Seacoast state Sen. Debra Altschiller (D-Stratham) told the state Senate Education Committee that Granite State parents who want to use the Education Freedom Account (EFA) program to get the best education for their children should be forced to send them to public school for a year first.
Like many opponents of the EFA program, however, Altschiller sent her own children to exclusive – and expensive — private schools out of the economic reach of the families who qualify for EFA funding.
Altschiller’s bill, SB141, would only make EFA funds available for students “currently attending a New Hampshire public school for a minimum of one year, or who is entering kindergarten or first grade.” The bill has the support of all 10 Senate Democrats.
Altschiller acknowledged in her testimony there are some students for whom their local, assigned public school “may not be the best fit.” But she added, “We can’t know how anything fits without first trying it.”
Using EFA funds “should require families avail themselves of the educational opportunities offered to them first,” Altschiller said. “Before opting out of the public school system, take advantage of the educational opportunities in your community provided to you.”
It’s a “very simple requirement,” Altschiller insisted.
But for the parent who testified immediately after Altschiller, it was anything but.
James Van Nest of Dorchester, N.H. asked if he could get some clarification about how Altschiller’s bill would work for a father like him.
“I have a 5-year-old who started home school this year — does she need to go to second grade for a year, and then come out again, so we can take advantage of the funds?” he asked. Van Nest testified his family tried the local public charter school with his son, but it wasn’t a good fit and they pulled him out. “My son hasn’t finished a full year of public school. Does he now need to re-enter the school system and then can we use the funds once we take him out?”
Committee Chair Ruth Ward (R-Stoddard) said those were questions for the bill’s sponsor and invited Altschiller to address them. But Altschiller was already gone, leaving the hearing rather than staying to answer questions.
Altschiller also declined to respond to questions from NHJournal.
In addition to mandating at least a year of public school before parents can choose the best option for their children, the Democratic legislation would also mandate EFA parents reapply for economic eligibility each year, rather than when first enrolling a child. EFA funds are only available to families earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty line. EFA advocates oppose this because it could force children to change schools simply because their family’s finances fluctuate, or an older sibling moves out of the household, which changes the poverty-line calculation.
Education Committee member Sen. Timothy Lang (R-Sanbornton) said the legislation is “an attack on low and middle-income families.”
“It’s truly shocking that Democrats want to force a child to first suffer through a full year of a public school experience that parents already know won’t work — and to the detriment of the child’s educational progress — in order to access EFA funding. It’s more proof the Democrats’ priority is helping teachers unions, not focusing on the best educational outcome for our New Hampshire children.”
EFA families packed Tuesday’s hearing to tell their personal stories of children they believe benefit from the program. In conversations after the hearing, several advocates noted that Altschiller is one of the many EFA opponents who chose to reject public schools to educate their own kids. They attended elite Phillips Exeter Academy, with $50,000 a year tuition bills, and Berwick Academy, a more affordable $30,000 per year.
She is hardly alone. Sen. Cindy Rosenwald (D-Nashua), a co-sponsor of the bill, sent her son to Groton School, a private boarding school in Massachusetts that currently charges close to $60,000 a year. And former state Sen. Tom Sherman (D-Rye) mounted an unsuccessful race for governor last year on a platform of shutting down the EFA program and increasing spending on public schools. But he sent his son to the Governor’s Academy in Newbury, Mass., a private school with tuition approaching $70,000 per year.
Republicans say that is economic hypocrisy — wealthy liberals who say public schools are great for low-income families but inadequate for their own children. But progressives like Rep. Rosemarie Rung (D-Merrimack) defend that view, describing EFAs as a “handout” to low-income parents.
“Parents have always had the choice to send their kids to any private/religious schools or to homeschool. Now they just get a taxpayer handout to do it,” Rung tweeted. And, she added, letting parents choose the best schools for their children is not “for the public good.”
“[EFA’s are] literally the definition of a government handout,” Rung tweeted. “My goal is to have taxes spent on the public good. It doesn’t make sense to take money for the public good to spend on private enterprises without public accountability.”
Altschiller, Rung, and other EFA opponents claim the program “siphons off of millions in funding earmarked for our public school children,” as Altschiller put it. “The EFA program is without a doubt causing serious damage to public education as we know it in New Hampshire.” Asked by NHJournal for an example of this “serious damage,” Altschiller declined to respond.
In fact, public school spending last year — the first year of the EFA program — was the highest per pupil spending in New Hampshire history. And the EFA’s increase the money available per student because they only provide the state’s share of funding (around $5,000 per child) to EFA families. The local funding, on average around $15,000, stays with the school, even though it no longer has to provide services for that student.
“Even with the cost of the wildly successful educational program (that supports thousands of New Hampshire children) exceeding projected budget expectations, the Education Trust Fund is running over a $100m surplus,” Lang said. “Democrats are crying wolf, hoping for an emotional response, because the logical response shows them wrong.”