By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
The new education freedom account program is a success judging by the number of students participating in the first year.
More students are expected to participate in the second year and state education officials predict it will continue to grow into the future.
One of the most expansive school choice programs in the country, it was sold as a way for students and parents to find the best educational avenues to fit their student’s individual learning needs.
That would be wonderful and would fulfill the education department’s long-standing goal of individualized student pathways, but that is not what happened for a majority of students.
Instead the program has increased the state’s education spending while few students changed their learning environment.
The vast majority of students — around 85 percent — participating in the first year, did not attend public schools the year before. Instead they were in private or religious schools, or home schooled, or too young for school.
That does not change the learning environment for that 85 percent of students.
What did change under the program was the parents’ financial obligations, which were reduced thanks to the influx of state taxpayers’ money.
Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, a program advocate, told lawmakers the first year of freedom accounts would cost the state’s Education Trust Fund about $300,000 and the second year about $3.2 million. Instead the cost was close to $9 million this year.
Why the increase? Edelblut’s estimates were for students leaving traditional public schools to participate in alternative programs, not for those already in other programs applying for state aid to cover the costs of private and religious schools, or home schooling.
Essentially most of the state money flowed through the parents to private and religious schools and for homeschooling costs all previously paid for by the parents or religious institutions.
When the program was first debated this term, the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Assistant’s office estimated the state’s exposure could be as high as $70 million if all the students in private or religious schools applied for grants.
The program provides grants to parents of students who earn no more than 300 percent of the federal poverty level or about $80,000 a year for a family of four.
You only have to qualify once, so if the next year your family makes $125,000, you still qualify and if you double that the next year, you still qualify.
Grants range from about $4,500 to $8,000 per student with the average the first year a little under $5,000 per student.
The money can be spent in any number of ways, for tuition, books and instructional programs, supplies, computers, individual instruction on a musical instrument, etc.
The money to pay for the freedom accounts comes from the Education Trust Fund established more than 20 years ago when the state overhauled its funding system after the Claremont II Supreme Court decision saying the then current system of relying on local property taxes with widely varying rates to pay for public education was unconstitutional because it violated the proportional and reasonable clause of the state constitution.
For most of its early years, the trust fund ran a deficit and state general fund money had to be added to meet the state’s education aid obligations.
In recent years the fund has had a surplus including this biennium. The state budget passed last year estimates a $54.4 million surplus at the end of last fiscal year June 30 and a $21 million surplus at the end of the 2023 fiscal year.
The surplus at the end of last fiscal year is much larger than that as the overall state revenue surplus is more than $400 million, but most of that has already been spent through legislation this year such as the $100 million settlement fund for the children abused at the Youth Detention Center.
The law establishing the freedom accounts has a provision if the education fund does not have enough money to cover the cost of the grants, the needed money will be withdrawn from general fund revenue without any action needed from the legislature or the governor.
Such a provision is extremely rare as lawmakers like to be able to determine how general funds are spent.
The number of students participating in the program the first year would probably not be so large if not for the American for Prosperity, an “education organization” funded by the Koch network and other like thinking libertarians who have long advocated that public education tax money also pay for private and religious schools, homeschooling and charter schools.
The New Hampshire affiliate had a campaign ready to go when the freedom account legislation passed as part of the budget package last year. The group helped parents enroll their students in the program, many who were in private or religious schools or home schooled.
Last week the same organization held an “education fair” for parents to meet representatives of some of the organizations and groups approved to other alternative education programs under the freedom account program.
The fair was promoted by Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut who tweeted a photo from the fair, and the department had a booth there to promote its 603 Moment campaign on social media.
Others touting the fair included members of the House freedom caucus and others in the free state/libertarian wing of the GOP.
The fair is intended to help grow the program, meaning more state money will be drawn from the Education Trust Fund and ultimately the state’s general fund.
This is a well planned operation that only required the state to agree to a school choice program with few guardrails to begin taking the state down the road to greater educational “freedom” and less traditional public education.
The Koch network has recently developed a proposal to “reform” public education with one of its officials calling public education the “low hanging fruit.”
The reform would look a lot like what the freedom account program looks like and would shift resources as it does away from traditional public education to alternative pathways.
As the freedom account program grows, observers of the legislature know what will happen eventually.
As more and more education trust fund money is allocated, there will be pressure to reduce the amount of money going to traditional public education and, depending on which party is in control, to charter schools.
That is how public education becomes the low hanging fruit.
The education commissioner and others talk about the achievement gap between students from well off areas and minority students and those from low-income families.
Edelblut maintains that gap has not changed in 50 years despite numerous efforts at the federal and state level and says that is why education needs to change.
He downplays what the recent education funding commission made the centerpiece of its work, that the achievement gap is due to the resources available to students.
Students from property poor communities perform below students from property wealthy communities.
The economic disparity gap between students from property wealthy and property poor communities is greater now than it was when the Claremont lawsuit was filed 30 years ago.
Proponents of alternative education programs say it is not about spending more money, and the education funding commission said the same thing.
But the commission said the resources needed to be distributed differently, while the advocates for freedom accounts say it is about finding the right fit for a student.
Those advocates are saying the issue is not economic disparity.
Ultimately their goal is to make government smaller and they can accomplish that by disrupting traditional public education with lower cost, less regulated alternative programs.
Eventually traditional education will be small enough to be just one more alternative pathway for students among many.
That is why public education is the low-hanging fruit and freedom accounts are just the beginning.
Garry Rayno may be reached at gar[email protected]
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.