State Senator Tom Sherman has made no secret of his opposition to New Hampshire’s popular Education Freedom Accounts program, co-sponsoring a Senate bill to kill it last month.
If Sherman and his fellow Democrats had been successful (the GOP majority defeated their repeal bills in the House and Senate), about 1,800 families using the EPT program would have had to pull their children out of the schools of their choice when the current funding has run out.
EFA supporters say Sherman’s legislation is both cruel and cowardly, proving the party responds to powerful teachers’ unions rather than parents.
Since that vote, Sherman has become a Democratic candidate for governor and has changed his position. Although he is still opposed to EFAs, he told WMUR’s Adam Sexton that he is ready to grow students currently using the program.
“I thought about that a lot,” Sherman said. “By the way, they had a budget of $3 million — that’s less than 1% of all the school-aged kids in the state.
“I would not disrupt the education of a child who is currently in the system. It is my commitment because I think it would be cruel,” he added.
However, Sherman said he wanted to add a different barrier: an annual means test for EFA families. If their income exceeds the current limit (300% of the poverty line) for one year, their children will be expelled from the program.
“One of the problems with Education Freedom Accounts is that they only test resources in the first year. So if in the second year you win the lottery and can actually afford to send your child to a private school, homeschool, or religious school, you are no longer tested. So you have a 12-year carte blanche on the taxpayer with no liability,” Sherman said.
EFA proponents dismiss the “lottery ticket” example as ridiculous and point to more realistic possibilities: a parent earning significant overtime during a tight labor market like today’s, then returning to his typical income the following year. Or a year like 2021, when massive government spending to fight COVID-19 temporarily boosted some low-income family incomes.
“The Legislature passed Education Freedom Accounts to provide funding and stability to ready-made children who need an off-the-shelf educational solution,” said Kate Baker Demers, executive director. of the Children’s Scholarship Fund which administers the program. “Changing the underlying law to force the removal of any child because a family member may exceed an income threshold by a dollar would defeat that purpose of providing true stability.”
Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, said lawmakers were aware of the problem of parents dropping out and out of income qualifications and intentionally avoided the “poverty trap”.
“The Educational Freedom Accounts policy has been carefully designed to avoid contributing to a ‘poverty trap’ that would discourage increased household incomes,” Bedrid said. “But in truth, AGEs should be accessible to all families. No school is best for all students, so the money has to follow the child. Would Dr. Sherman expel children from district schools because their parents made too much money and paid too much tax? If not, he should not support their exclusion from the EFA program either.
Sherman’s observation of the number of students using the EPT program also highlights a financial problem that critics of the EPT program rarely discuss: schools make more money when students use the EPT program.
State funding already “follows the students” by sending money per student, according to a formula, to each school. Total state funding for K-12 students is about $1 billion, and the state’s share of educating a typical student is about $4,600. This is the only money that EFA families have access to.
The $8 million currently earmarked for FTEs represents about 0.8% of public spending on education.
Meanwhile, total K-12 spending is over $3 billion, mostly from local taxpayers. This largely local funding is generally around $10,000 per student, although it varies widely from district to district. This money still goes to the school even after the student leaves. Local public schools have fewer students to teach, but more money to do so.
Sherman complained to Sexton that last year’s Republican-backed budget, which included the EFA program, “cut $100 million from the public school budget.”
Every time this claim is made, Governor Chris Sununu responds that this budget “spends more money per student on public education than ever before.”
How can both be true? Because New Hampshire public school enrollment has been steadily declining for years, a trend that has been exacerbated by families fleeing COVID-19 classroom closures. Granite State Public Schools lost more than 8,000 students last year alone.
Meanwhile, more low- and middle-income parents are seeking the ability to choose the best possible education for their children, as some New Hampshire Democrats have done.
“Restricting access to EFAs based on income could also have unintended consequences,” said Corey A. DeAngelis, national director of research at the American Federation for Children. “This regulation could encourage families to avoid earning extra income so that they can remain eligible. It could also unnecessarily punish some families for earning extra income to cover an unexpected expense in a given year.
And, asks DeAngelis, isn’t funding education the job of the state, regardless of income?
“There is no income ceiling in public schools. It must be logically consistent. Or does he also want to restrict access to public schools based on income?
“All New Hampshire children are guaranteed a taxpayer-funded education, regardless of income,” DeAngelis added.