Democrats seek to limit EFA program to public school attendees, sparking debate

By: - January 24, 2023 4:55 pm
The New Hampshire State House dome

The EFA program was passed by lawmakers in 2021. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

A Democratic bill seeking to limit New Hampshire’s “education freedom accounts” to students who have spent at least one year in public school has reignited debates over who should have access to the program.

Sponsored by Rep. Dave Luneau, a Hopkinton Democrat, House Bill 430 would allow students to benefit from the EFA program only if they were currently attending public school for at least a year, or if they were entering first grade or kindergarten. 

The EFA program was passed by lawmakers in 2021 to allow low-income students to spend public money toward private school or home schooling and expenses, including tuition, tutoring, and supplies. The program allows students in families making up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level – $83,250 for a family of four – to access the state grants that would have gone to their local public school if they attended it. Those grants average about $4,800 per year.

Currently, the EFA program allows any student in New Hampshire to access the savings accounts through the help of an education nonprofit, regardless of whether the student had been attending public school or was already in a private school or a home-school program. 

According to statistics released by the Department of Education in September, 58 percent of the students enrolled in the EFA program had not been attending public school. 

Luneau’s bill would require those EFA recipients who hadn’t attended public school to either enroll for a year or lose their EFA grants.

To Luneau and Democrats, the bill creates a restriction that will stop the state from sending EFA money to families who were not participating in the public school system to begin with. He argued that the EFA bill had been presented as a way to help low-income students struggling in public school to have options to leave, and that the high proportion of EFA recipients who weren’t in the public school system contradicted that promise.  

“House Bill 430 clears this up, saves taxpayers millions of dollars, and makes sure the EFA program doesn’t turn into a taxpayer-funded private school tuition program,” Luneau said to the House Finance Committee Tuesday. 

But Republicans and EFA supporters characterized the effort as unfair and against what they said was the point of publicly funded education. 

Rep. Glenn Cordelli, a Tuftonboro Republican and one of the architects of the original EFA legislation, asked about New Hampshire’s constitutional requirement to provide an adequate education to residents.

“So basically, with this legislation, we’re interpreting the constitution to say that we should cherish the education of a student if they are attending a public school; is that correct?” Cordelli asked. 

In a fiscal analysis accompanying the bill, the Department of Education said the bill “will result in an indeterminable number of students falling out of the program.” Depending on where those students went next, the state could either save money or lose money, the department said. Any student who stayed out of the public school system entirely would save the state grant money, as would students who transferred to a traditional public school. But students who transferred to charter schools, which receive twice the per-pupil grant money from the state, would cost the state more money, the department wrote.

The bill was presented days after House Republicans put forward their own effort to expand access to the EFA program to higher-earning families. House Bill 367 would raise the income threshold from 300 to 500 percent of the federal poverty level, or up to $138,750 a year for a family of four. 

House Bill 464, meanwhile, would expand the eligible categories of students who could receive EFAs, regardless of income, by including students who had been bullied three or more times according to the statutory definition of bullying; students living near a “persistently dangerous school” as defined by statute; students living in districts with schools performing in the lowest 5 percent; English language learners; children of military families; foster care children; homeless children, and other categories.

The House Education Committee will vote on whether to recommend the bills at a later date; the full House will then vote on whether to allow them to advance. 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.

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