirement for students whose request to transfer to a new public school has been denied.

Sen. Donovan Fenton, D-Keene, said in the Senate chamber on Thursday that the bill is not fiscally responsible.

“This bill, in fact, is a loophole for millionaires to access taxpayer dollars,” Fenton said. “This creates inequality, lack of accountability and unprecedented costs. This bill’s only purpose is to give a handout to the rich, and that handout is taxpayer-funded.”

The prime sponsor of the bill is Sen. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton.

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Sen. Tim Lang. Image/votetimlang.com

“While Sen. Fenton wants to aim that towards millionaires, I’m worried about the middle-class parent that’s living paycheck to paycheck who can’t afford to give their child the best opportunities,” Lang said.

The fiscal note on the bill did not specify how much costs it would add to the voucher program. But it noted that as of last November, there were 4,552 students in the program, receiving average yearly grants of $5,235 and costing the state $23.8 million on an annual basis.

SB 442 will eventually be scheduled for a vote in the House.

In a statement after the bill was passed, Megan Tuttle, president of the National Education Association of New Hampshire, noted that a judge ruled recently in a case brought by the ConVal School District that the state does not provide enough money to meet its constitutional requirement to give schoolchildren an adequate education.

“It is incredibly discouraging that instead of working together to meet that obligation to the 90 percent of Granite State students who attend neighborhood public schools, state senators are choosing instead to prop up a second education system that diverts public dollars to private and religious schools with little to no oversight,” she said.

Meanwhile, another bill under consideration in the House Education Committee would remove all financial eligibility requirements for the program.

A second would increase the financial eligibility cap from 350 percent to 500 percent of the federal poverty level or about $140,000 per year for a family of four.

A third would remove the cap for students in districts performing below certain specified academic standards.

A fourth would lift it for students in a variety of circumstances, such as those who have been persistently bullied or who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Also included would be students in districts exceeding PFAS drinking water standards or those who identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender or nonbinary.

The House Education Committee will eventually vote on whether to recommend the full House pass those bills.

Reporter Rick Green can be reached at rgreen@KeeneSentinel.com or 603-355-8567.

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About this Author

Rick Green

Rick Green is a former Associated Press news editor, local editor for The Oklahoman and reporter/editor for The Laconia Daily Sun.