Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, first passed in 1975, school districts across the United States are required to provide special education to students with identified disabilities. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)
New Hampshire’s State Board of Education approved an interim set of rules for its new “education freedom accounts” Thursday, bringing the Granite State a step closer to implementing one of the most sweeping school voucher-like programs in the United States.
In a unanimous vote, the board approved the rules, which seek to flesh out the statute passed by the Legislature in the state budget. The rules passed with little discussion.
Under the new law, parents will be able to use state education funds – which would normally follow a child to their public school – for other educational expenses, including private school tuition and homeschooling costs.
The statute provides qualifying parents at least $3,700 a year, and more if the student qualifies for additional state aid. The money is available to lower-income parents who have withdrawn their children from public schools or whose children never attended public schools to begin with.
Fifteen states have similar programs, with many using a voucher system to direct state funds to schools. But New Hampshire’s program provides parents a uniquely broad number of areas for where the money is spent.
Thursday’s rules sought to clarify areas the statute left vague, including how the accounts must be run and how they must be held accountable.
The rules allow a nonprofit scholarship organization that contracts with the state to choose the educational providers to which parents may send their money – from private schools to religious schools to online education, tutoring, classroom materials and books, and laptops.
And the rules dictate exactly how much information the organizations must report to the Department of Education, and what measures the organization must take to root out abuse of the program, either from families or education providers.
Because the rules are being passed on an interim basis, they will not receive a public hearing and will last only six months. They’ll come before the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules – the panel of senators and representatives who approve agency regulations – later this summer.
The program is set to launch Aug. 27 – just ahead of the 2021-2022 school year.
But the Department of Education is finalizing a permanent set of rules that will receive a public hearing in the coming months.
Separately Thursday, the state’s education commissioner confirmed that the Department of Education expects to be contracting with just one organization to administer the savings accounts: the New Hampshire Children’s Scholarship Fund.
“There’s one scholarship organization that we’re going to be contracting with initially,” Commissioner Frank Edelblut told state board members.
The contract will go before the Executive Council later this summer, with a goal of having the contract approved before the end of August.
“Once a contract is in place, then the scholarship organization is able to start to sign up those service providers,” Edelblut added.
The New Hampshire Children’s Scholarship Fund, which is part of a national network based in New York, is one of two organizations that oversee the state’s existing scholarship fund, which allows businesses to receive tax credits for donating to a fund that provides scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools.
The second scholarship organization, the Concord-based Giving and Going Alliance, has not expressed interest in helping run the program, Edelblut said.
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