The Manchester school district’s proposed 2025 budget continues the city’s trend of spending more to teach fewer students. 

The district is asking for $232,227,530 for its 2024–25 school year budget. That’s an increase of $49,175,526, or 26.9%, since 2020–21. Even after adjusting for inflation,* the increase is still $16,967,892.80, or 7.9%, over the last four years. 

*The inflation calculation assumes 2.8% inflation between December 2023 and January 2025, which is above what the Federal Reserve System is forecasting. This analysis, therefore, likely understates the real inflation-adjusted growth in Manchester’s public school spending in its proposed 2025 budget. 

One might think that such a whopping spending increase must be tied to a correspondingly sharp increase in enrollment since 2021. On the contrary, enrollment in Manchester’s public schools as of October 2023 is 11,851 students, which is a drop of 529 students, or 4.3%, since 2020–21. 

Under the proposed budget, Manchester would be spending $21,921 per pupil, which the district calculates using its enrollment in January 2024 of 12,024 students. (If fall enrollment is lower, as trends suggest, the cost per student would be higher than projected.)

The Manchester school district’s 2020–21 budget was $183,052,004 for its 12,380 students, which represented a cost per pupil of $14,786. The proposed $21,921 per student is an increase of $7,135, or $4,533 adjusted for inflation, from four years before. That’s an inflation-adjusted jump of 26.1% in less than five years.

Since the 2020–21 school year, the district’s budget ballooned thanks in large part to unprecedented federal spending as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state also increased its per-pupil education aid last year. 

Manchester’s school budget was $183,959,257 in 2021–22 and $190,328,128 in 2022–23. It jumped to $226,982,607 in 2023–24, with $20 million of that being capital spending for facilities improvement incorporated into the annual school budget. 

The district added $20 million in the 2023–24 budget and another $20 million in the proposed 2024–25 budget to fund the first phase of the district’s long-term facilities plan. The school district is spending this money on facility upgrades for a declining student body, it should be noted. 

While the budget has consistently grown, the number of students enrolled in Manchester public schools has consistently declined. In the years ahead, the student population is expected to continue falling. But spending continues to rise, and now the district seeks even more money to spend. 

Meanwhile, the number of students enrolled in Manchester public schools has been declining. 

As the district spends more money to educate fewer students, the cost per student rises sharply. 

The city’s school district spending since 2021 continues the trend that dates back to the 1990s. 

In previous research, we found that Manchester school district spending rose by 68% as enrollment fell by 13% from 1995–2018.

Similarly, we showed that Manchester enrollment fell by 22.3% while spending rose by 22.7% from 2001–2019 in our statewide education spending report last year.

Looking back to 2001, the increase in per-pupil spending is quite stark. Manchester spent $8,698 per pupil in 2001, adjusted for inflation, according to last year’s report. That’s $13,223 less than the $21,921 the district proposes to spend per student next school year.

For nearly three decades, Manchester taxpayers have spent ever-increasing sums of money, even after adjusting for inflation, on a steadily shrinking number of public school students. 

Parents and voters might think they’ve bought better performance with all of that money. 

In 2023, proficiency in English language arts, math, and science sat at 28%, 19%, and 14%, respectively—all in the bottom 25% in the state. Proficiency in English language arts has remained largely stagnant since 2021, while math proficiency rose by 5 percentage points and science proficiency declined by 3 percentage points. 

The Manchester school district’s spending and test scores together reveal the flaw behind the idea that struggling school districts “just need more funding” to improve. 

City residents might want to look into these budgets in more detail and ask city officials why shrinking class sizes and tens of millions of dollars in higher spending haven’t led to better academic results for students.

By Andrew Cline and Jason Bedrick

Nearly 1 million American students participated in a school-choice program last year, according to data compiled by EdChoice. Across the country 72 choice programs operate in 32 states. And who has the most popular program in the nation? New Hampshire.

With an Education Freedom Account (EFA), parents can customize their child’s education. Families can use EFA funds for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, special-needs therapies and more.

According to EdChoice, New Hampshire’s EFA policy is the most popular education choice policy in the nation. It has had the most growth per capita nationwide over the past academic year—a whopping 58%. The number of ESA students has grown from 3,025 in 2022–23 to 4,770 scholarships awarded in 2023–24.

Those numbers show that a lot of New Hampshire families want an education that better fits their children’s individual needs. No New Hampshire student who needs a better educational fit should be denied access to this popular and effective program, especially because of politics.

Unfortunately, politics is keeping most students out of the program right now.

Expanding Education Freedom and Choice to All

Though EFAs were intended to be accessible to all students, legislators agreed initially to enroll only children from lower-income families. That was necessary to address concerns that the program would struggle to succeed in its early years or, conversely, would prove too popular to manage effectively.

Now that New Hampshire’s EFAs are an undeniable success, it’s time to take off the training wheels.

Currently, fewer than half of students in the state are eligible for an EFA, which is limited only to students from families that earn no more than 350% of the federal poverty level. That comes to $109,200 for a family of four—less than the average annual household income of a firefighter married to a registered nurse in New Hampshire. Three House bills this year would expand access to the program. One, House Bill 1634, would remove that income cap so that any student eligible to enroll in a K-12 public school in the state could qualify for an EFA.

That income cap suppresses participation. Though New Hampshire’s EFA program ranks first in the country in administration and popularity, it ranks just 42nd in eligibility nationwide.

Other states have been expanding educational opportunities. Over the last three years, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and West Virginia all either enacted new universal education choice policies or expanded existing choice policies to all K-12 students.

Some people fear that universal education choice will cause a mass exodus from public schools. But that’s not what’s happened in other states. Though roughly 20 million students nationwide are eligible to participate in a school-choice program, fewer than 1 million students do.

The two largest school-choice programs in the country are Florida’s and Arizona’s. In both states, 100% of students are eligible for school choice. But only 10% of Florida students and 9% of Arizona students participate.

Here in New Hampshire, where 48% of students are eligible for EFAs, only 3% of students participate.

Education Freedom Accounts Save Taxpayers Money

Critics claim that making EFAs available to every student is unaffordable. That’s not true. U.S. Census estimates from 2022 (the most recent available) put the state’s school-age population at 189,600. How many of those students can be expected to use an EFA if all students become eligible?

Florida has the highest school choice take-up rate in the country, at 10%. Every other state with an education savings account or scholarship program has a lower take-up rate. New Hampshire’s rate of EFA use is about 3%. If we use New Hampshire’s current rate as the baseline and Florida’s as the high end, we could see a range of somewhere between 5,688 and 18,960 students enrolling in the program, though the higher number would take years to achieve and certainly would not happen overnight.

Currently, about 28% of EFA users were previous public-school students. As they received their per-pupil allotment from the Education Trust Fund before taking an EFA, they are not a new cost. Assuming the same switch rate if EFAs are expanded, a reasonable cost estimate would run somewhere between $21.5 million (at a 3% take-up rate) and $71.7 million (at a 10% take-up rate).

That might sound like a lot, but New Hampshire taxpayers spend $3.4 billion a year on K-12 public schools, and the state’s current Education Trust Fund ended the 2023 fiscal year with a surplus of $161 million. State budget officials project the Education Trust Fund to end the current fiscal year with a surplus of $232 million. Even at the high-end estimate, New Hampshire can easily afford universal EFA expansion.

And those figures don’t include local taxpayer savings. New Hampshire spends an average of $20,322 per pupil, with more than 60% of that coming from local taxation. That local portion will not be spent to educate students who use an EFA to purchase an education elsewhere.

Based on take-up rates between 3-10%, taxpayers can roughly estimate local government savings of between $86 million-$286 million were all students to become eligible for EFAs. Subtract the state costs of $21.5 million-$71.7 million and taxpayers would be looking at a net annual savings of somewhere between $64.5 million and $214 million.

Those are back-of-the-envelope calculations, but they give a general idea of the size of taxpayer savings possible if New Hampshire educates students for $5,255 per pupil instead of $20,322 per pupil. Far from a net loss for New Hampshire, Education Freedom Accounts are clearly a net gain.

School Choice Improves Public School Performance

Critics also falsely claim that school choice harms students who remain in traditional public schools. In fact, of 29 studies on the academic outcomes of public school students whose schools were faced with competition from policies, 26 found a net positive outcome for those students, one found no visible effect, and only two found a negative effect.

Moreover, the families of lower-performing students tend to be more attracted to school choice programs than those of higher-performing students. Florida State University research on Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program found that students who chose to enter the scholarship program had lower test scores in the year before they took a scholarship than did their classmates who opted not to participate. But after just a few years of using the scholarship, those students were out-performing their demographic peers.

Claims that school choice programs “cream” the best students and leave low-performing students behind in under-funded schools are false. Indeed, the reality is the very opposite: school choice benefits disadvantaged students most.

Fulfilling the Promise of Public Education

When they aren’t fear mongering about empty public schools, EFA opponents demagogue the issue by shouting that EFA expansion would have taxpayers foot the bill for educating the children of “millionaires and billionaires.”

But, of course, that’s exactly what public schools do. Every child, regardless of income, is eligible to attend his or her district public school. No one argues that the public education provided by district schools should be means tested.

Neither traditional public district schools nor public charter schools have income caps. Education Freedom Accounts shouldn’t either.

The promise of public education is that every child should have access to an education that meets his or her individual learning needs. Education Freedom Accounts help fulfill that promise by empowering families with the freedom and flexibility to choose the learning environments that work best for their children.

Expanding this opportunity to every child would improve outcomes for students, including those who prefer traditional public schools, while saving taxpayers money. For families, students and taxpayers, it’s the best option.

Andrew Cline is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.

Jason Bedrick is a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy.

School choice in New Hampshire has become increasingly popular, with more and more Granite State families accessing Education Tax Credit (ETC) scholarships and Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs) to shop the best learning environments for their children in the state’s growing educational marketplace. 

But as the program becomes more popular, the governmental instinct to impose controls is growing. This year, legislators will consider more than half a dozen bills to layer new regulations on the state’s young EFA program. 

Of the 13 EFA-related bills filed for this year’s legislative season, seven would impose new state controls on the program or its participants:

  • HB 1418: “This bill prohibits the use of education freedom account funds to purchase school uniforms.”
  • HB 1512: “This bill limits the amounts of funds appropriated from the education trust fund to the education freedom account program to budgeted sums.”
  • HB 1592: “This bill prohibits the use of education freedom account funds at religious schools or for religious education or training, and repeals provisions relating to independence of and legal proceedings concerning education freedom account providers.”
  • HB 1594: “This bill requires annual determination of eligibility for awarding of education freedom account funds.”
  • HB 1610: “This bill requires all students to participate in standardized statewide assessments.”
  • HB 1654: “This bill requires the state board of education to annually review education freedom account service providers for continued compliance with all state and federal anti-discrimination laws.”
  • SB 525: “This bill changes income eligibility and reporting requirements for the education freedom account program and modifies the program’s administration and oversight.”

How the bills would impose new controls on the EFA program

House Bills 1418 and 1592 seek to restrict the type of schools EFA participants can use. HB 1418 would prohibit participants from purchasing school uniforms with their EFA funds. HB 1592 would forbid EFA families from using their funds to pay for religious education or training of any sort, including paying tuition at a religious school. HB 1592 is clearly unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a similar Maine law in 2022’s Carson v. Makin

In addition to its unconstitutional exclusion of religious education from the EFA program, HB 1592 repeals entirely the independence of the EFA program’s education service providers. The bill would strike provisions under RSA 194-F:7 that prohibit EFA providers from becoming extensions of the state education bureaucracy. Specifically, it removes the following from the law:

II. Education service providers shall be given maximum freedom to provide for the educational needs of EFA students without governmental control.

III. Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to expand the regulatory authority of the state, its officers, or any school district to impose any additional regulation of education service providers beyond those necessary to enforce the requirements of the EFA program.

IV. Any education service provider that accepts payment from an EFA under this chapter is not an agent of the state or federal government.

V. An education service provider shall not be required to alter its creed, practices, admissions policy, or curriculum in order to accept payments from an EFA.

These protections exist to clarify that EFA money belongs to parents, not the state, and that EFA providers are independent organizations rather than agents or extensions of the state. Providers include vendors ranging from local tutors to These protections make clear that vendors are providing products and services to parents, who are purchasing those products and services with their own money. Erasing these provisions allows the state to treat providers as extensions of the state bureaucracy.

In a similar vein, HB 1512, 1610, and 1654 would limit EFA growth, add rules to the program, and increase governmental oversight of the program and its service providers. 

HB 1512 would limit appropriations to the EFA program from the Education Trust Fund to a maximum of $19.8 million for fiscal year 2024 and allotted amounts in the state budget for subsequent fiscal years, regardless of actual enrollment figures. 

For context, appropriations for the program are upwards of $22 million to meet the needs of the more than 4,000 enrolled students this academic year based on average per-pupil adequate education grants of $5,255. 

Enrollment has increased by 158% since the program first began. Limiting the program to set dollar amounts, regardless of future demand and enrollment, would hamstring the program’s ability to meet the needs of the many current and future Granite State families seeking educational opportunities outside of their government-assigned district public schools.

HB 1610 would require all New Hampshire students, including those enrolled in the EFA program, to take standardized statewide tests. Parents may choose alternative educational environments specifically because those environments assess student progress with measures other than standardized tests. Those tests wouldn’t be aligned with the curricula or program of every provider, so they wouldn’t necessarily provide an accurate measurement of every student’s learning. 

Education service providers in the EFA program are required by state law to comply with state and federal anti-discrimination laws. HB 1654 would subject providers to annual reviews for compliance with those laws. This would further discourage provider participation by adding an additional layer of compliance costs.

HB 1594 and Senate Bill 525 would apply to participants, not providers. Both proposals would require participants’ household incomes to remain at or below 350% of the federal poverty level each year during their participation in the program. Existing law requires that this income threshold be met at the time of application. Under these bills, an EFA student would be removed from the program if their single parent making $68,000 a year received a Christmas bonus.

SB 525 would also impose reporting requirements and annual income verification audits. Reporting mandates include annual reporting on the number of EFA students to the Legislature. Income verification would be pursued by subjecting ⅓ of EFA families to “randomized annual EFA income verification auditing” by the legislative budget assistant audit division. 

The EFA program is succeeding to a significant degree because it was structured to give families a large degree of autonomy while maintaining state oversight of expenditures through basic financial tracking and reporting requirements. 

The regulatory expansion in these seven bills would have the cumulative effect of discouraging participation of both families and providers, shrinking the variety of options available through the EFA program, and burdening all players (the state, families, and providers) with costly and unnecessary compliance costs. 

This legislative season offers a reminder that the existence of lightly regulated public education alternatives is no guarantee that such alternatives will continue to exist. Pressure will always come from lawmakers who distrust markets and parents to expand bureaucratic control and limit or even eliminate access to alternatives. 

Editor’s note: Since the COVID-19 pandemic, educational entrepreneurship has boomed nationwide. New Hampshire has experienced significant growth in the number of entrepreneurs and innovators willing to take on the daunting challenge of building a new educational ecosystem. This year, we’re highlighting some of the people and organizations that have begun expanding the education marketplace in the Granite State, as well as the obstacles they face in creating nontraditional learning environments. 

Our fourth installment explores Wildcat Microschool, a tuition-free Prenda pod in North Haverhill, New Hampshire, that emphasizes the importance of learning outdoors.

As a school counselor in the Newbury, Vt., public school system, Heather Long felt she was just a temporary solution to the many behavioral problems she noticed daily. 

“I started to feel like I was a Band-Aid for the problem,” she said. “So, I was being called in to help fix the situation or help kids with these behaviors, and I started to question, ‘Well, maybe the system’s created some of these behaviors?’”

“And I felt like I couldn’t do very much with those kids, and there were too many of these needs for me to get to as a counselor, where I really wanted to be able to change something in that foundation of the system so that these kids could be successful and not have the need for the counselor,” she continued.

Long said she had previously resisted private schools because she wanted to improve the public school system. But she kept hitting too many walls.

With her frustration building, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

“I just didn’t want [my kids] to be in the public school system with all the changes and the restrictions, especially my kindergartener,” she recalled. “I just couldn’t stand the thought of him being there with everything being so different, and that’s his introduction to school. So, we formed a homeschool co-op with a few other families.”

Long said she quickly noticed that her two kids were flourishing in the new environment. 

She could give her oldest a checklist of his tasks that he would finish by the end of the week. But this introduction into self-guided learning was temporary. The co-op disbanded after the initial pandemic response, and the kids returned to their assigned public schools.

“We all kind of went back to our own ways and very quickly realized we weren’t happy,” she said. “I think it was kind of a combination of two things. My kids had the experience—this homeschool, self-paced learning—and really missed it. And for me, it allowed me to start to question school and what school could look like. And I had never allowed myself to question that before.”

Long’s desire to find a system that could adapt more quickly to meet her children’s changing needs led her to Prenda, an Arizona-based company that helps aspiring entrepreneurs start their own microschools.

“Prenda’s mission is to empower learners to take control and ownership over that part of their life,” Kaity Broadbent, Prenda’s chief empowerment advocate, said. 

With their affiliate microschools across the country, known as Prenda pods, “Prenda acts as a microschool management platform for the guide to be able to easily offer all of their kids a wide degree of choice,” Broadbent explained.

What Long heard at a Prenda informational session inspired her to do what she hadn’t considered before: Start her own microschool.

“So, I got my wheels turning, like, ‘Well, maybe I could open a Prenda pod.’ When I was at that info session, there was a parent that looked at me, and…she was like, ‘If you do, I will sign up my kid.’”

This was the push she needed. 

Before she knew it, Long was interviewing with Prenda, going through its training and background checks, and being approved to start her own Prenda pod.

“There was like a ‘no turning back’ situation for me, and it seemed like what my family needed,” Long said. Out of her own house in North Haverhill, N.H., Long started Wildcat Microschool in December 2021 with four kids. By the end of the school year, she had six learners.

It was hard at first to get families to commit to making this kind of change in their children’s education, Long recalled. Some in her previous workplace even questioned her entrepreneurial endeavor. 

“When I first started, especially where I left the public school system, I think there was some animosity towards me and to my co-worker,” she said. “There was some talk around town that wasn’t very positive, but that has quickly shifted because the talk about our school from our families is so positive that it’s shifted the tone really quickly.”

With no government obstacles to slow her transition, Wildcat Microschool grew quickly as a result.

With 16 kids at the start of the following academic year, Long added another full-time guide and a part-time helper. This school year, Wildcat Microschool has 22 learners, all registered as homeschoolers. After starting with four learners and some skepticism about her endeavor, Long now has a wait list.

“I still hear from time to time from people within the system that there are things that are said, but it’s understandable,” Long added. “It’s something different and new, and I think maybe to some of the teachers it feels threatening because they’ve lost kids to us. But we don’t want to be in competition. That’s not our goal.”

What drew so many families to Wildcat Microschool? 

“I have some families that come to us because they love the homeschooling idea, they like the microschool idea, they just love what we do,” Long explained. “And other families it’s more of a like, ‘Well, we don’t like what [traditional schools are] doing, so we want an alternative.’” 

The 22 learners, including Long’s two sons, are split into two groups, Bobcats (grades K–4) and Pumas (grades 5–8), that alternate between the two guides’ houses during the week. Wildcat Microschool operates Tuesday–Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

While Long hopes to make her homeschool learning center a vendor of Education Freedom Accounts next year, her 22 learners are tuition-free this academic year thanks to Prenda’s Bright Futures Grant, which funds Wildcat Microschool. 

Not all Prenda pods are the same, so learner experiences across New Hampshire and the country vary. Prenda supports its affiliates but grants them the flexibility to provide a variety of educational environments.

“To speak to flexibility, that’s their microschool, and they’re choosing to partner with Prenda to provide services to parents and kids who are their customers, so we try to really stay out of the middle of that relationship and allow each guide to present themselves as they wish,” Prenda’s Broadbent explained. “The worst thing we could do at this point in the history of education is create another one-size-fits-all solution. Prenda is an education solution that is inherently built for flexibility and personalization from the guide side and from the student side, especially.”

Wildcat Microschool shares several of the characteristics common among unconventional learning models—an emphasis on hands-on, project-based learning, allowing free play, and maximizing learner agency—while also having other more distinct focuses in their everyday practice.

“We found that kids really thrive off of purpose…. So, we do a lot of projects with a purpose at the end,” Long explained. “Our ‘readers cafe’ is an example where they’re going to read their stories out loud to everybody and have this cafe, that’s the purpose. Last year, we did biography projects, where they did a ‘living wax museum.’ So, we find that we always have something we’re striving for for a purpose for the kids, and that helps with engagement.”

By ensuring that everything they do has a purpose, Long’s learners are invested in their own educational journeys, more easily retaining the core lessons of each hands-on project because there’s a goal at the end that they’re working towards.

A focus on financial literacy

Wildcat Microschool sets itself apart from other options in two ways. One is the attention paid to financial literacy. 

“We were doing economics [last year], and the kids were doing their own business projects,” Long said. “So, we did like a ‘Shark Tank’ project. They had to come up with their own business idea, and they did the marketing, they did a business pitch…. And when we ended that, I just felt like, ‘I don’t think we quite got to the financial piece as much as I wanted.’ Like, I wanted them to get more out of it, which is one of the beauties of what we do. Instead of being like, ‘Nope, I’ve got to move on to this next unit next year,’ [we] decided to start off with it again.”

This includes going through lessons about finances, keeping a budget, banking and loans, investing, the stock market, and taxes, with the help of the popular The Game of Life. “So, we learned about taxes,” Long said. “They got to choose their career, which, of course, they all chose the top-paying careers they could find, and then very quickly realized if you pick a top-paying career you’re going to get more taxes pulled out of it. So, we had a conversation about taxes, which will bring up conversations about government and how our government works.”

Emphasizing financial literacy as part of the curriculum gives these children in kindergarten through eighth grade an education that they might not get at their assigned public schools at that age, as well as the life skills that come with it.

The forest for a classroom

The other distinguishing feature of Wildcat Microschool, made possible by its location in the White Mountain National Forest, is the forest classroom. 

“We’re really big on outdoors and getting the kids outdoors,” Long emphasized. 

Every Friday afternoon, alternating each week between the two age groups, Long takes the learners on a five-minute walk into the woods behind her house to the learning pod’s forest classroom, a roughly 1,000-square-foot space in the woods complete with supplies, hammocks, a fire pit, and forts. 

Here, the kids have a lot of freedom (by design), and they learn how to interact with each other and collaborate. They learn fire-starting skills (with supervision), eat lunch, practice writing in their journals, and play games as part of their overall nature-based education.

“Number one, we’re using our local resources, right?” Long responded when asked about the benefits of outdoor learning. “Like, we live in a place where there’s tons of nature. So, teaching the kids about that and respecting that, helping them love it, because I think to be healthy and to kind of thrive around here, especially in the winter time, we have to be able to get ourselves outside all the time. So, there’s that mental health component. I think being good stewards of the environment—like, if we want kids to really respect our environment and protect it in the future, we have to get them to be out there and explore it and love it.”

Moreover, the forest classroom allows Wildcat Microschool to incorporate some risk-taking and survival skills, building confidence and agency in the learners, she said.

“One of our youngest…has wanted to start a fire…. So, we were working with him on it a few weeks ago, and he finally got it. And it was so cool, he just jumped up with his hands. We have a picture of the moment. So, for him, just thinking about that, the confidence, like, ‘Hey, I did this by myself’—when we talk about autonomy, there are a lot of opportunities we can give them out in nature that allow them to have that autonomy.”

Outside in the forest classroom, Long told us, “It’ll be very interesting to see where all these kids are in 10 to 15 years. I have no doubt that they’ll be very successful people.”

Measuring success

How microschools measure success and provide accountability to parents are questions often brought up by skeptics. Long has ready answers. 

“Number one is our retention,” she said. “We’re accountable to our parents and our families, and the fact that all of our kids want to come back and our families want their kids here says a lot about what we’re doing.” 

Long points out that all but one learner returned to Wildcat Microschool for this school year. The child who didn’t return had moved.

Wildcat Microschool also administers tests, so it has those scores to measure student progress. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle for Long. 

“I, more than anything, want to see kids that are independent learners, that love learning, that are able to critically think and problem solve, and those are really hard things to measure.”

Long added that one of her frustrations with the public school system was the limited amount of parent involvement. Facilitating that involvement has been a guiding principle behind the philosophy of Wildcat Microschool. 

“I feel very strongly that it’s a parent’s job to educate their child,” Long said. “And whether or not they choose to entrust someone else to do that, that’s fine, but they have to work closely with that other person. And I think it’s the parent’s job to decide what those goals are and what that education outcome should look like.”

Long is proud to have created an educational institution directly accountable to parents. In her view, working closely with parents and their children to create a responsive, family-driven educational experience is the key to Wildcat Microschool’s success.

Wildcat Microschool in North Haverhill can be found online at

There is one and only one way to determine the “true cost” of an adequate education. That is to create a competitive education marketplace. Alas, that is not the approach New Hampshire has taken.

Instead, legislators have tried to set the cost by decree. Public school districts, asserting with some justification that the amount is too low, have asked courts to… set the cost by decree.

Now a court has done so, and the results are as absurd as one would expect.

On November 20th, Rockingham County Superior Court Justice David Ruoff ruled that the Legislature’s decreed amount ($4,100 per pupil; he excluded differentiated aid) was unconstitutionally low. But, he said, the plaintiff school districts’ asserted amount ($9,929) was too high. The actual minimum constitutionally permissive state per-pupil expenditure was, he figured, $7,356.01. 

Note the penny. Such precision carries the weight of both mathematical and legal certainty. 

Except, the entire number, including the penny, is merely a guess offered as a suggestion for legislators to consider because the court lacked enough information to find the true figure. So says… Justice David Ruoff.

“Although the evidence demonstrates that a base adequacy aid level of $7,356.01 would be constitutionally insufficient, the Court cannot set a higher threshold at this time,” Ruoff wrote. “Such a step is precluded by the limitations of the evidence presented at trial, as well as the involvement of certain policy considerations. The Court is confident, however, that the guidance offered here will empower the legislature to meaningfully consider and appropriately respond to the relevant issues.”

Well, glad that’s cleared up. 

How did Justice Ruoff conclude both that $7,356.01 was the minimum threshold of constitutionality and that he had too little information to make such a conclusion?

After reviewing the statutory and regulatory requirements for adequacy, and examining actual school district spending, he undertook the following policy analysis: 

He used “common sense” to guess that some district spending wasn’t essential for adequacy, lopped off an arbitrary percentage from some figures (without examining others that would be relevant, such as public charter school spending), and wound up with a back-of-the-envelope guess that can’t quite be called educated, but probably could pass as educated at a cocktail party if it didn’t talk too much. 

Justice Ruoff tasked himself with deciding three questions:

“[T]here are three inquires before the Court: (I) what are the necessary components or cost-drivers of a constitutionally adequate education, as defined by the legislature, exclusive of additional services provided to students eligible for differentiated aid?; (II) what funding is necessary for school districts to provide those components and cost- drivers?; and (III) how does that amount compare to the funding currently provided via base adequacy aid? As the third inquiry is a matter of simple mathematics, the evidence presented at trial largely focused on the first two inquiries.”

To answer these questions, Ruoff considered state requirements and district expenditures. At no point did the court consider whether there might be other, more effective, more efficient and less costly ways to satisfy the state requirements.

Damning for the decision is that the word “market” appears just nine times in the 69-page ruling. Plaintiffs use it to argue for higher teacher compensation, as competition for good teachers drives up wages, and the court uses it to argue that professional development funds are part of adequacy. 

The word is used to justify higher spending, never lower. That’s odd, given that competitive market forces have been shown to improve productivity and drive down costs in K-12 education. 

  • A 2010 Harvard University Graduate School of Education study found that “competition from private schools boosts achievement and lowers costs.” According to the study, “a 10 percent increase in enrollment in private schools improves a country’s mathematics test scores on PISA by almost half a year’s worth of learning. A 10 percent increase in private school enrollment also reduces the total educational spending per student by over 5 percent of the OECD average.”
  • A 2012 study of open enrollment policies in Wisconsin found that “schools respond to competitive forces by improving quality.”
  • A 2003 study found that “regular public schools boosted their productivity when exposed to competition.” That productivity increase typically took the form of higher performance rather than lowered spending. Nonetheless, the study shows that schools can produce better results without higher spending when competition is introduced.
  • A 2019 study of private schools participating in Wisconsin’s voucher program found that “private and independent charter schools tend to be more cost-effective than district-run public schools in the state overall and for the vast majority of individual cities.” Particularly, private schools received 27% less funding than district public schools overall but generated “2.27 more points on the Accountability Report Card for every $1,000 invested than district-run public schools, demonstrating a 36 percent cost- effectiveness advantage for private schools.”

Any examination of school spending that ignores chartered public schools and non-public schools is incomplete at best. And any that doesn’t even consider the effects that competition could have on the system is negligent. 

The understatement of the ruling came in Justice Ruoff’s caveat that he was hindered by the “limitations of the evidence presented at trial.” Those limitations, he acknowledged, prevented him from determining with certainty how much an adequate education should cost. But the limitations were greater than he realized. 

Not only did the court lack sufficient school district data to make an accurate cost determination, but it lacked equally important data on the efficiency gains created by competition. Going forward with an analysis despite such huge gaps in available data was a critical error. 

The ruling was plagued with numerous problems, the first being its roots in the wrongly decided Claremont decision. But even accepting the Claremont fallacy, the ruling was doomed by fatal methodological flaws and a devastating shortage of information. 

The information problem should have been obvious from the start. Prices are information. Prices absent competition are woefully inadequate information. Since no competitive education market exists in New Hampshire, the court is left applying legal analysis and back-of-the-envelope math to discover something that only the market can discover: the best available cost of a service. 

It’s clear that legislators set a low figure in the hope that this will press district spending downward. Districts, however, encourage local voters to approve ever higher budgets, which counters the Legislature’s intent. Districts then use those higher levels of spending to claim that the state appropriation is too low. Given these dynamics, it’s impossible to determine with any accuracy just how low district spending could go while meeting the state mandates for adequacy.

Until New Hampshire introduces some form of robust market competition, Granite Staters will never know what an adequate education really should cost. 

The Merrimack County Superior Court this week dismissed a lawsuit brought by Deb Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers-New Hampshire (AFT-NH), challenging the constitutionality of New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Account (EFA) program, the state’s largest school choice program. 

Howes challenged the EFA program on three grounds: (1) The EFA program violates Part II, Article 6-b of the N.H. Constitution by allocating lottery money to EFAs, (2) the use of Education Trust Fund dollars for EFAs violates RSA 198:39 regarding distribution of funds from the Education Trust Fund, and (3) the EFA program represents an unlawful delegation of governmental duty to a private entity (Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire). 

Presiding Justice Amy L. Ignatius granted the New Hampshire Department of Education’s motion to dismiss on all three grounds. 

On the claim that lottery money is spent on EFAs, Justice Ignatius concluded that Howes had not and could not demonstrate a violation.

Part II, Article 6-b of the New Hampshire Constitution reserves lottery revenue “exclusively for the school districts of the state.” Lottery revenues are deposited into the Education Trust Fund. But so are revenues from eight other sources. In the 2022 fiscal year, lottery revenues comprised only $125 million of the $1.145 billion in the Education Trust Fund. Howes was unable to show that any lottery revenues were included in the $9 million transferred to the EFA program. Lottery money comprised only 0.01% of the Education Trust Fund, and EFA spending could easily have come from the other 99.99% of the fund.

On the claim that the Legislature violated RSA 198:39, governing distributions from the Education Trust Fund, Ignatius ruled the claim moot since legislators had added a provision expressly allowing distributions to scholarship organizations that manage the EFA program. 

On the claim that the EFA program constitutes an unlawful delegation of legislative authority to provide an adequate education, the court was unpersuaded. Howes had claimed that the EFA program was created to remove children from the public school system for the purpose of eliminating the state’s obligation to provide children an adequate education, and that it prohibited students from obtaining an adequate education. Ignatius dismissed the claims, countering that neither was logical. Parents who choose an EFA lose nothing, Ignatius pointed out. If parents choose an EFA, the state is not obligated to provide their children with a public school education while they participate in the EFA program, she noted. But that is the family’s choice. If they choose later to enroll their children in a public school, their participation in the EFA program does not block this option. Therefore, participation in the EFA program in no way prohibits families from accessing a public school education.  

In response to the court’s dismissal of her claims, Howes said, in part:

The Legislature should be focusing far more time and resources on the needs of the 160,000 Granite State public school students who deserve a robust curriculum and fully staffed schools, not on the 4,000 students whose families choose to take state-funded vouchers. Vouchers have exacerbated an already disparate burden placed on local property taxpayers to fund the basic right to a quality public education. Every Granite State public school should be a safe and welcoming place where students have the academic challenge and support they need to thrive.

This statement flies in the face of reality on several fronts. 

First, the Legislature does focus “far more time and resources” on the 160,000 students enrolled in district public schools versus the roughly 4,000 students with EFAs. In the 2021–22 academic year, total spending (state, local, and federal) on New Hampshire public schools exceeded $3.5 billion. Total expenditures per pupil exceeded $23,000. 

The EFA program is tiny in comparison. The court pointed out that, from the $1.145 billion Education Trust Fund, a mere $9 million was transferred to the EFA program in the 2022 fiscal year. The state’s estimated cost in the 2024 fiscal year is just $22 million, a tiny fraction of the more than $3.5 billion spent on public schools. EFA expenditures per pupil average just $5,255 versus more than $23,000 for public schools.

Average district public school spending in New Hampshire is 14.4% above the national average, while teacher pay is 5.3% below the national average. Moreover, district public school enrollment fell by 14% from 2001–2019 (a loss of 29,946 students), while inflation-adjusted spending at district public schools ballooned by 40% ($937 million). 

Far from being strapped for cash and staff, New Hampshire’s district public schools have never experienced higher funding despite continued drops in enrollment. Between the 2019–20 and 2023–24 school years, New Hampshire’s public schools experienced a 6.3% decline in enrollment (a loss of more than 11,000 students). New Hampshire experienced the nation’s largest percentage increase in district public school staffing relative to student enrollment from 1994–2022. 

Additionally, as more families choose to access educational alternatives outside of their assigned district public schools, per-pupil funding for those who remain in the public schools only increases since local funding (which accounts for 60% of public education funding in New Hampshire) remains untouched by the EFA program. 

From 2001–2019, inflation-adjusted public education spending per student increased by 66.8% in New Hampshire. By 2019, per-pupil public education spending in the state was 25.7% above the national average. 

The state’s Education Trust Fund ended the 2023 fiscal year with a $148 million surplus. The long-term decline in the state’s school-age population has left the fund with such a big surplus that legislators have considered changing the funding formula so that such a large pool of money does not sit unused. 

So, it’s untrue that the EFA program is draining money from district public schools. The state has a huge surplus of funds available for spending on public education even after increasing public school spending by nearly $1 billion, adjusted for inflation, in the first two decades of this century. And legislators in the most recent state budget further increased public education spending by $169 million during the two-year budget cycle and by a projected $1 billion over the next decade. 

Again, it’s untrue that state spending on district public schools is declining at all, much less that it is declining because of EFAs. So, in addition to the legal arguments in this case being unfounded, the financial claims were as well. 


As New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs) gain popularity, confusion about how the money is spent continues to cloud public discussion. 

Contrary to some of the rhetoric used to describe the program, EFA funds are not exclusively reserved for covering tuition costs at private schools. A breakdown of authorized EFA spending in the last fiscal year shows that less than two-thirds of the money was spent on nonpublic school tuition, and some even went to pay for courses at district public schools. 

From September 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023, the Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire, the state-approved administrator of the EFA program, authorized upwards of $10 million in spending submitted for approval by parents. 

About 63% of those funds (nearly $6.6 million) covered tuition and fees at nonpublic schools. Of the 116 private schools that received EFA funds, 63 (or 54%) could be classified as “religious” schools—schools with a religious component to their operations or curriculum. The other 53 (or 46%) included secular nonpublic schools as well as alternative education providers and unconventional models, such as learning pods, microschools, homeschool co-ops, etc. 

If tuition and fees at private schools accounted for only 63% of EFA spending in the last fiscal year, then where did the other 37% go? 

Parents are allowed to spend EFA money on authorized educational uses, such as textbooks, instructional materials, tutoring, and some limited infrastructure such as computers and Internet services. 

In the last fiscal year, parents spent 17% of EFA funds on textbooks, supplies, and other instructional materials, 8.4% on tuition and fees for summer education and specialized education programs, 5.2% on computer hardware, Internet connectivity, and other technological services, 2.6% on tutoring services, and 1.3% on tuition and fees for private/nonpublic online learning programs. 

Parents spread the remaining 2.5% among educational services and therapies, educational software, fees for standardized assessments and other exams, school uniforms, tuition and fees at career and technical schools, tuition and fees at institutions of higher education, and individual classes, curricular activities, and programs at district public and charter schools. 

In fact, New Hampshire families directed $27,328.88 to 12 district public schools to help pay for individual courses and programs offered at those schools to supplement their children’s education. 

Tuition at nonpublic schools certainly accounts for a sizable portion of EFA funding, but focusing solely on tuition at these schools misses the broad variety of choices parents are making. 

Whether it’s paying for a tutoring service like Mathnasium of Nashua, music therapy services at Manchester Community Music School, tuition at Saplings, A Forest & Nature Preschool, LLC, textbooks and supplies at Amazon and Staples, a class at Souhegan High School, or AP tests through the College Board, the EFA program opens up a host of educational options for families. 

It also misses the important point that some families are choosing to purchase services from district public schools. 

The portion of EFA spending at district public schools is small right now for two likely reasons: (1) Families using the program now are primarily seeking alternatives to the public school system, and (2) district public schools aren’t accustomed to marketing themselves to parents and providing a-la-carte services (in other words, competing for those dollars).

As EFAs grow, district public schools will need to adapt by offering services that attract parents who’ve been empowered to decide where to spend their state adequate education grants. When they do, their share of EFA spending will rise.

The competitive forces created by a growing EFA program can be expected to produce a net benefit for all students, those who use EFAs and those who don’t. Dozens of studies have already shown that the introduction of school choice programs produces positive results for students who remain in traditional public schools. There’s no reason to expect different results in New Hampshire. 

According to the Department of Education, 4,211 New Hampshire students are currently participating in the state’s largest school choice program this academic year. That’s a 39% increase (1,186 students) from last year’s starting enrollment, and a 158% increase (2,576 students) from the EFA program’s first year in 2021.

As EFA enrollment grows, its competitive forces will strengthen, leading to further adjustments among all educational providers in the state and a larger variety of opportunities for New Hampshire students.  


Editor’s note: Since the COVID-19 pandemic, educational entrepreneurship has boomed nationwide. New Hampshire has experienced significant growth in the number of entrepreneurs and innovators willing to take on the daunting challenge of building a new educational ecosystem. This year, we’ll be highlighting some of the people and organizations that have begun expanding the education marketplace in the Granite State, as well as the obstacles they face in creating nontraditional learning environments. 

Our third installment highlights Micah Studios, a low-cost learning center for kids 6–18 years old in Newport, New Hampshire, focusing on low-income families.

Newport, New Hampshire, is a relatively poor, working-class town of 6,299 in Sullivan County. Between 2017 and 2021, the median household income in Newport was $65,435 (in 2021 dollars), while the statewide average was $83,449. Meanwhile, the poverty rate in the town is 19.4%, compared to the state’s poverty rate of 7.2%.

What’s more, the town’s district public schools have been underperforming by all measures. Only 24% and 22% of students in the Newport school district are proficient in English language arts and science, respectively. Worse, just 12% of students in SAU 43 are proficient in mathematics. Compared to the performance of schools/districts throughout the state, these figures put Newport in the bottom 25%.

Given this reality, there’s a dire need for alternative education in this community. Two education entrepreneurs in Newport—Stacey Hammerlind and Jessica Rothbart—are taking steps to fill this educational void and meet the needs of local low-income families.

“There was definitely a gap and a niche that needed to be filled,” Hammerlind said.

As residents of Newport with experience in the public school setting, both Hammerlind and Rothbart are aware of the unique challenges facing many in their community.

“It’s a unique population here,” Hammerlind said. “And again, the stressors—these families have no other options. So, I think that’s what really motivated us.”

A mother of six and a substitute teacher in Newport, Rothbart experimented with typical homeschooling and traditional school settings for her kids, but the remote learning that came with the COVID-19 pandemic was the last straw for her.

“Something’s got to change,” she said. “There’s got to be options. The homeschooling community is big in the area, but it doesn’t fit for what my kids want out of things. So, they want the structure of school kind of, but they want the freedom to do it their way.”

At the same time, while working in the local public schools, Hammerlind noticed that the system wasn’t responding to the many unhappy, dejected, and underperforming students she saw daily.

“Yesterday, I was working with a boy—17,” she recalled. “We were practicing the two-times tables. He did not know his two-times tables. I asked him what words he could spell. He spelled ‘the’ and ‘they,’ but he spelled ‘they’ ‘t-h-a-y.’ At [17] years old. His sister—she’s 10. She didn’t know her shapes.”

Rothbart couldn’t account for how a 17-year-old student could be so far behind.

“How did he get to that point?”

Homeschooling would normally be the next-best option for these students struggling in traditional schools, but Hammerlind and Rothbart said many of the working-class parents they know can’t devote the necessary time to it and need a place for their kids to go during the day.

“We just wanted an alternative for those kids because we see a lot of those kids and there’s nothing,” Hammerlind said.

So, they created Micah Studios as a refuge for these students.

Creating and operating this alternative requires start-up capital and tuition payments. While Hammerlind and Rothbart have been dipping into their own savings to get Micah Studios up and running, they knew tuition would present a problem for the local low-income families they intended to serve. But after learning about Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs)—New Hampshire’s largest school choice program—they knew they could do it.

“It would not have happened without the EFAs because the families we want to reach…can barely pay the rent,” Hammerlind said. “They don’t have money for an alternative school program without the EFAs.”

Micah Studios is funded entirely by EFA payments, meaning the three families enrolled do not pay anything out of pocket. All expenses are covered by the EFA grants.

“This could not happen if they had to pay a dime,” Hammerlind said.

The EFA payments alone are enough for Micah Studios to operate on a full-time basis: Monday–Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., nine months of the year. That allows the 12 learners currently enrolled to access a truly low-cost alternative educational setting.

The funding keeps Micah Studios afloat financially, allowing Hammerlind and Rothbart to rent space, purchase supplies, and take their learners on field trips.

With the funding taken care of, the logistics of actually setting up Micah Studios proved much easier for Hammerlind and Rothbart than they imagined.

When asked what regulatory bumps in the road they hit along the way, their answer was somewhat surprising.

“Bizarrely, none,” Hammerlind said. “And I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. We talked to the economic development person in town, and she’s like, ‘Oh no, you’re all set, you don’t need to do anything.’”

And that’s because Micah Studios is strictly a learning center. “We’re not a daycare and we’re not a school, so we don’t meet any of those regulations,” Hammerlind explained.

In other words, they don’t need to jump through any hoops with the town of Newport.

Similarly with the state, Hammerlind and Rothbart haven’t had any issues. “The state hasn’t asked us for anything either, no,” Hammerlind said. “I don’t think the state has any regulations for learning centers.” Rothbart added, “We are an official nonprofit.”

The kids at Micah Studios are all recognized as homeschoolers by the town and state. Under state law, as long as the students are properly observed as home-educated and/or in the EFA program, the learning center where they’re being educated falls outside the regulations required of nonpublic schools. So, it is that simple.

Hammerlind and Rothbart are currently renting space in a local church, as well as accessing the town library when necessary. The two entrepreneurs are not teachers, but guides, and the kids are learners, not students.

Micah Studios’ model is based on several important themes common among educational startups: Mixed-age classes, individualized learning, and student autonomy.

Micah Studios sees obvious benefits to a class of seven-year-olds, 17-year-olds, and every age in between.

“It’s amazing to see the different ages working together,” Hammerlind said. “And that’s the way society runs…that’s the way people are wired. We’re supposed to live in a community, and learn from your elders, and learn through play.”

Although traditional school settings keep kids of the same age group together, that doesn’t mean every student is at the same level academically. At Micah Studios, it’s understood that not every learner is at the same level, and the mixed-age setting allows for each learner to progress at their own pace regardless of age.

Rather than viewing the class as one unit of similarly aged students progressing at the same pace, the small, mixed-age environment allows Micah Studios to “focus on the whole child,” as Rothbart said, in what is an individualized approach to education.

And Hammerlind and Rothbart have tailored individualized educations for their learners.

“Each learner has a binder with their own specific work in it,” Rothbart noted. “So, they all have their own curriculums. Some of them are sharing the same curriculum, but they all are individualized to their learning.”

Rothbart took the time to understand where each of Micah Studios’ 12 learners was academically and tailor each curriculum to each individual learner, focusing on their interests and how they learn best. She’s relied on locally accessible curricula from Barnes & Noble and Borders, as well as online curricula such as Horizon and Beast Academy.

“One of my kids has requested Beast Academy because it’s a graphic-novel version of mathematics,” she said. “She’s like, ‘I can read a graphic novel chapter and then I can do my lesson. Maybe it will work better for me,’ because she’s such a visual learner.”

This individualized education works in tandem with the student autonomy at the heart of Micah Studios. Whether it’s their core learning, the meals they make for lunch, or their year-long projects, the learners direct their education based on their needs or interests.

“I look around and literally half the kids were at the chairs working with clipboards doing their work, and then the others were playing monopoly, and I’m looking and I’m like…‘I don’t have to do anything, this feels weird,’” Rothbart said. “Coming from somebody who subbed in the school district, I’m like on top of them constantly, ‘Do your work, do your work, do your work.’”

At Micah Studios, by contrast, the kids are at the helm of their learning.

Traditional schooling—teacher oversight and direction with a set curriculum—works for some kids, but not all. Hammerlind and Rothbart push back against those who would argue their nontraditional, student-driven approach is dysfunctional and unaccountable.

“People want to learn; kids are driven to learn,” Hammerlind countered. “They want to learn; they’re so excited about it. And these are kids that were not able to be successful in public school, so the structure of the public school pretty much failed them.”

“It’s not all about their academics either,” Rothbart added, “They’re a whole person. So, if they’re not okay in that situation with that structure, structure doesn’t work for everybody.”

“These were kids that probably a lot of them were bullied, or they have really bad anxiety, and they can’t thrive in the traditional setting,” Hammerlind explained. “So, public school may be wonderful for some people…but it’s not for everybody, and kids deserve choices and families deserve choices.”

To the best of their knowledge, Hammerlind and Rothbart are the only ones offering this kind of alternative for low-income families in the region. Before, the Newport school district faced no competition for the town’s low-income population in the education market. Enrolling their kids in the local government schools was the only available option financially for these Newport families. SAU 43 effectively had a monopoly on education in Newport.

Now, with Micah Studios entering the marketplace, these families have the choice to take both their kids and their state per-pupil adequate education grants out of their district public schools without having to leave their town. And Hammerlind and Rothbart are confident they’ve created a replicable model for others to follow.

This competition incentivizes improvement. This fall, the Newport school district has to compete for these families and their state per-pupil tax dollars. And the same principle applies to Micah Studios. If families are dissatisfied, they can go back to their assigned district school.

“This needed to happen,” Hammerlind said. “These kids needed this…. I mean, it’s such an honor that somebody else trusts you with their kids. It is the ultimate honor. ‘I want my kids to come be with you for the day because I know that they will be happy and they will be learning.’ So, yes, I guess we are educational entrepreneurs. Because, as far as we can tell, we’re the only ones focusing on this population in this area.”

Only a few weeks into their new venture, both education entrepreneurs have much to look forward to. “I think my excitement for the year is to learn with them,” Rothbart said.

“I’m excited to see the kids happy and wanting to learn,” Hammerlind added. “These are kids that were not happy, just not happy kids, miserable kids, and to see them laughing…that is the biggest thing I think.”

Micah Studios in Newport can be found online at

Editor’s note: Since the COVID-19 pandemic, educational entrepreneurship has boomed nationwide. New Hampshire has experienced significant growth in the number of entrepreneurs and innovators willing to take on the daunting challenge of building a new educational ecosystem. This year, we’ll be highlighting some of the people and organizations that have begun expanding the education marketplace in the Granite State, as well as the obstacles they face in creating nontraditional learning environments.

Our second installment highlights Acton Academy Bedford, a new microschool for homeschooling families looking for an alternative educational environment that focuses on learner agency and the Hero’s Journey.

Can you imagine quitting your job, leaving your career as a finance manager at BAE Systems behind, to start a small, nontraditional learning center on your property?

Well, that’s exactly what Will Forrester did. He and his wife, Caroline, are the founders of Acton Academy Bedford, the newest Acton Academy microschool in New Hampshire.

“Our daughter Claire started kindergarten this year. Before she started school, I was apprehensive, we both were, about her starting at public school,” Will said. “Both of us went through the motions of school, a K-12 experience, didn’t get much out of it, and we really didn’t want the same for her.”

Caroline knew they needed to make a change after the first parent-teacher conference. “One of the things that her teacher said was, ‘One thing that we’re working on is coloring things the right color, like how a horse can’t be purple.’ I was like, ‘What? That’s something that you’re calling out as part of the curriculum for kindergarteners?’” 

She wondered, “What other purpose is there other than just beating the creativity out of them?”

Searching for alternatives, the Forresters discovered Acton Academy. Advertised as “one-room schoolhouses for the 21st century,” this network consists of start-up microschools across the country focused on “turning learning upside down” through “adaptive game based programs for core skills,” “Socratic discussions to strengthen critical thinking,” “hands on real world projects,” and “life changing apprenticeships.”

The problem for the Forresters was that the closest Acton Academy to their Bedford home was an hour away. So, Will, with a military background, felt another calling to serve a cause greater than himself.

“For me, I was in the military—in the Marine Corps, served overseas—[and] something that I saw firsthand: This is something where I’m serving something greater than myself, and my life has real meaning, I’m contributing, and I started to get that feeling again when I started learning about Acton Academy.” 

Their decision was made: Will and Caroline would start their own Acton Academy right on their property in Bedford. 

In December 2022, the Forresters applied through Acton Academy—a process they noted was “very selective”—and were soon approved. They went through the orientation with Acton co-founder Jeff Sandefer and spent the next six to nine months renovating the empty space above their garage to serve as their studio. 

It made the most sense for Will and Caroline to start their Acton Academy on their residential property to help contain costs. Their property also brought the added benefit of having already been zoned for institutional use and not just residential, avoiding a headache that many other aspiring entrepreneurs must face. 

However, they didn’t avoid all governmental roadblocks.

Acton Academy Bedford is registered with New Hampshire as a homeschool co-op/learning center, and the students enrolled are all recognized as homeschoolers. 

This presented an obstacle for the Massachusetts families in the Forresters’ cohort. To homeschool your child in the Bay State, families must receive advance approval from the child’s school district—a requirement that does not exist in New Hampshire. 

“To pull their kids out of public schools to homeschool, they need to be approved,” Will said. “So, Westford and Burlington, they want all this information on what we’re going to be covering and the hours; it’s very detailed what they’re asking for. We did give them everything. We haven’t heard back yet on if they approved it or not, so maybe there are more hurdles that we have to jump through to get these Massachusetts families on board.”

What’s more, when the Forresters registered as an LLC in New Hampshire, the state kept rejecting their application but wouldn’t tell them why. Only by using their newfound network of Actons did they eventually figure out that the state required very specific language about their operation: Theirs would be a non-degree issuing learning center.

“That would’ve taken me probably a lot of time to figure out, like I was calling the office, no one’s telling me anything,” Will recalled. “And we had to pay every time we applied,” Caroline added.

Being part of the Acton network has benefits, the Forresters found. They have access to guidance and resources from the organization and can learn from, collaborate, and share ideas with education entrepreneurs around the country. Plus, the network gives each individual microschool the freedom to develop in their own way. 

“The cool thing is every location has the freedom to take it in whatever direction they want,” Caroline said. “Ours is going to be very outdoor focused because of our location.”

Besides their 700–800 square-foot indoor space, the Forresters will take advantage of their nearly three-acre property to encourage free play and outdoor learning. 

“We think being outside, free play, is something very important,” Will said. “Moving around, not being chained to a desk all day…. Being just under three acres and having goats and chickens and stuff, it’s a great environment for the young learners.”

And these young learners come from all over the state and region. In addition to Massachusetts, the six students/families at Acton Academy Bedford are as close by as neighboring Merrimack and Nashua and as far away as Rochester.

So, what brings this diverse group of families to a start-up in Bedford? “It’s the mission, and the Hero’s Journey, and trusting the child, the agency for these young learners—that’s what’s important to them,” Will observed. “They’re not getting it anywhere else.”

Moreover, “They all believe that the school system isn’t serving their kids the way it should be, and they want an alternative.”

And with the Acton name comes a reliable, trustworthy brand. To ensure trust among families, Will and Caroline had to pass background checks to be approved by Acton Academy and promise they would enroll their own child in their start-up microschool.

“When you do apply to open an Acton, one of the requirements is you have to be sending your own kids. You can’t open it if your own kids aren’t enrolled,” Caroline noted. “It’s the fact these parents all went through the exact same thing that we went through, and they’re doing it for their own kid, so I think that helps increase trust a lot.”

Talking with Will and Caroline, the word ‘agency’ kept coming up. “[The families] want agency for their young learners,” Will said. In other words, Acton Academy Bedford seeks to put their students in the driver’s seat of their own learning. 

Structuring their microschool around the Montessori and Socratic models helps facilitate this agency. “A big thing about the Montessori is that it’s self-correcting,” Will said. “We don’t want to create this hierarchy system like you see in traditional school where the teacher has all the knowledge.” 

He continued, “We don’t want the kids to think there’s one right answer in the back of the book. Everything is open for debate, discussion. So, the guides are very Socratic in the sense that they don’t answer any questions. That goes for all age groups. So, we want the young learners to be competent [and] feel like they can solve things on their own.”

Not a teacher, Will is Acton Academy Bedford’s full-time guide, setting the contours of the learning environment—namely, don’t hurt each other and always tell the truth—while the kids are free to take charge of their learning. 

“These young learners are coming up with their own rules for the classroom because we find that when they create the rules that they’re more likely to enforce them and hold each other accountable,” he said.

Central to the Forresters’ microschool and others in the Acton network is the focus on what they call the “Hero’s Journey.” Caroline said the emphasis is on using the power of storytelling, particularly the adventure rather than the ending, to encourage young learners to envision themselves in their own story of growth and self-discovery.

“Everything that we do at Acton is framed in putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, or how can they envision themselves as the hero?” she mentioned.

The Hero’s Journey, self-pacing, sparking and maintaining a love of learning, building conflict resolution skills—these are all ways in which the Forresters hope to invest students in their own education.

“We want to create that growth mindset where they’re going to fail, and that’s okay, that’s part of growing, and if you’re not failing, you’re not learning, and you’re not challenging yourself,” Will added.

In traditional public and private schools, first graders to eighth graders typically share classes with peers of the same age. Rarely, if ever, do students find themselves in a classroom with others of different ages.

But, like other microschools, Acton Academy Bedford introduces a mixed-age classroom environment, where the five-year-old students have an opportunity to share a class with and learn from seven to ten-year-olds, and vice versa.

“Because nowhere else in the real world is it like that,” Will noted. “You need to learn how to deal with people [of] different ages. You’re going to probably learn something from them, they’ll probably learn something from you. We have a seven-and-a-half-year-old that’s going to have an opportunity to be a leader in a class. What other institution provides that?”

He saw clear disadvantages with the alternative. “The fact that we split everybody up by age, even though they may have different interests or capabilities—you may have someone in first grade that’s operating at a fourth-grade level when it comes to math but you’re going to put them with a bunch of first graders just because [they’re] the same age? It makes no sense.”

Will and Caroline know there will be challenges to operating their own microschool, as well as frustrations among students adjusting to this new educational model. But as entrepreneurs, the Forresters are prepared and have the necessary flexibility to adjust to the needs of their students and the demands of running a small business. 

In fact, they’ve already begun adapting to the financial needs of their customers. In addition to accepting Education Freedom Account (EFA) funds, the Forresters also offer volunteer and sibling discounts to help make their services more affordable.

Acton Academy Bedford is open for its first year and operates Monday–Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., for 11 months. One month off may seem demanding, but the Forresters counter that, “When you love school, you want to be there.”

Hearkening back to his time in the Marines, Will closed with his motivation as a new education entrepreneur. “It’s not for me—I say it’s for my daughter—but it’s for the community, it’s for the greater good, and that’s the same feeling I got in the Marine Corps, so that’s really what gets me so fired up and excited.”

Acton Academy Bedford can be found online at

New Hampshire’s district public schools had the nation’s largest percentage increase in staffing relative to enrollment from 1994–2022, a new study has found. 

The study by economist Ben Scafidi, director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University, found that district K-12 public school staffing in New Hampshire increased by 55% from the 1994 to 2022 fiscal years even as student enrollment fell by 11.2%.

“The staffing surge in New Hampshire public schools was the largest in the nation between 1994 and 2022,” Scafidi said.

New Hampshire’s gap between staffing growth and enrollment—66.2 percentage points—was by far the largest margin among all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Seven states had larger percentage increases in staffing, but they all had large increases in enrollment as well, which produced smaller gaps between enrollment and staffing than New Hampshire’s. 

For comparison, Florida’s increase in public school staffing was only 7.1 percentage points greater than its bump in student enrollment. Massachusetts’ gap was 44.1 points, Maine’s was 44.7, and Vermont’s was 26.6. The national gap was 28.1 points.

Nationwide during those years, district public school enrollment increased by 7.5% and staffing surged by 35.6%—nearly five times above what was necessary to accommodate the rise in student enrollment. That staffing surge was larger than in public higher education and all other state and local government services.

For public higher education nationally, the gap between enrollment growth (25.5%) and staffing growth (35.8%) was just 10.3 percentage points. During this same period, all state and local government staff excluding public education grew by 11.6% as the U.S. population grew by a much larger 32.3%. 

“Many advocates and leaders of public schools routinely claim that public schools are not a priority in America,” Scafidi said. “The data show that to be the opposite of the truth. For decades, K-12 public schools have been the employment priority for state and local governments across the United States.” 

New Hampshire found itself among 22 states (plus the District of Columbia) that experienced declining enrollment during this time. Among those states, 19 saw both declining enrollment and increased staffing. 

In other words, New Hampshire was in the minority of states that hired more personnel to serve fewer students.

In the Granite State, district K-12 public schools were clearly the employment priority of the state and local governments from 1994–2022. Public higher education staffing in New Hampshire grew by 23.3%, though enrollment grew by just 1.1% in those years. That 22.2-point gap is much larger than the national gap of 10.3 points. But it’s roughly a third of New Hampshire’s 66.2-point gap between enrollment and staffing in K-12 public schools. 

All other state and local government staff increased by only 13.1% as the Granite State population grew by 27.2% during those years. 

These figures reinforce the findings in the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy’s school funding study, also written by Scafidi, which we published this spring. In that study, Scafidi found that inflation-adjusted spending on K-12 public education in New Hampshire skyrocketed 40% from 2001–2019. 

With a decades-long surge in public school spending and hiring, why are we seeing reports that some school districts are having difficulty recruiting teachers going into the 2023–24 school year?

Simply put, New Hampshire’s district public schools have tended to devote their increased resources to hiring more staff, which leaves them with less money to spend on teacher pay. As we pointed out in a previous analysis, while average district public school spending in New Hampshire is 14.4% above the national average, teacher salaries fall 5.3% below the national average. 

From 2001–2019, teacher salaries grew by only 12% in New Hampshire. At the same time, current spending on a per-pupil basis (spending that excludes debt service and capital expenditures) surged by 74%, showing that the focus was hiring, not increasing teacher pay, even as enrollment fell.

What’s more, very little of New Hampshire’s staffing surge was dedicated to hiring more teachers. Our study published this spring showed that the number of K-12 public school teachers in the state grew by only 2% from 2001–2019. The number of instructional coordinators (considered district administrators by the U.S. Department of Education) and other district administrators, on the other hand, ballooned by 61% and 57%, respectively. Student support staff and paraprofessionals/aides each increased by 41% and 40%, respectively—again, as enrollment in the state fell.

Scafidi’s new study shows that the district K-12 public school staffing surge occurred nationwide over the last three decades, but it was particularly large in some states and greatest in New Hampshire. New Hampshire policymakers often boast that the state leads numerous national rankings. Unfortunately, this is not a ranking that such a famously frugal state should want to lead.