As the uphill battle over education reform begins, Republican legislators are hopeful 2021 will be the year they pass this key GOP priority. Democrats, on the other hand, are desperate to stop the initiative on behalf of their allies in teachers unions.
Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs), a bill originally sponsored by the late Speaker Dick Hinch (R-Merrimack) and now carried by Speaker Sherm Packard (R-Londonderry), would allow families to access the state portion of student funding for educational uses outside of public schools. “Funding follows the student” is their mantra. Hearings on the bill start Tuesday in the House Education Committee.
Democrats and teachers unions say the proposal defunds public schools and could lead to worsening outcomes for students opting out of assigned schools and into the EFA program.
During an online ’emergency forum’ on school district funding and the EFA legislation Sunday, former Democrat Senator Jeanne Dietsch of Peterborough even claimed parents could use their share of education funds to enroll their kids in a school of terrorism.
“They are going to sneak this in,” Dietsch said. “People are not paying attention. Let’s not let this happen quietly.” She urged the 100 or so participants on her Sunday call to testify in opposition to the bill.
“They don’t realize what a dramatic effect this will have,” she said. “Let them know where to place the blame when this happens.”
It’s not Dietsch’s first attack on the ability of parents to make good educational choices for their children. “This idea of parental choice, that’s great if the parent is well-educated. There are some families that’s perfect for. But to make it available to everyone? No. I think you’re asking for a huge amount of trouble,” Dietsch said. “If the dad’s a carpenter, and you want to become a carpenter, then yes — listen to your dad.”
Dietsch later claimed some parents choose to homeschool because they’re drug addicts or child abusers.
Calling the program a ‘voucher’ program, Superintendents Kimberly Saunders and Lisa Witte, of ConVal Regional Schools and Monadnock, respectively, claimed Sunday this will exacerbate the divide between communities and citizens of New Hampshire. There will be lawsuits, the superintendents claim, when budgets are cut, and children aren’t educated properly in district school settings.
The NH Department of Education, however, has released a study showing EFAs will save taxpayers up to $393 million over a decade based on various modeling scenarios. Their data show that keeping the current system without reforms will drive up costs to taxpayers by up to $3.9 billion, even with 16,000 fewer students over the same period.
“The department is recommending that all districts begin the conversation and planning relative to how they will manage costs in the coming decade to address the fact that there will be fewer students,” the report states, estimating that only 2.43 percent of eligible students will opt into the program by 2030.
“EFA education programs, which place educational decisions in the hands of families, are designed to meet the needs of all of our children. The department strives to make sure that all students have a bright future and that no child is forgotten.”
And the winners from educational freedom aren’t just the students who leave failing schools, supporters say. According to Tim Keller of the Institute for Justice, “There is also abundant evidence that school choice programs encourage traditional public schools to improve. Indeed, there have been at least 33 empirical studies of the effects of educational choice programs on public schools. The overwhelming majority—31—have found that choice programs have a positive effect on public schools. A single study found no effect while only one found a negative effect.”
A new, unexpected opponent in the battle is the New Hampshire homeschool community.
“HB 20 puts homeschoolers at risk,” wrote Michelle Levell for Granite State Home Educators. While homeschoolers could transfer into an EFA program, the two are not synonymous, she said. “It is a distinct and new way to satisfy compulsory attendance and is not the same as home education.”
There are concerns that this could open the door for increased oversight on home educators, which could play into the hands of those calling for increased regulation.
Dietsch noted programs like these don’t have rigorous government oversight on quality controls or curriculum. Superintendents Witte and Saunders added there’s no oversight on the program, and it creates an unlevel playing field for public schools with strict regulations.
“We can’t chase them down and follow up,” said Witte.
Tuesday’s hearing could be a long one, with both sides rallying the troops to testify for or against the legislation. House deadlines require the bill to be acted upon by the full House by February 25.
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