Edelblut defends EFA expansion before budget writers

Feb. 28—CONCORD — Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said doubling the amount spent on Education Freedom Accounts over the next two years would meet a growing demand of parents for school choice and fund Gov. Chris Sununu's plan to expand their eligibility for families with "at-risk students."

A Democrat on the House Finance Committee charged Sununu's plan to give these taxpayer paid "scholarships" to higher income families was so open-ended that nearly every family could qualify.

Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs) give parents taxpayer paid grants to send their children to private, religious, alternative public or home schools.

Edelblut made his first presentation Tuesday on Sununu's proposal to increase the Department of Education's budget by about 10.4%, from $2.7 billion in 2022-23 to nearly $3.1 billion in 2024-25.

Much of the increase comes from Sununu's plan to increase state aid to public schools by $200 million and to boost the budget for EFAs from roughly $15 million to $30 million a year.

"The parents, the customers are saying they want these options for their children," Edelblut said of EFAs.

"They are trying to find an education pathway that would be successful. We try to help our public schools to realize that they can be that choice."

With his plan, Sununu decided to merge two bills from House Republicans to expand EFA eligibility.

House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, had endorsed the bill (HB 367) to increase eligibility across the board from 300% of the poverty level ($83,250 a year for family of four) to 500% ($138,750 for a family of four).

Rep. Erica Layon, R-Derry, had proposed (HB 464) to make at-risk students eligible regardless of income, to include foster children, migrant children, children of military families, non-English speaking homes and disabled and bullied children.

Sununu's plan would increase eligibility to 500% of poverty level, but only for those in the at-risk categories along the line of Layon's bill.

What does 'at risk' mean?

Rep. Mary Heath, D-Manchester, who is a former assistant education commissioner, charged the at-risk categories were too open-ended.

"You are basically opening up to the state of New Hampshire the option of an EFA to just about everyone," Heath said.

"Any number of students can feel bullied, feel at risk. Help me understand."

Edelblut said all the categories have legal definitions, and state law spells out how the criteria for determining when a school has too many children who have been bullied.

"These are not capricious titles put in there," Edelblut said. "We know a student who is consistently bullied is going to have a difficult time accessing an adequate education. We aren't making up new definitions."

Edelblut said he had no estimate of how many additional families would qualify under this expanded eligibility.

Last week, the House of Representatives initially passed, 176-169, a bill (HB 430) that would limit EFAs to families that had children enrolled in public schools during the previous year.

To date, about 80% of those who received EFAs were families of students already enrolled in private or home school programs.

The House Finance Committee is now reviewing that bill.

Heath said she believes the public schools need the money included in this proposed increase in EFA scholarships.

"It troubles me so greatly that this amount of money is being set aside for this purpose when there are so many children that are in our public schools who need so much," Heath said.

Edelblut said he has spoken with school superintendents about supporting alternative learning programs so they could attract families to their districts.

Currently, families can use the EFA to send their children to a public school other than the one in their neighborhood.

"What we know is the one-size-fits-all model of (public) education doesn't work because it leaves some students behind," Edelblut said. "We all benefit when our children are educated well. That's the focus of this program."

Edelblut said this budget would increase his 291-employee staff by 14, eight of those paid for with federal grants.

The new positions would be in the areas of special education, early childhood, adult education, grant compliance, accounting and data collection.