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NH EDUCATION

N.H. House votes to expand Education Freedom Account program

Opponents call the program part of a costly effort to weaken public schools, while proponents say it expands educational opportunities and helps students find the educational setting that’s right for them.

A social studies classroom at a New Hampshire high school.Vanessa Leroy

CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire lawmakers passed a bill Thursday to expand eligibility for the state’s voucher-like Education Freedom Account program.

House Bill 1665 proposed allowing residents who earn up to 500 percent of the federal poverty level to participate in the program, up from the current cap of 350 percent.

The House approved the expansion in a 190 to 189 vote, with one Democrat voting alongside Republicans, after defeating two other proposals that sought to expand the program differently. The bill now heads to the Senate.

The program has been controversial since it started. It was first passed into law in 2021, and it allows families who qualify to use state money for public education on homeschooling supplies, tutoring, or private school, among other things, similar to voucher programs in other states.

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Opponents believe it’s part of a costly effort to weaken public schools, while proponents say it expands educational opportunities and helps students find the setting that’s right for them.

Currently, only families earning up to 350 percent of the poverty line — $105,000 for a family of four — are eligible. The Legislature approved that increase last year, up from the original cap of 300 percent.

There are more than 4,200 students enrolled in the program in the 2023-2024 school year, costing the state more than $22 million, with the average student receiving around $5,255, according to the Department of Education.

This year, lawmakers are considering several bills that would further expand the voucher program by making more families and students eligible. The New Hampshire House voted on three of those bills last week.

House Bill 1561 failed in a 185 to 197 vote, with 10 Republicans voting with Democrats to defeat the bill. It would have expanded eligibility to nine categories:

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  • Students who are concerned about the spread of contagious diseases like COVID-19 or the flu
  • Students who are persistently bullied
  • LGBTQ or nonbinary students
  • Students testing in the bottom 25th percentile on standardized testing
  • Students diagnosed with an eating disorder
  • Students diagnosed with a mental health illness
  • Students in districts where there is PFAS pollution
  • Students at schools that score in the bottom 10th percentile on standardized testing
  • Students who get a recommendation from their guidance counselor

House Bill 1634 sought to remove the income criteria entirely, so any student who could enroll in a state public school could enroll in the program. Lawmakers defeated it, 186 to 194.

The bill that passed — House Bill 1665 — increases the eligibility for the Education Freedom Account program from 350 percent of the federal poverty level to 500 percent, or $150,000 for a family of four. That could cost up to $66 million per year for about 13,380 eligible students, according to an analysis by Reaching Higher New Hampshire, a pro-public-school think tank.

“NEA-New Hampshire is grateful bipartisan lawmakers rejected a bill to establish universal vouchers, however, we remain concerned that today’s vote to expand vouchers to higher income families brings us closer to that reality, which would blow a hole in New Hampshire’s state budget and jeopardize the future of state funding for public schools,” Megan Tuttle, president of the teachers’ union, said in a statement.

She pointed to New Hampshire data showing that most students who use vouchers are already attending a private school or homeschooling. Only 28 percent of new students in 2023 switched directly from a public school. Tuttle said it was disappointing that lawmakers have focused on this program instead of addressing “the state’s chronic underfunding of our public schools.”

Christina Pretorius, policy director at Reaching Higher NH, called the bill a significant policy shift and noted that the program could eat away at the projected surplus for Fiscal Year 2024, leaving less money for firefighter and police pensions and public schools.

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“Our communities and taxpayers have been struggling for decades because the state has underfunded our public schools,” Pretorius said. “The choice to increase funding instead for a program that research shows doesn’t improve student achievement, and instead causes catastrophic academic harm, will have significant long-term implications for the future of education in New Hampshire.”

The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank, supported expanded EFAs, calling New Hampshire’s program “the most popular education choice policy in the nation.”

“Now that New Hampshire’s EFAs are an undeniable success, it’s time to take off the training wheels,” wrote Drew Cline, the organization’s president, and Jason Bedrick, research fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy. They argued that the program saves taxpayers money because local taxes “will not be spent to educate students who use an EFA to purchase an education elsewhere.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Chuck Morse celebrated the passage of HB 1665. “This is fantastic news for our Granite State!” he wrote in a social media post. “I’m immensely proud of my work in passing the original Education Freedom Account legislation as Senate President. As Governor, I would sign a bill to extend this opportunity to every child in New Hampshire!”


This story first appeared in Globe NH | Morning Report, our free newsletter focused on the news you need to know about New Hampshire, including great coverage from the Boston Globe and links to interesting articles from other places. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail Monday through Friday, you can sign up here.

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Amanda Gokee can be reached at amanda.gokee@globe.com. Follow her @amanda_gokee.