CONCORD, N.H. — Enrollment in New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Account program, which allows families to spend public education money on private education and homeschooling expenses, has increased by about 40 percent this year and now costs around $20 million, according to Kate Baker Demers.
Demers is the executive director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, the organization that administers the Education Freedom Account program, which is now in its third year.
There are currently 4,211 students enrolled in the program, Demers said. That’s up from the 3,025 students who were enrolled in 2022, which cost around $14.7 million according to a fact sheet on the New Hampshire Department of Education’s website.
Demers said that rate of growth is comparable to an uptick of similar programs in Arizona and Florida, states she looks to as models for New Hampshire’s program. The students using the program still represent a small percentage of the approximately 161,000 students enrolled in New Hampshire schools.
The program has been growing in enrollment and cost since it was approved by lawmakers in 2021, when it enrolled 1,635 students and cost around $8 million. The state budget passed this year included around $40 million for the program over the next two years, and the Children’s Scholarship Fund can keep up to 10 percent of that funding to cover the costs of administering the program, according to state law.
Opponents of the program, including some Democrats, have criticized spending on the program, which they said is expensive and lacks oversight. Some fear it will weaken public education. Demers rejected those critiques. “In 2023, shouldn’t we be able to make sure a kid gets what they need?” she said.
About 44 percent of enrolled students qualify for free and reduced lunch, according to Demers.
Only families who meet certain requirements are eligible for the program. This year the legislature passed a law increasing eligibility from 300 to 350 percent of the federal poverty level. A family of four earning up to $105,000 would qualify. Demers said that contributed to about 200 additional students enrolling in the program who wouldn’t have previously been eligible.
She attributed the program’s growth to word of mouth — she said parents who are using the program have spread the word, leading others to pursue the program. It allows those who are income eligible to take the money the state contributes to the cost of public education and spend it on tuition at a private school, or a variety of educational expenses, including things like educational supplies purchased online, textbooks, and online classes.
Democrats said the program lacks oversight, and believe it will weaken the public school system by diverting money away from it.
Demers rejected that idea and said each parent should be able to choose what educational setting is best for their child.
When the program began, she said in a presentation Wednesday to the State Board of Education, about 70 percent of funds went to private schools. That number is now lower — about 60 percent. The percentage of students who leave public school to start the program has remained steady at about 40 percent.