Participation in New Hampshire’s education freedom account (EFA) program has doubled in the year since it launched, the state Department of Education said Friday, far exceeding the department’s initial estimates.

As of September, there are 3,025 students participating at the start of the program’s second academic year, according to the department. At the program’s launch a year ago, there were 1,572.

The rapid rise was hailed recently by Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and supporters of the school choice movement as evidence of the demand – and need – for different educational opportunities. But public school advocates and Democrats argue the higher-than-expected participation rate will strain the state’s budget, noting that most of the students taking the EFAs were not previously enrolled in the public school system.

The education freedom account program allows students in families making up to 300% of the federal poverty level to attend private school or be home-schooled and receive the share of state funding that would have gone to their public school. That money, which averages $4,857 per student per year for program participants, must be spent on education expenses approved by the private scholarship program that runs the EFA program, the Children’s Scholarship Fund.

This year, the program will draw $14.7 million out of the state’s Education Trust Fund, the department said. Last year, the program drew around $8 million. The state’s Education Trust Fund, which contains the state’s funding reserves for public education, spends about $1 billion a year.

Critics question burn on public schools

A majority of the students receiving the state funding are entering the program from outside the public school system, according to department numbers. Of the students receiving the savings accounts for the first time this year, 27% came directly from public schools, the department said. The rest were either home-schooled, attended nonpublic schools, or were too young to attend school.

The long-term trends are similar: In the history of the program, 58% of student recipients had never attended public school before entering the program. Of the 42% who did, 77% left public school after the outbreak of COVID-19; only 23% had left public school before COVID-19.

Those proportions have caused critics to argue that the program is burdening the state by sending much of the money to students who wouldn’t have ordinarily been in the public school system.

“Governor Sununu and Frank Edelblut’s school voucher scheme is wildly over budget and is diverting millions of dollars from public education,” said Jon Morgan, a former Democratic senator and the chair of Amplify NH, a progressive advocacy organization. “The money spent on vouchers could be helping offset local property taxes, but instead they’re paying for wealthy private and religious schools.”

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But Edelblut and school choice supporters counter that the program is saving taxpayers money, arguing that had the 3,025 EFA participants attended public school, local and state taxpayers would have to pay a combined $64.7 million per year, given the average public school tuition of $21,386 per year.

And the commissioner has noted that the high percentage of participants joining after the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 indicates how the pandemic – and the disruption to public schools – has driven some families into school choice programs.

Commissioner: Education Trust Fund healthy

The $22.7 million in cumulative spending is far higher than the department had projected when testifying on legislation to create the program in 2021. In one estimate from that time the department had predicted that it would spend $130,000 in the first year and $3.3 million in its second.

Edelblut has repeatedly said the Education Trust Fund, which receives funding from business taxes, the statewide property tax, the tobacco tax, lottery profits, and other sources, is not in danger of being overdrawn by the program. As of March 2022, the Education Trust Fund was spending less than was budgeted due to reduced enrollment, according to a report from the Department of Administrative Services.

In a statement, Edelblut acknowledged that the program had expanded faster than anticipated, but said it was a good sign.

“This program has grown significantly, and at a faster pace than other states that have adopted similar initiatives,” he said. “While it has exceeded our expectations, it is exciting and encouraging to know that New Hampshire families now have the opportunity to determine the best educational pathways for their children, and that economically disadvantaged students will also have various options to fit their personal learning needs.”

This story was produced by the editorially independent New Hampshire Bulletin, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. (The headline and subheads appearing on this page were added by Granite Memo, which is not affiliated with the New Hampshire Bulletin.)

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