Education Freedom Accounts are the law, but is New Hampshire ready?

·5 min read

Jul. 6—Although the state's new voucher-like Education Freedom Account (EFA) program makes a private-school education easier to afford for thousands of New Hampshire families, private schools could likely struggle to handle an onslaught of new students this fall.

Many private, parochial and religious schools are nearly brimming with students, whose parents turned to the schools for in-classroom instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, private schools that recently expanded are grappling with labor challenges that bedevil most New Hampshire employers.

"We have the students. We just need the teachers," said Wendy Hayes, director of the North End Montessori School in Manchester. The private school, which bills itself as the largest Montessori school in the state, is adding eight new classrooms and looking to hire as many as 16 new faculty.

This takes place as state education officials rush to write rules to specify how the Education Freedom Account program will work. Also, the state must contract with a company to run the program, which includes overseeing the electronic wallets of parents, where the education savings account money will end up.

The law requires the EFAs to be available for the coming school year.

"Everyone must move as quickly as possible. The question is, can government move that quickly?" said Kate Baker Demers, executive director of the Children's Scholarship Fund. The organization operates the current program, which is funded through tax-credit supported donations.

The EFAs were included in the budget rider bill, which contained many of the priorities of the Republican-dominated Legislature and was signed into law last month by Gov. Chris Sununu.

EFAs will be available to low-income and working-class parents who opt for home schools, private schools or out-of-district public schools. They will have access to the portion of their child's education funded by state dollars.

That amount could range anywhere from $3,800 to $8,400 depending on their child's situation, such as eligibility for free or reduced lunches, a special-education designation or English language learner.

The grants are limited to families with household incomes of 300% of the federal poverty level or less, which last year worked out to $78,600 for a family of four.

"For families that couldn't find a Catholic education accessible, this will become a life changing opportunity," said Alison Mueller, director of enrollment for the 18 Diocese of Manchester schools.

Yet, the program comes as diocesan schools cope with a challenge they haven't faced in years — nearly full schools.

On opening day last year, diocesan schools enrolled 500 new students and had 200 on a waiting list. Most were children whose parents could not be at home — LNAs, delivery drivers, first-responders, grocery store workers — when public schools instituted remote learning, she said.

The 2020-21 school year was the first in 15 years that saw an enrollment increase. The diocese now counts 3,600 students in its schools.

"I would say our schools are fuller than they were last year, but we do have space available," Mueller said. She said there are no plans to add classes to any schools for the coming year.

The average cost for Catholic school tuition is $6,300 for K-8 and $13,000 for high school.

Mueller said she's not sure how many new students the EFAs will draw. About 10% of diocesan students received funding through the Education Tax Credit program. And 40% receive some kind of tuition assistance from the diocese.

State law allows families to stack both the tax-credit grant and EFA, potentially doubling the amount available for a student.

The North End Montessori School currently has 168 students enrolled for toddlers through fourth grade. It is adding eight new classrooms, which will accommodate the pre-school program, Hayes said.

She expects the EFAs will draw in more students, which fits with the mission of Susan Bradley, who founded schools in Manchester and Bow.

"Our mission of all our schools has always been to make Montessori education accessible to all our locations, hours and very accessible rates," Hayes said. The tuition at the school works out to about $8,400.

At the state level, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said education officials must write emergency rules and award a short-term, no-bid contract for the Children's Scholarship Fund to run the voucher program.

He said a contract will eventually be put out to bid, but not enough time exists to do so before the school year begins.

Edelblut said he can't predict how many parents will opt for an EFA, but he doesn't expect an onslaught of new people clamoring for private schools, at least not initially.

Similar education savings account programs exist across the country and are available to 21 million students, he said. Only 1.3 million have taken advantage of them.

Most of the time, parents are satisfied with their public or charter schools, he said.

"We're serving the students on the margin," Edelblut said about EFAs.

Demers looks to the tax credit program, which has been in effect since 2014, to get an idea of possible EFA participants:

200 of the 626 tax credit grants went to home schoolers.

22% of recipients were minority students.

65% received free or reduced lunches, and 16% were special education students.

Pre-pandemic, the most cited reasons for leaving the public schools were bullying, discrimination or children performing either below or above their grade level, Demers said.

As opportunities expand and parents become aware of the EFAs, more will likely take advantage of them, Edelblut said.

Under the law, public schools that lose a student will receive 150% of the state adequacy grant for the child the first year.

The adjustment amount drops steeply the second year, to 25% of the adequacy amount.

Officials with the state's largest teachers union, NEA-New Hampshire, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Meanwhile, a free-market advocacy group is planning a digital marketing campaign to encourage parents to consider EFAs.

"This is a program we believe in pretty strongly," said Greg Moore, state director of Americans for Prosperity. "A lot of people eligible for this have no idea it was in the state budget."

Both Moore and Edelblut believe that any court challenge to the program would fail.

In 2014, the New Hampshire Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to the existing tax-credit program. Then last year, the U.S. Supreme Court said a similar program in Montana could not exclude religious schools.

mhayward@unionleader.com

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