The Bulletin Board

Democrats propose tightening income eligibility for education freedom accounts

By: - February 1, 2022 3:44 pm
Bags and backpacks hang on hooks in a school hallway

The program does not require families with education freedom accounts to continue to demonstrate their income eligibility after their first year. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

New Hampshire Democrats are working to repeal the state’s “education freedom account” program. But failing that, some in the party are pressing for tighter eligibility. 

At a Senate Education Committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. Tom Sherman, a Rye Democrat, presented a bill that would introduce annual means testing to the program, which passed in the Republican-led state budget last year. It allows low-income parents to use state public education funds toward private schooling and home-schooling costs. 

Under the law as written, participants in the voucher-like program must be making under 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $79,500 for a family of four. Families in that income level that apply for the program can receive between $4,000 and $8,000 in state adequacy money per year, an amount that depends on their individual circumstances. 

But the program does not require families with education freedom accounts to continue to demonstrate their income eligibility after their first year. Once a student is enrolled in the program, the student’s family may continue to receive the funding until the student graduates secondary school, even if the income of the family rises.

Sherman’s bill would require families in the program to continue demonstrating that their income is below 300 percent of the federal poverty level in order to continue receiving the annual funds. 

“I’m picking something that … is much more relaxed than any other entitlement we do in the state or federal government, and that’s just to do an annual means test,” Sherman said to the committee. “And then put a little bit of teeth into it if they’re lying. Where is the concern about fraud in this program? There doesn’t appear to be any.” 

But Senate Republicans and backers of the program have opposed the effort to add annual income checks, with the executive director of the nonprofit administering the program telling lawmakers that the change would throw off families whose circumstances improved after they enrolled. Adding a continual income assessment could disincentivize families from taking higher-paying jobs, Republicans argued. 

“My biggest concern is just the children, right?,” said Kate Baker, executive director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund. “My biggest concern would be that if you remove that line from the law, in essence, you’re removing children from the program who might have some sort of extenuating circumstance.”

Sherman’s bill was one of two entertained by the committee Tuesday. The second, sponsored by Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat, and co-sponsored by Sherman, would repeal the education freedom program entirely. 

Supporters of that bill said the state funds would be better spent on fortifying neighborhood public school programs than on individual accounts.

Opponents – including several dozen students appearing at the State House Tuesday – argued the program provides a valuable pipeline for parents with limited means whose child needs a different learning environment than their neighborhood school.

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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. Email: [email protected]