School districts that offered less in-person instruction last year saw fewer students pass end-of-year standardized tests, a new academic study of student performance in 12 states has found. 

Pass rates declined across the board compared to prior years, but “these declines were larger in districts with less in-person instruction,” conclude researchers from Brown University, M.I.T., and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. 

During the 2020-21 school year, passing rates in math declined by 14.2 percentage points on average, and passing rates in English Language Arts declined by 6.3 percentage points on average, in the 12 studied states (which included Massachusetts, but not New Hampshire).

However, “offering full in-person instruction rather than fully hybrid or virtual instruction reduces test score losses in math by 10.1 percentage points (on the base of 14.2 percentage points). In ELA, the loss is reduced in fully in-person settings by 3.2 percentage points.”

Moreover, academic losses in English Language Arts were more pronounced in districts with larger populations of minority students.

“Specifically, among districts with a larger share of Black and Hispanic students, districts with less in-person schooling saw a greater decline in ELA test scores than those with more in-person schooling. Although the impact of schooling mode on ELA is fairly small for districts which are majority white, it is large for those districts with a majority of students of color. Meanwhile, the impact of access to in-person learning had a similar effect on math scores for all districts, regardless of their racial composition.”

The results support the conclusion that in-person instruction produces larger learning gains, on average, than hybrid and remote instruction, the authors write.

“…our analyses demonstrate that virtual or distanced schooling modes cannot support student learning in the same way as in-person schooling. As such, educational impacts of schooling mode on students’ learning outcomes should be a critical factor in policy responses to future pandemics or other large-scale schooling disruptions,” they conclude.

The authors are Emily Oster and Clare Halloran of Brown University, James Okun of M.I.T., and Rebecca jack of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

The study is not the first to find that remote and hybrid instruction produced large drops in academic performance. 

One from the Netherlands in April found that “students made little or no progress while learning from home.”

A meta-analysis this fall of 11 studies of COVID-related school closures on student performance found “a negative effect of school closures on student achievement, specifically in younger students and students from families with low socioeconomic status.”

These findings suggest that school closures probably were a significant factor in the drop in student test scores in New Hampshire last year. New Hampshire scores in math and reading dropped by percentages similar to those in other states. 

On September 28, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe said in a debate, “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision. I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Before that debate, McAuliffe had led Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin in every poll but one. The day after the debate, the Youngkin campaign released its first ad featuring McAuliffe’s quote. A month later, Youngkin was leading in all polls. He won, with parental authority in education being a defining issue of the race. 

The issue wasn’t new for Virginians. In his term as governor, McAuliffe had vetoed a bill to alert parents when sexually explicit material was being taught to their children. This year, he supported COVID-19 vaccination and mask mandates for all schools. 

The issue wasn’t primarily about books or education theory. It was about the nature of public school governance. 

Broadly speaking, some people believe public schools should be more democratic than bureaucratic in nature. That is, they largely should reflect the views of local families and taxpayers and be responsive to parents. Another camp generally views public schools as “government schools.” That is, they exist as a sort of government bureaucracy, the purpose of which is to disseminate whatever content the experts in the field determine is best. 

McAuliffe expressed the latter view, and he paid for it. 

In practice, public schools tend to be a mix of both views, and the question is how far do they tip to one side or the other. McAuliffe refused to acknowledge that a balance exists, and he picked the wrong side of the scale.

A huge amount of trust is necessary for public education to work. When parents put their kids on the bus or drop them at the school door, they are exercising tremendous trust, built in part on the understanding that they have some say in what happens inside the building. If they are told otherwise, trust immediately breaks down. 

A USA Today/Suffolk poll in October found that 50% of voters said parents should have more of an influence over school curricula, while 39% said school boards should. Independents (57%) and Republicans (79%) favored parents, but Democrats favored school boards 70%-16%.

According to exit polls, Youngkin won parents of school-aged children 52%-48%. Just the year before, Joe Biden won that same group of Virginians by 10 points. (Biden also won non-parents by 15 points, and Youngkin won them by 50%-49%.)

Polls before the election showed education surging to become a top 3 issue for voters in the final month. It wasn’t the only reason Youngkin won. But education probably tipped the election to Youngkin — because he expressed the view that the “public” in “public schools” meant citizens, not government. 

Youngkin’s victory was not just a revolt of parents. Americans who don’t have children in public schools have developed a sense of dissatisfaction with public education too. There’s a broad sense of powerlessness that comes through in public polling going back decades. 

In Gallup polling, the public hasn’t reported having a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public schools since 1987. Confidence in public schools has hovered in the mid-to-low 30s since 2010. Most Americans (54%) this year say they’re dissatisfied with what’s taught in K-12 public schools. 

A FOX News poll last month found that 73% of Americans said they were very concerned about what was being taught in public schools. Again, that’s not new. The figure was 85% in a FOX poll in 2013.

The sense of powerlessness against the bureaucracy was reflected in polling about school closures during COVID, when parents were given limited options. In March, when roughly a third of students had no access to in-person schooling, 79% of parents said they wanted school to be in person. 

That feeling of powerlessness is a big reason why school choice polls so well. Parents educational want options, and the general public agrees they should have options. 

In October, already broad support for school choice rose as parents’ role in education became a national political issue. The national tracking poll by EdChoice found that 70% of Americans support Education Savings Accounts, and 80% of parents do. 

Current controversies such as COVID-19 closures, mask mandates and Critical Race Theory did not create the demand that public schools be more responsive to parental and community concerns. That demand was already there. They made it stronger and broader.

The harder politicians work to keep parents (and citizens) on the outside of the system, the less parents and citizens will trust the system. Lower trust fuels greater demands for alternatives. Politicians who think they’re defending public schools by building walls to keep parents and citizens out are really undermining them by alienating the people they are intended to serve — and who have the power of the vote. 

Academic and behavioral outcomes among traditional public school students improve as their schools face greater competition from school choice, an analysis of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program shows.

As New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Accounts program takes off this fall, this research from Florida’s much older scholarship program shows how the competition created by school choice benefits students who remain in traditional public schools, not just students who take the scholarships.

“We find evidence that as public schools are more exposed to private school choice, their students experience increasing benefits as the program scales up,” the authors write. “In particular, higher levels of private school choice exposure are associated with lower rates of suspensions and absences, and with higher standardized test scores in reading and in math.”

Specifically, “a doubling in the number of students participating in the voucher program increases test scores by 3 to 7 percent of a standard deviation and reduces behavioral problems by 6 to 9 percent” for students who remain in traditional public schools.

And the effects are strongest for lower-income students.

The authors found that “public school students who are most positively affected come from comparatively lower socioeconomic background….”

They found smaller, but statistically significant, gains for higher-income students “who are very unlikely to be targeted by vouchers themselves, suggesting that benefits may come partially through generalized school improvements rather than through improvements targeted solely at voucher-eligible students.”

The study, titled “Effects of Scaling Up Private School Choice Programs on Public School Students,” was conducted by professors David Figlio of Northwestern University, Cassandra Hart of the University of California at Davis, and Krzysztof Karbownik of Emory University.

Previous studies have shown similar benefits for traditional public school students from the creation of school choice programs, but those typically focused on the first few years of the choice program. The authors wanted to see whether those findings would hold as choice programs expanded over many years.

The authors examined student achievement in Florida for the first 16 years of the tax credit scholarship, which began in the 2002-03 school year. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program “provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits to corporations that contribute to nonprofit Scholarship Funding Organizations.”

At the start of the program, students with a household income below 185 percent of the federal poverty line ($33,485 for a family of four) were eligible for up to $3,500 in scholarships. Now the scholarships are an average of $6,815 per student and families that earn up to 260 percent of the FPL ($68,900 for a family of four) are eligible.

Figlio, Hart, and Karbownik looked specifically at students Florida-born students between grades 3 and 8 because of consistently available standardized test scores.

The authors summarized their results in an essay for Education Next, where they listed the following findings:

  • “As the scholarship program scaled up, academic and behavioral outcomes improved for students attending traditional public schools.”
  • “Students attending schools with more competitive pressure made larger gains as program enrollment grew statewide than did students at schools with less market competition.”
  • As the number of students using scholarships increases, test scores for public school students increased in reading and math. The number of students being suspended declines and “the proportion of days that students were absent falls.”
  • “Reading and math scores at schools in markets with more competitive pressure increase by about 14.5 percent of a standard deviation by 2014, as compared to schools facing less competition.”
  • Schools that later faced greater competition from school choice programs started with lower outcomes than other public schools. The competition from school choice programs raised student outcomes in those schools, narrowing the achievement gap between the lower-performing and higher-performing schools.
  • Positive impacts were greater for lower income students, but also affected more affluent students.

More students using scholarships to attend private schools would increase competition for public schools and result in higher academic and behavioral outcomes and positive behavioral outcomes for non-scholarship students, the authors conclude.

For more information on New Hampshire’s Tax Credit Scholarship and Education Freedom Account programs, visit Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire, which administers the programs.

To read our study on the new Education Freedom Account program, go here.

Previous studies that have also found improved public school outcomes after the introduction of school choice programs can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

As education policy moved to the forefront of our national political discourse this fall, support for school choice programs increased in October, Morning Consult’s monthly school choice tracking poll for EdChoice shows.

Far from being “controversial,” school choice programs remain strongly popular nationwide and gained popularity as the debate over the role of parents in education intensified.

Nationally, 80 percent of parents with school age children expressed support for Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) in October.  Seventy-six percent support voucher programs and 75 percent support charter schools.

Among adults, strong majorities also supported school choice programs, with 70 percent supporting ESAs, 64 percent supporting vouchers, and 67 percent supporting charter schools.

Support for ESAs in New Hampshire remains high, with support from 71 percent of parents and 67 percent of the public favoring them, according to the poll.

This fall, New Hampshire launched a new Education Savings Account program, called Education Freedom Accounts. With an Education Freedom Account, a family can use a state grant to pay for the educational services they choose. That can be tuition at another public or private school, home-education materials, tutoring, community college courses, online classes, special education services, or other approved educational services.

You cam learn more about EFAs, and how to apply, at the Children’s Scholarship Fund.

For more information about school choice in New Hampshire, including EFAs, see the Education section of our website.

For more details on the Morning Consult Polling, visit https://edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com/

A college degree is a major investment in a better economic future, high school students are constantly told. But that isn’t always true. More than a quarter of college majors produce a negative return on investment, according to a study by Preston Cooper at the Foundation for Research on Economic Opportunity. 

A lot of studies have shown that STEM and business degrees pay better over a career than degrees such as psychology and education. (Here’s one Georgetown University did a few years ago.) 

Cooper’s study adds real value to the debate by ranking degrees based on the financial return on the student’s investment, not just lifetime earnings. Many studies simply point out that earning a degree leads to X average lifetime earnings. But getting the degree is costly, and that includes opportunity costs (foregone earnings while in school and in a career that didn’t require a college degree). Those costs have to be subtracted from the future earnings to get an accurate understanding of a degree’s value. 

Cooper also creates a searchable database that lets students compare nearly 30,000 degree programs at 1,775 colleges and universities. There’s a real difference in value not just among degrees, but among the same degree at different institutions, and this study explores that in detail. 

“The analysis reveals that a student’s choice of program is perhaps the most important financial decision he or she will ever make,” Cooper writes. “Most bachelor’s degree programs in engineering, computer science, economics, and nursing increase lifetime earnings by $500,000 or more, even after subtracting the costs of college. But most programs in fields such as art, music, philosophy, religion, and psychology leave students financially worse off than if they had never gone to college at all.”

Among the findings: 

  • For students who graduate on time, the median bachelor’s degree has a net ROI of $306,000. But some degrees are worth millions of dollars, while others have no net financial value at all.
  • After accounting for the risk of dropping out, ROI for the median bachelor’s degree drops to $129,000. Over a quarter of programs have negative ROI.
  • College rankings like the U.S. News and World Report emphasize choice of institution. But from a financial perspective, choice of major is the more important consideration. Major alone explains nearly half the variation in ROI. Students will have a much greater chance of financial success if they study engineering, computer science, nursing, or economics, rather than art, music, religion, psychology, or education.
  • Thirty-seven percent of programs do not deliver a financial return when adjusting for spending and completion. Another 32% have a lifetime ROI below $250,000.
  • Assuming students graduate in four years, 16% of college degrees have a negative return on investment. But many students take five or six years to graduate. Adjusting for actual completion times, 28% of degrees are found to have a negative return.
  • Programs at the most expensive schools (those with net tuition above $12,700) have a median completion-adjusted ROI of $198,000, compared to $129,000 for all programs. On average, the higher payoff from more expensive schools is enough to make the heftier tuition bill worth it.
  • Though elite colleges dominate the list of top programs in the country, attending an elite school is no golden ticket. Over 100 programs at colleges with an acceptance rate below 20% have negative ROI. Several U.S. News juggernauts such as Harvard, Penn, and Chicago all offer at least one program that leaves its students financially worse off.
  • At Harvard University, students who major in ethnic and gender studies can expect an ROI of negative $47,000. The film and photographic arts program at the University of Pennsylvania has an ROI of negative $140,000. Seventeen different programs at New York University have negative ROI, with the worst among them (music) leaving students over $500,000 in the hole.

Another blow to the argument for “free college” 

The study’s findings can be added to the list of reasons why “free college” for all is a bad idea. 

First, most degrees pay for themselves many times over, so there’s no need for the government to subsidize them. 

One might argue that the government should subsidize degrees such as psychology and education that produce a low or even negative financial return because they are valuable to society as a whole. 

But that assumes that the content of those programs is inherently valuable, when it might be the case that the programs struggle to produce larger returns because they are poor programs. 

The study finds that some education and psychology degrees produce large returns, though the median program produces poor returns. That suggests that some programs are of much higher quality than others. Subsidizing all degrees in a particular field would provide taxpayer support for mediocre and poor programs, preventing market incentives from improving those programs.

A better option would be to provide prospective students with data on long-term earnings for various programs. Over time, that would lead to improvements in the lower-performing programs, whereas government subsidies would provide those programs with steady cashflows regardless of their performance. 

A quick look at UNH

How does the University of New Hampshire stack up? Here’s a look at two majors, Animal Sciences and Business Administration. UNH generally ranks well on longer-term earnings vs. other public universities in the region. 

The median earnings for an Animal Sciences major at age 45 are $64,076 at UNH, $54,423 at the University of Connecticut, $53,112 at the University of Rhode Island, $54,643 at the University of Vermont, $61,251 at the University of Maine, and $55,160 at UMass-Amherst. (But they’re $88,314 at Auburn University.)

The median earnings for a Business Administration major at age 45 are $101,903 at UNH, $124,785 at Boston University, $88,364 at Granite State College, $74,587 at Keene State College, $77,070 at New England College, $112,671 at New England College of Business and Finance, $100,237 at New England Institute of Technology, $131,372 at Northeastern University, $74,488 at Plymouth State University, $97,549 at Southern New Hampshire University, $85,514 at Suffolk University, $101,943 at the University of Connecticut, $72,660 at the University of Maine, $78,154 at the University of Hartford, $108,619 at UMass-Amherst, $73,692 at the University of New England, $95,622 at the University of Rhode Island, and $92,148 at the University of Vermont.

Below are the earnings at ages 25, 35, and 45 for all UNH majors covered in the study. 

You can search the database here (about halfway down the page). 

 

University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Agricultural Production Operations. $27,322 $36,157 $40,217
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Animal Sciences. $30,783 $53,826 $64,076
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Anthropology. $26,498 $45,574 $50,798
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology. $44,520 $91,483 $106,677
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Other. $36,109 $65,240 $69,686
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Biology, General. $39,139 $79,726 $90,553
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Business Administration, Management and Operations. $53,050 $90,855 $101,903
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Chemical Engineering. $66,348 $96,549 $119,263
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Chemistry. $43,960 $79,179 $93,577
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Civil Engineering. $58,541 $93,959 $110,601
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Communication and Media Studies. $43,363 $80,693 $86,509
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Communication Disorders Sciences and Services. $20,388 $28,216 $31,515
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Computer and Information Sciences, General. $73,098 $118,834 $138,388
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Computer Engineering. $71,595 $122,339 $132,446
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Criminology. $36,490 $59,905 $66,479
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Drama/Theatre Arts and Stagecraft. $27,227 $47,367 $54,268
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Economics. $49,684 $83,330 $89,508
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Electrical, Electronics and Communications Engineering. $69,454 $112,119 $132,842
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus English Language and Literature, General. $30,296 $51,041 $56,630
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Environmental/Environmental Health Engineering. $52,699 $82,893 $109,012
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Ethnic, Cultural Minority, Gender, and Group Studies. $27,826 $48,179 $49,207
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Fine and Studio Arts. $24,571 $38,649 $40,419
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Genetics. $44,431 $86,481 $99,976
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Geography and Cartography. $28,950 $46,774 $51,320
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Health and Medical Administrative Services. $50,711 $77,632 $93,663

More than 1,000 New Hampshire families have applied for one of the state’s new Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs), showing strong demand for a program that offers many lower-income families their first real alternative to their assigned public school. Sadly, opponents of the program have cited this strong interest as a reason to prevent the program from growing.

Opponents claim the program will cost taxpayers too much money, so it should be capped. In fact, the program will save taxpayers millions. And the more public school students who take an EFA, the more taxpayers will save.

Authorized by the Legislature this year, Education Freedom Accounts allow families with incomes of no more than 300% of the federal poverty level to spend their state adequate education grant on educational services of their choice (from an approved state list). EFAs involve only state education grants; all local taxpayer money remains in the public schools.

The average cost of each EFA is expected to be approximately $4,600. For context, the state Department of Education projects the average per student expenditure in New Hampshire public schools in 2020-21 to be $21,401.

EFAs educate students for less than a quarter of what taxpayers currently spend, on average.

About 1,500 families have applied for an EFA for this fall, according to news reports. If each application is approved, opponents argue, the program will cost the state $7 million this year, which is more than the state budgeted for the program. Opponents simply multiply the $4,600 average EFA grant by 1,500 students. (The total with these round numbers would be $6.9 million.)

But that number is misleading because it overestimates the cost to the state and doesn’t count the savings to local school districts.

First, let’s consider that number in the larger context of education spending in New Hampshire. The total spending on public education in the 2020-21 school year was more than $3.3 billion. The state portion of the spending at the end of the 2021 fiscal year was just over $769 million.

This would mean that even if EFAs were to cost the state $7 million this year, that figure would amount to less than 1% of state spending for public education and 0.2% of the total education spending.

The actual percentage will be much smaller, though, because many EFA students are already enrolled in public schools. For any student who is leaving a district public school, the EFA grant he or she will receive does not represent new spending. It’s money already budgeted for that student’s education. The state just deposits it into the family’s EFA instead of the school district’s bank account, so there is no change to the state portion of the funding.

At the local level, the school district keeps every dollar raised by local taxation. It remains with the school district even though the student does not. Thus, more money is left for fewer students.

The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy studied the financial impact of the EFA program earlier this year. Our analysis projected that taxpayers would save $6.65 million in the first two years of the program based on a conservative estimate of EFA enrollment.

We estimated that 966 students would use an EFA this year and 2,335 would use one next year. If first-year enrollment is closer to 1,500 students, state costs will a little higher, somewhere just above $1 million, roughly. But total taxpayer savings will also be higher, closer to $3 million instead of our projected $1.85 million.

The additional costs over what were budgeted are tiny — a few million dollars out of $769 million in state-funded education spending (and $3.3 billion in total New Hampshire education spending).

From a financial point of view, there’s no reason to cap EFA enrollment based on the interest parents have shown in the program this fall.

From a humanitarian point of view, a cap would be bad for children.

While the political conversation has focused on costs, the argument about educational choice is not fundamentally an economic one. It’s about who gets to decide how each child is educated.

First, it’s obvious that the objections to EFAs aren’t really about costs. Just consider the following scenario.

Imagine that legislators enacted a program that attracted 1,500 students out of private schools and homeschooling and into local public schools. That program would represent somewhere between $21 million and $32 million in increased cost to our public education system.

Does anyone believe that EFA opponents would object to this program because of the increased costs? Of course not. They would cheer the growth in public school enrollment.

The argument against EFAs is not about costs. It is about who gets to control education and education spending – parents or school districts.

As good as New Hampshire public schools are, not every child is successful in a traditional public school. EFAs let those students seek alternatives that work for them. That’s all.

Parents ought to have that option. Opponents know that most parents agree. So they try to attack the program by claiming it costs too much. It doesn’t. What’s really costly is limiting children’s futures by forcing them to stay in schools that don’t work for them.

What is an Education Freedom Account (EFA)?

An Education Freedom Account (EFA) is a government-approved savings account that can be used to pay for various educational expenses.  EFAs let families use their state per-pupil adequate education grant to purchase educational services outside of their assigned public school.  The grant amount will vary by student.  The average grant is estimated to be about $4,600 per student in the 2021-2022 school year.

Why Would I Want an EFA?

Not every child thrives in his or her assigned public school.  With an EFA, families can get help paying for an alternative education.  An EFA puts the family, rather than the school district, in charge of a child’s education dollars.  It allows families the freedom to choose the schooling option that works best for their children.

Who is Eligible for an EFA?

The eligibility requirements are fairly simple.  A New Hampshire resident who is eligible to enroll in a public K-12 school, and whose family earns no more than 300% of the federal poverty level, is eligible for an EFA.  School-age students who meet the income requirement can qualify for an EFA even if they are currently home-schooled enrolled in a private school.

The income eligibility (300% of the federal poverty level) breaks down as follows:

 

Household size Annual Income
2 $52,260
3 $65,880
4 $79,500
5 $93,120
6 $106,740

 

What Types of Education Expenses are Eligible for EFA Funding?

  • Private School Tuition
  • Community College Courses
  • Curriculum for homeschooling
  • Fees for national tests
  • Educational Therapies
  • School supplies
  • Tuition to another public school
  • And More! *Scroll to the bottom for a complete list of eligible expenses

How Can I Apply for an EFA?

Children’s Scholarship Fund NH administers the program. Apply through their website at https://nh.scholarshipfund.org/apply/nh-education-freedom-accounts/

How do I Use the EFA Money?

The state deposits money quarterly into the EFA. Children’s Scholarship Fund NH provides an online platform, Classwallet, that makes payments to education vendors or for other approved expenses (third party payment, similar to Pay Pal).

Where Can I Find More Info about EFAs?

 

Full list of qualifying EFA expenses:

(a)  Tuition and fees at a private school.

(b)  Tuition and fees for non-public online learning programs.

(c)  Tutoring services provided by an individual or a tutoring facility.

(d)  Services contracted for and provided by a district public school, chartered public school, public academy, or independent school, including, but not limited to, individual classes and curricular activities and programs.

(e)  Textbooks, curriculum, or other instructional materials, including, but not limited to, any supplemental materials or associated online instruction required by either a curriculum or an education service provider.

(f)  Computer hardware, Internet connectivity, or other technological services and devices, that are primarily used to help meet an EFA student’s educational needs.

(g)  Educational software and applications.

(h)  School uniforms.

(i)  Fees for nationally standardized assessments, advanced placement examinations, examinations related to college or university admission or awarding of credits and tuition and/or fees for preparatory courses for such exams.

(j)  Tuition and fees for summer education programs and specialized education programs.

(k)  Tuition, fees, instructional materials, and examination fees at a career or technical school.

(l)  Educational services and therapies, including, but not limited to, occupational, behavioral, physical, speech-language, and audiology therapies.

(m)  Tuition and fees at an institution of higher education.

(n)  Fees for transportation paid to a fee-for-service transportation provider for the student to travel to and from an education service provider.

(o)  Any other educational expense approved by the scholarship organization.

This year’s state budget, up for a vote on Thursday, contains an Education Freedom Account (EFA) program to give families more options for educating their children. Here is a quick summary of who has similar programs and how this one would work.

What is an EFA?

Nationally, these programs are known as Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). New Hampshire being New Hampshire, ours is called an Education Freedom Account.  Like other ESAs, it consists of a government-approved savings account that can be used for authorized educational expenses only.

The media routinely refer to the EFA program as a voucher, but it is not. Traditional vouchers pay for school tuition by sending a state payment directly to an education provider. An EFA does not work that way. With an EFA, the state deposits a student’s education grant into an approved savings account that is controlled by the parent. The parent may then choose to spend those funds on a list of approved educational expenses.

These restricted-use savings accounts are similar to a health savings account. Expenditures are limited to a list of legislatively approved uses. Qualified educational expenses include, to name a few, tuition and fees to private schools or other public schools, tuition and fees for non-public online learning programs, tutoring services, textbooks, curricula and other instructional materials, computer hardware, internet connectivity, other tech services, school uniforms, and educational services and therapies.

Where did EFAs come from?

Education Savings Accounts have been around for more than a decade and have been growing in popularity.

In 2020, five states had ESA programs: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Arizona’s program started in 2011. About 4% of eligible students are participating in Arizona’s ESA program.

So far this year, 11 states have already passed at least one new or expanded educational choice bill, and legislation is pending in other states.

Kentucky and Missouri both passed ESA programs funded by donations for which donors erceive tax credits.

Indiana has created a new publicly funded ESA program to assist students with special needs and expanded the state’s tax-credit scholarships (both were passed in the two-year state budget).

West Virginia has passed an ESA program called the Hope Scholarship in which every student entering kindergarten or switching from public school is eligible for 100% of his or state education funds (about $4,600).

What do EFAs look like in New Hampshire?

New Hampshire’s EFA program has an income eligibility cap of 300% of the federal poverty level ($79,500 for a family of four).  The Josiah Bartlett Center estimates that just over 30 percent of New Hampshire families of school age children would qualify to apply for the program.

If approved, a family would have its state per-pupil education grant deposited into the EFA instead of sent to the district school. According to state Dept. of Education, the grant would average about $4,600 per student in the 2021-22 school year. As mentioned above, families could then use these funds to pay for a variety of educational expenses.

For the vast majority of students, the state will continue sending the adequate education grant directly to their assigned public school. But for families who choose an EFA, the money goes into the savings account. The Josiah Bartlett Center estimates that fewer than 1,000 students would take an EFA in the first year and around 2,000 in the second year. (You can read our study of the EFA proposal here.)

Our research also shows that Education Freedom Accounts would not raise property taxes or destroy school budgets. State aid to local schools would decline by only 0.024% in the second year of the program. And taxpayers would actually save $6.65 million in the first two years.

EFAs would not be the first educational choice program in New Hampshire. The state already has an education tax credit (ETC) scholarship for low-to-middle income families. Charter schools are independent public schools that exist in some communities. And, towns have long been allowed to tuition students to other schools.

These other choice options are extremely limited and are not available to many Granite State students. The Children’s Scholarship Fund-N.H., for example, manages a tax credit scholarship program that helped 626 students in the 2020-2021 school year. But about 800 students were left on a wait list.

Families of greater means have greater educational options. They can choose private schools or move to another school district. Education Freedom Accounts would offer lower-income families the ability to get the best education for their children too.

Funding public education doesn’t mean funding a school building. It means providing each student with the education that best fits that student’s needs. EFAs offer families a way to match their children with the education that works best for them.

The New Hampshire Senate has rolled into its budget a bill (Senate Bill 130) to create Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs), which would give lower-income families the option of choosing the school that best fits their child’s needs. Critics say they would defund public schools. But this isn’t true. EFAs would save taxpayers money while giving families more educational options.

In New Hampshire’s current education funding system, the state directs $3,708.78 in “base adequacy aid” to public schools for each student enrolled. This funding is supplemented for students with additional needs. Students who qualify for special education services, free and reduced-priced lunch, or who are English language learners receive additional funds.

The EFA legislation would let parents who earn no more than 300% of the federal poverty level apply for a state-approved Education Freedom Account. Any family approved for EFA would have its state per-pupil funding deposited into the EFA, which is a restricted savings account. Money in the account could be used only for approved educational expenses.

How would this affect public school spending?

The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy analyzed the fiscal impact of the bill this spring, and our report concluded that the cost of the program to the state would be approximately $2.4 million in the 2021-2022 school year and $5.9 million in the 2022-2023 school year.

The state Department of Education has estimated total expenditures in public education will be somewhere around $3.5 billion, and the state portion will be just above $1 billion in each of the next two school years.

The estimated $2.4 million price tag, if you will, for ESAs in 2021-2022 would be just 0.24% of state education spending and a mere 0.07% of the total projected expenditures on public education in New Hampshire when local and federal funds are included.

The $5.9 million cost in 2022-2023 is still only 0.59% of the projected state expenditures.

On the local side, EFAs would result in savings, not increased expenses.

As mentioned above, the state portion of education expenditures is less than 30% of the total education funding in New Hampshire. In the 2019-2020 school year, 62.6% of total education expenditures in New Hampshire were provided by local taxation.

A student whose family chooses an ESA instead of  his or her assigned public school would receive an average of $4,578 in state per-pupil funding in 2021-2022 and $4,803 in 2022-2023.  This money would leave a district school. But so would the student, and thus, the need to spend additional money raised by local taxation to educate that student.

Our study projects that school districts would save $4.2 million in 2021-2022 and $10.7 million in 2022-2023. Subtracting the cost to the state of $2.4 million and $5.9 million, you get a net taxpayer savings of $1.85 million in the first year and $4.8 million in the second year.

Although saving money is not the primary intent of this policy, EFAs would lead to an estimated $6.65 million in net taxpayer savings in the first two years of the program alone.

The fear mongering claim that EFAs would “defund public schools” just isn’t true. They would save taxpayers money while providing students who don’t succeed in their assigned public school a much-needed option for finding a school that works for them.

EFAs are not an attempt to defund public schools or “privatize education.” The EFA legislation incorporated into the state budget would do neither of those things. It would provide an alternative way to fund public education for lower-income New Hampshire families whose children need educational options that might not be available through their assigned district school.

EFAs would account for less than 1% of projected state education expenditures and save local taxpayers $6.65 million over the next two school years. That would be good deal for both students and taxpayers.

The state Senate on Thursday voted to repeal two state laws that unconstitutionally exclude religious schools from participating in state education tuitioning programs. Both bills were previously approved by the House.

House Bill 282 repeals the state’s prohibition (in RSA 193:1) on religious schools participating in town tuition programs. 

State law allows local governments to assign students to a non-public school when the resident district lacks a public school of the same grade span. A town that has no high school, for example, can pay a private high school to take the town’s students. 

However, the law forbids religious schools from participating in these tuition programs. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that such exclusions are unconstitutional because they deprive religious institutions of equal treatment solely by virtue of their religious status. 

A state may not exclude religious schools from a public benefit simply because they are religious schools. 

“A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious,” the court held.

Quoting a similar previous case, Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the court pointed out that the “Free Exercise Clause, which applies to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment, ‘protects religious observers against unequal treatment’ and against ‘laws that impose special disabilities on the basis of religious status.’”

Another state law allows school districts to send students to public schools and public academies if those students are determined to have suffered a “manifest educational hardship” at their assigned school. It also excludes “sectarian” schools. 

Senators on Thursday passed House Bill 388, which would allow districts to send students in these circumstances to private as well as public schools. The bill also strikes the word “sectarian” from the statute, thus incorporating religious schools into the program. 

Critics have said that these bills violate the First Amendment’s required separation of church and state and amount to a giveaway to religious schools. The truth is precisely the opposite. 

The state is forbidden by the U.S. Constitution from denying religious institutions from participating in an otherwise neutral program, including town tuition contracting, solely because those institutions are religious. The existing laws, not the bills, are in violation of the Constitution. 

The effect of House Bills 282 and 388 is to ensure that these laws governing school tuition contracts are constitutional.