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NH Teachers Union Sues to Stop Popular EFA Program

A New Hampshire’s teachers’ union is going to court to stop the state’s popular Education Freedom Account (EFA) program that some families use to escape failing public schools. The move comes as data show traditional public school enrollment falling while the number of students choosing charter schools and other alternatives is rising.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) announced Thursday it filed a lawsuit against Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut in the Merrimack Superior Court in Concord challenging New Hampshire’s EFA program. The complaint argues the program violates the New Hampshire Constitution and state law by using state lottery dollars and money from the Education Trust Fund to fund the EFAs.

“The state specifically earmarked this money for public education. Instead, the state is stealing from public school students in plain sight to pay for its private voucher program,” said Deb Howes, president of the AFT-NH, who brought the suit “as a citizen taxpayer,” according to an AFT press release.

Families earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level can use the EFA program to take their share of state per pupil funding – about $5,000 a year — and use it for alternatives to public school, like private school, homeschooling or tutoring. The public school they leave behind keeps its portion of local per-pupil funding, which can range from $10,000 to $20,000 or more.

EFA expenses must be approved by the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF), a private scholarship organization that oversees the program. In September CSF reported that families of more than 3,000 New Hampshire children completed EFA applications, up from more than 2,000 children who used EFAs in 2021-22.

“It underscores a growing demand from Granite State parents for educational alternatives,” CSF reports.

The national AFT’s controversial union president Randi Weingarten weighed in Thursday on behalf of the lawsuit. “New Hampshire can’t fund its voucher program by illegally putting its hand in the taxpayer cookie jar that’s intended for public school students,” Weingarten said. “It’s as simple as this: No matter what program the state wants to fund, it has to do it legally.”

The complaint is based on the premise that EFAs are illegal because the state constitution says “all moneys received from a state-run lottery [shall] be appropriated and used exclusively for the school districts of the state… and shall not be transferred or diverted to any other purpose.”

But supporters respond that EFA spending has been authorized by the legislature and that revenue from sources other than the lottery go to funding k-12 education. Since money is fungible, there’s plenty of revenue to pay for the EFA program without using lottery dollars.

“This lawsuit appears to be without merit,” said  Jason Bedrick, Research Fellow at the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation. “The Education Trust Fund has long been used for purposes beyond school districts, such as to place students with special needs in private schools. The state’s constitutional duty to cherish the interest of education is best fulfilled when all children have access to a wide variety of learning environments. Education Freedom Accounts further that interest.”

Howes claims the EFA program is denying public schools millions in money from the Education Trust Fund.

“Public school students are losing out on millions of dollars that are needed to fix leaky old buildings, purchase and maintain modern computer equipment, buy books and materials published at least in the last decade to support student learning, and provide more social and emotional assistance and other needs that will help students excel,” Howes said.

Representatives for New Hampshire’s Department of Education declined to speak about the lawsuit and instead issued a brief statement.

“The New Hampshire Department of Education is aware of the complaint filed today by Deborah Howes at Merrimack County Superior Court. At this time, the department is not commenting on the pending litigation,” a DOE representative said on behalf of the department.

Kate Baker Demers, the executive director for the Children’s Scholarship Fund NH, which administers the EFA program for the state, said the program gives parents the freedom to make their own educational choices, and is totally in line with the state constitution.

“Empowering parents to make educational decisions for their children does not violate any state law or our New Hampshire constitution,” Baker Demers said.

And, supporters note, parents are free to use the funding to transfer their child to a different public school as well.

“This is a desperate attempt by the union to block families from being able to access a wide variety of education options,” said Bedrick. “Thousands of New Hampshire families are using Education Freedom Accounts to give their children the education that best meets their individual needs. It’s sad to see the union putting their politics ahead of kids’ learning needs.”

‘Choice for Me, But Not for Thee’? NHDems Oppose EFAs, Send Kids to Elite Private Schools

State Sen. Tom Sherman is running for governor as a self-declared champion of public schools and opponent of school choice. He opposes allowing low-income families to use public money to choose a private school education for their children.

Perhaps the same private school Sherman chooses for his son.

While Sherman says he is a proponent of public school education, he sent his son to the Governor’s Academy in Newbury, Mass., a private school with tuition approaching $70,000 per year, GOP activist Patrick Hynes reported in his Union-Leader column on Sunday.

“The Shermans are a family of considerable financial means and are free to send their kids to whatever schools they want. EFA supporters are merely asking for low- and middle-income families who aren’t as wealthy as the Shermans to be able to do the same,” Hynes wrote.

Sherman doesn’t agree. He voted against the Education Freedom Account law passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Sununu. It allows low and middle-income families to use their child’s share of state funding  — not local money–  to choose an alternative to their local public school. That could be a private school, a parochial school, homeschooling, or a public school outside their district.

“My first choice would be to stop the program,” Sherman said of the EFA system at a recent debate with Republican Sununu. Sherman has also proposed an annual means test so that if a family’s income one year exceeds the current limit (300 percent of the poverty level), even temporarily, their children would be kicked out of the program.

“Tom Sherman is a school choice hypocrite,” says Corey DeAngelis with the Educational Freedom Institute. “He sent his kid to a private school yet opposes school choice for others. I’m glad his family had that opportunity, but he shouldn’t fight to trap low-income kids in failing government schools.

“Marie Antoinette would be proud of Sen. Sherman, because these school choice hypocrites are essentially saying, ‘Let them eat cake!'” DeAngelis added.

Asked about the allegation of hypocrisy, Sherman declined to respond.

When it comes to opposing EFAs while opting out of public schools, Sherman is hardly alone.

Progressive Rep. Debra Altschiller (D-Stratham) who is currently running for Sherman’s seat in the state Senate, is a staunch opponent of the EFA program, supporting complete repeal.

“Implemented by Republican free staters–and millions of dollars over budget–the school voucher program drains public school funding and threatens an increase in local property taxes,” Altschiller states on her campaign website. But her children have attended elite Phillips Exeter Academy, with $50,000 a year tuition bills, and Berwick Academy, a more affordable $30,000 per year.

Altschiller is also factually incorrect about the EFA program’s impact on local taxes. Because EFA’s only use the state portion of a student’s funding, when students opt out of the local school, the local funding still flows to the classrooms they left behind. As a result, per capita revenue for local schools actually increases when students choose the EFA option.

Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua has also pledged to repeal the EFA program if possible, while sending her son to Groton School, a private boarding school in Massachusetts that currently charges close to $60,000 a year.

Rep. Mel Myler is the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee and a vocal opponent of parental choice. But when NHJournal contacted him about sending a child to Holderness Academy (boarding tuition: $71,000) Myler declined to comment.

And there’s Rep. Marjorie Porter, D-Hillsborough, who complained this year that advocates wanted to make EFA’s more accessible to New Hampshire families.

“They try to sell them as helping poor kids have choices too, but they have brought several bills forward to raise the income cap to five hundred percent of poverty level, or to eliminate it altogether, making me wonder how a family of four earning $132,000/yr. can be considered poor,” she wrote.

But while speaking out against EFA’s this year, Porter admitted she sent her child to a private school because the public schools weren’t working for her family when he son experienced difficulties.

“I certainly understand the need for families to find an alternative to public schools to meet the needs of their children,” Porter testified. “My own two children attended the same public school where I taught. My daughter was fine with it, but not so my son. He was experiencing difficulties, so we sent him to a local private school until he was middle school age.

“It was good that we had that option,” Porter said.

Not all Democrats believe their position is problematic. “I opposed the EFA vouchers too & I myself actually went to a private school,” Rep. Timothy Horrigan (D-Durham) tweeted, unprompted.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire families are flocking to the program with 3,025 participating this year, up from 1,572 last year. According to NH Bulletin’s Ethan DeWitt, ​​1,504 out of the 3,025 are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, meaning 49.7 percent come from households making below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. 

“You’d think the party preaching about equity would be in favor of expanding educational opportunities for all students,” DeAngelis said. “The problem is opposition to parental rights in education is about politics and power, not morality or logic. That’s why 99.99 percent of Randi Weingarten’s teachers union’s campaign contributions have gone to Democrats in 2022.

“But now there’s a new special interest group in town – parents – and they aren’t going away any time soon.”

SCOTUS Ruling on Religious Ed Funding Affirms NH School Choice Approach

The U.S. Supreme Court is catching up to New Hampshire’s parental-rights approach to education, affirming that parents who use publicly-funded choice programs are free to choose religious schools.

In a 6-3 ruling released Tuesday, the court found Carson v. Makin that First Amendment protections for religious expression prohibit the government from discriminating against religious schools when states offer a school choice program to parents.

Maine has many rural communities — encompassing almost half of all the state’s 260 school districts — that cannot afford to support a middle school or high school. The state has long offered families tuition assistance so they can access education services for their children. But in 1981, Maine passed a law preventing parents from choosing a religious school.

The Supreme Court found that prohibition was unconstitutional.

“The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools—so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.

While Tuesday’s ruling is a big change for some 18 states with similar bans, New Hampshire is at the forefront of school choice religious freedom. New Hampshire’s tuition assistance programs, and Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs) can be used for any school, including religious schools.

“New Hampshire has no religious test for tuition aid or EFAs, so the ruling confirms New Hampshire’s position as correct,” said Drew Cline, chair of the state Board of Education.

According to Andrew Wimer with the Institute for Justice, New Hampshire changed its laws on tuition assistance last summer. Wimer said the ruling strengthens New Hampshire’s religious freedom against any future attack.

“Today’s ruling does not change anything in New Hampshire, but does ensure that if a future legislature were to put the same restrictions back in place it would likely be found unconstitutional,” he said.

The law change came after the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Croydon couple Dennis and Cathy Griffin who wanted to send their grandson to a private Catholic school, Mount Royal Academy.

“We are happy the legislature did the right thing in removing politics from school funding by allowing individual choice on how our tax dollars are applied to our children’s education,” said Dennis Griffin said last year. “Cathy and I feel Mount Royal Academy is the best choice for our grandson’s education and the government should not be restricting the use of our tax dollars from funding our choice.”

Croydon, a town of about 700 people, does not operate a middle school, instead giving families tuition money they can use to send their child to a school in another district. But Croydon’s School Board refused to give the family the money because Mount Royal is Catholic, and New Hampshire at the time still had an anti-Catholic law on the books

Most of the laws prohibiting states from using public money for private religious schools come from a anti-Catholic movement started in the 1870s by U.S. Rep. James Blaine, a powerful Republican from Maine. Blaine’s response to the immigration of Catholic and Jewish families from Europe was to endorse a nativist movement to make sure the immigrant schools would not get any funding.

At the time, many public schools taught a form of Protestant Christianity.

New Hampshire’s Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut applauded the ruling, saying it affirms New Hampshire in its commitment to religious freedom.

“Schools of all kinds – public, non-public, religious or non-religious – have the distinct duty and ultimate responsibility to provide the best education possible for their students. This Supreme Court ruling clarifies what has always been so — that we do not discriminate against anyone, period. This ruling will ensure that school choice remains an opportunity for every student throughout the nation, and that there will be equality available among all educational institutions. There is no place for discrimination here in New Hampshire.”

New Hampshire Democrats were largely silent on the decision, with no member of the state’s federal delegation making any mention of it. They also declined to respond to requests for comment.

Granite State Democrats have long opposed school choice, especially the funding for parents who want to send their children to religious schools. During the debate over EFAs last year, state Sen. Tom Sherman (D-Rye) complained, “There’s just no accountability to property taxpayers whose money is being used for private, religious and home school.” 

Sherman is now the Democratic nominee for governor.

Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy (D-Manchester) specifically cited the anti-Catholic “Blaine Amendment” language in the state constitution in her opposition to the EFA program.

“The New Hampshire Constitution prohibits taxpayer dollars from being directed to private or religious schools. Now more than ever, when legislators on both sides of the aisle have identified property taxpayer relief as a priority, it is difficult to understand why we would remove safeguards for the use of taxpayer dollars and ask hardworking Granite Staters to pay for the private education of other children and families.”

And former state Rep. Tamara Meyer Le (D-North Hampton) was removed from the House Education Committee in 2019 after a profanity-laced social media rant against private and religious education. “F*** private and religious schools,” Le wrote.

Families, Students Push Back on Efforts to Repeal EFAs

New Hampshire parents and students crowded the State House Tuesday to testify against Democratic Sen. Jay Kahn’s bill to repeal the state’s Education Freedom Accounts.

“I implore you, do not eliminate the Education Freedom Accounts, this program helps so many students and their families,” said Emma Jackson, a sophomore at Holy Family Academy in Manchester. 

Jackson, like many students who testified, has been able to go to a private school for the first time thanks to the EFA’s. The program “funds students instead of systems,” as school choice advocate Corey DeAngelis of the American Federation for Children puts it. The state’s share of a child’s public school funding follows the student to other education options like private or home schooling.

The program, in its first year, has more than 1,600 participants.

“Currently, most of the families that are using the Education Freedom Accounts are low-income families,” said Kate Baker Demers, executive director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund of New Hampshire.

Baker Demers said low-income families have struggled for years to get their children into schools where they can learn. They have also struggled to get their children the right education materials. Now they have the freedom to make the best choices for their families, she said.

“The families that are using them are extremely grateful and think it is right and just that they have access to their education funding,” she said.

Kahn, a Keene Democrat, is concerned that the success of the program will spell trouble for taxpayers down the road. He said the program is costing more than $8 million this year and is expected to double next year. On top of that, Kahn said, the state has cut funding for public education by more than $80 million in the current two-year budget. 

“Every child deserves access to an adequate education, but this isn’t the way to do it,” Kahn said.

Meanwhile, per pupil spending on k-12 education has risen during Gov. Chris Sununu’s administration to the highest level ever.

New Hampshire’s public schools lost more than 8,000 students in the last year as more parents grew frustrated with COVID-19 imposed-remote learning, among other problems. Baker Demers said parents realized during the pandemic that there are more options than their local public schools that fit their family needs better, and those options were finally within reach.

“They didn’t have these options without the EFAs,” she said.

Some Democrats opposed to EFA’s, like Rep. Marjorie Porter (D-Hillsborough) send their own children to private schools while opposing allowing state funding to follow low-income kids to these same schools.

“I certainly understand the need for families to find an alternative to public schools to meet the needs of their children,” Porter testified. “My own two children attended the same public school where I taught. My daughter was fine with it, but not so my son. He was experiencing difficulties, so we sent him to a local private school until he was middle school age. It was good that we had that option.”

Porter has filed a bill in the House to prevent local property taxes from going to religious schools, harkening back to 1870s efforts to stop Catholic schools from receiving public funding. A 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found a state cannot prevent money from going to religious schools if it offers parents grants for education. 

Rep. Rosemarie Rung (D-Merrimack) mocked families who need the grants on Twitter, calling EFA’s handouts.

“My parents sent all 4 of their kids to Catholic school on a USAF officer salary and they would never, ever expect a government handout to do so,” Rung wrote on Twitter.

Baker Demers said low-income families deserve equal opportunities when it comes to education, and EFAs provide those opportunities.

“That’s the point, to overcome those inequalities,” she said.

“These are students who struggled in their old learning environment for a variety of reasons from bullying, learning difficulties, or health concerns,” said Sarah Scott from Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire. AFP-NH was heavily involved in the passage of EFAs and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation spent last summer spreading awareness of the new program to parents.

Families, Scott says, “are ecstatic to have been given the chance to have their children learn in a setting that helps them to thrive.”

Kahn said EFA’s downshift costs for public education onto local property taxpayers, an assertion advocates deny. Sen. Denise Ricciardi (R-Bedford) said the tax money is following the child through the system, and it will not result in higher taxes.

That is true in part because, while state funding follows the student, local funding remains in the schools. As a result, every student who uses an EFA leaves behind around $10,000 or more for their former school to spend on the remaining students. More money, but fewer students.

Regardless of the math or the praise of parents, the state’s teachers unions still oppose the EFA program.

This is a multi-million-dollar example of failed leadership that will ultimately hurt our kids,” said Meg Tuttle, president of the NEA-NH, the state’s largest teachers union. 

Tuttle did not elaborate on how families choosing what they believe are better education choices for their children “will hurt kids.”

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) was a  prime sponsor of the legislation creating EFA’s last year. He made it clear this week he will fight to keep the program operating.

“Our Education Freedom Accounts have proven to be more successful than anyone imagined. Currently, 1,635 students are enrolled in the EFA program, giving working families the power to choose the best educational path for them,” Bradley said. “The pandemic has shown us the need for greater educational options, especially for families who traditionally could not afford the choices wealthier families have always had.  EFA’s provide that pathway. Students of hard-working families of modest means deserve the opportunity for education choices that best suit their needs.”