A family of four earning up to $105,000 would be eligible for Education Freedom Accounts per a bill that passed the New Hampshire Senate on party lines Thursday expanding eligibility for the controversial voucher-like school choice program.
Currently, families of four earning up to $90,000 are eligible for the program, which allows them to spend state money for students who are not in public school on a number of education-related expenses including religious school tuition, supplies for homeschooling, and online tutors.
Lawmakers Thursday could not cite precise numbers about how many people would be impacted if Governor Chris Sununu signs into law House Bill 367, which raises the eligibility for the program from 300 to 350 percent of the federal income level.
“The Department of Education states increasing the income requirement will result in an indeterminable number of new students accessing the program. So we don’t even know how many more students might actually come into the program,” said Sen. Sue Prentiss, a West Lebanon Democrat.
Education commissioner Frank Edelblut celebrated the bill’s passage. “By expanding the parameters of the successful Education Freedom Account program, even more students from throughout the state will have various options to fit their personal learning needs,” he said in a written statement.
“This is an exciting day for families in New Hampshire, as there is a clear demand for new educational options and the flexibility for students to thrive,” he continued.
All 10 Senate Democrats voted against the bill, with the chamber’s 14 Republicans unanimously backing it.
Democrats argued the program lacked necessary oversight and would drain funding away from public schools.
Senator Donovan Fenton, a Keene Democrat, criticized the program for its lack of accountability and transparency.
“This bill diverts money to private and religious schools, and we don’t even know the educational outcomes and success of our Granite State children participating in this program,” he said.
In 2022, parents ended up spending most of the money from the program on private schools — around $2.67 million, an NHPR report found. Amazon, used for school supplies and homeschooling, was the second biggest recipient, at around $805,000, according to Department of Education data.
Republicans argued that expanding the program would help more people to access it, given inflation and the high cost of living.
“This is increasing the eligibility for students to get a better education if the public school in their district is not suited for their educational needs,” said Sen. Daryl Abbas, a Salem Republican.
In 2022, 3,025 students were enrolled in the program — of those less than 700 left their public schools, which means the remainder were already pursuing alternative education before enrolling in the program, according to Department of Education data. Families with an enrolled student receive an average of $4,800 per student.
Sununu has already indicated support for expanding Education Freedom Accounts, doubling the budget for the program from $14.7 million to $30 million in his February budget proposal. He called the program successful and pointed to it as a part of his “doorways to opportunity” approach to governing.
“When a new door of opportunity is opened and our citizens race through it in record numbers, that is not an out-of-control system — that is government finally working,” he said, addressing criticism that these programs have grown too large.
Political observers said Sununu may tout his support for school choice to appeal to conservatives who are concerned about cultural issues should he run for president.