House takes up two bills that would yank Education Freedom Accounts from kids

, ,

This week, two bills that would take Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs) away from children enrolled in the program will be considered in the state House of Representatives. 

We previously summarized a group of bills that would heavily regulate the EFA program to the point that its functionality and growth would be severely curtailed. The House will vote on two of those bills on Thursday. They are House Bills 1512 and 1594. 

HB 1512 would limit funding for the EFA program from the Education Trust Fund to so-called budgeted amounts. Specifically, the bill states that Education Trust Fund payments for EFAs “shall not exceed $19,800,000 for fiscal year 2024, and in subsequent fiscal years shall not exceed the amounts appropriated for such purpose in the biennial state operating budget.”

In other words, regardless of actual enrollment, the bill would limit EFA appropriations to the sums that legislators estimate would be needed to cover EFA enrollment. Critically, the bill misrepresents the program as one whose funding is intended to be fixed annually by a set annual appropriation. It is not. Just like public schools, the EFA program’s funding is based on enrollment. 

The “appropriated” amount to which HB 1512 refers is an estimate. Existing law directs the governor to draw a warrant to cover any costs that exceed the estimate, should program enrollment prove larger than budget writers guessed. The bill would simply forbid that warrant article from exceeding the estimate, effectively capping EFA enrollment.

While presented as a measure to protect the Education Trust Fund from unanticipated withdrawals, HB 1512 is in fact an effort to prohibit the organic growth of EFAs. The bill does not address anything other than EFAs that might result in a larger-than-budgeted state education expenditure. Public schools experience fluctuating enrollment every year, and thus also pose a risk of draining more from the trust fund than was previously estimated. The number of students who have special needs or come from disadvantaged backgrounds also fluctuates annually, and increases in those numbers cause larger withdrawals from the Education Trust Fund.

The truth is that enrollment in all educational options fluctuates from year to year, and budgeted amounts are merely projections (educated guesses). Assuming that actual spending on any form of public education should align with previous budgeted guesses would be a little like assuming that election results should align precisely with pre-election polling. The budgeted amount is the guess. The actual enrollment numbers are reality. It’s not the other way around.

Lawmakers accounted for those annual enrollment fluctuations when they designed the EFA program. That’s why the EFA statute lets its funding shrink or grow depending on actual program participation. 

As written, HB 1512 would change the EFA program to a set line item in the state’s biennial budget, though that’s not what it was intended to be. Funding for the EFA program is based on enrollment, just like public school spending is. This is the appropriate way to fund both.

The main argument for this legislation is the claim that the EFA program is “way over budget.” That’s not accurate, in that the statute funds the program based on enrollment, not a set line item in the budget. HB 1512, however, would bind the program to a set budget line while failing to hold the state’s spending formula for public education to the same standard. 

Taking EFAs away from kids while costing taxpayers more

This fundamental change in EFA funding would forcibly revoke EFAs from some children who currently have them because the program has already grown beyond the bill’s proposed spending limit. 

In the current fiscal year, appropriations for the EFA program are upwards of $22 million. Those appropriations are to meet the needs of the 4,933 enrolled students, a number that’s increased by 201.7% since the program’s inception and is expected to only keep growing, as the program is popular among families who seek an alternative to their children’s assigned public school. 

The bill also would increase, not cut, total education spending. The EFA program provides a publicly funded education at a fraction of the average per-pupil expenditure for New Hampshire public schools, which is currently $20,323 from all sources, state, local, and federal. The average per-pupil adequate education grant for an EFA is $5,255. Every student who moves from an EFA back to their assigned public school costs taxpayers more money, not less. 

Finally, HB 1512 seeks to solve a problem that doesn’t even exist. The Education Trust Fund is growing, not shrinking. Despite funding both public schools and EFAs, the Education Trust Fund ended the 2023 fiscal year with a surplus of $161 million and is projected to finish this fiscal year with a surplus of $232 million. 

Moreover, since public school enrollment has been falling for the last two decades and is expected to continue declining, the resulting extra money in the trust fund (even with the budgeted limit) would simply sit there unused as more and more students leave their government-assigned district public schools and enroll elsewhere. EFAs change that, allowing those students to take their per-pupil grants with them.

Another way to take EFAs away from kids

As HB 1512 attempts to cap the finances behind the EFA program, HB 1594 would further limit those who can participate in the program.

HB 1594 would establish “an annual review and qualification to determine eligibility to participate in the education freedom accounts program.” If a participant’s household income goes over the income cap (currently 350% of the federal poverty level) in any year, then that participant would cease to be eligible for the program and would lose the EFA.

Existing law requires that the income limit be met only when applying. That was done to provide continuity for families and prevent children from being sent back to an educational environment that didn’t work for them just because their family’s income grew during their time in school. 

But HB 1594 would effectively remove an EFA student from the program if, for example, his or her single parent making the average teacher’s salary in the state earned a raise of just $5,000. 

Cloaked under the guise of reigning in a “fiscally reckless” program, these regulations are specifically designed to force children back into their assigned public schools, even though their families have decided that those schools are not the best educational environments for them. 

These bills would remove students currently using EFAs from the program, which could be a jarring or even traumatic experience for some. 

They also would reduce competition in a growing educational marketplace by hamstringing the state’s largest school-choice program—one that saves taxpayers money. (See “Bartlett report shows that Education Freedom Accounts will save taxpayer money, improve student outcomes” and  “As NH public school district enrollment fell by 30,000 students in 19 years, spending rose by nearly $1 billion.”

Ultimately, each of these bills would not just restrict the growth of the EFA program but kick children out of it who are currently enrolled. They would do this in the name of protecting the Education Trust Fund, which enjoys a healthy surplus that is projected to exceed $200 million.   

The rest of the proposed measures to restrict EFAs—HB 1418, 1592, 1610, 1654, and SB 525—are due out of committee next week.