Education

New Hampshire Can Lead the Way on School Choice, But Will It?

(Crystal Srock/Dreamstime)
The state’s legislature is exploring options for education savings accounts.

‘Education Savings Accounts will be our most significant step yet in giving parents and children the ability to choose the education path that is best suited for them,” declared New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu in his latest State of the State address.

A new proposal would make New Hampshire the seventh state to enact ESAs, and potentially the first to provide all families the opportunity to use them. With an ESA, parents who need to find a school or education option that is a better fit for their child can access some of the money the state would have spent on their child in the public system. They can then use those funds to pay for private-school tuition, online learning, special-education services and therapies, private tutoring, and a host of other education-related services, products, and providers. Parents can also roll over unused funds from year to year.

Last spring, the state senate passed a proposal to create a nearly universal ESA option that Sununu correctly boasted had the potential to be “a gold standard for the rest of the country to follow.” Under the state senate’s legislation, any student entering kindergarten or first grade or switching out of a public district or charter school would be eligible to receive an ESA.

The New Hampshire House Education Committee, however, took a more cautious approach. After a series of hearings and work sessions, the committee adopted a significantly scaled-down version of the proposal that would make ESAs available only to families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line, as well as to students with special needs and those assigned to low-performing district schools. Although not as ambitious as the senate’s version, this would still create a workable ESA option that could make a huge difference in the lives of a significant number of Granite State children.

However, obstacles remain.

The proposal still has to be considered by the House Finance Committee, where critics of education choice have raised concerns about the fiscal impact on school districts whose students leave and take state funding with them. Setting aside the fact that the education system is made for the students and not the other way around, these fears are overblown.

According to the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, even if 5 percent of students left their assigned schools, no district would lose more than 2 percent of its budget. If a school can’t educate 95 percent of its students with 98 percent of its budget, the problem lies with the administrators, not parents seeking educational alternatives. Some in New Hampshire are worried that this argument is being used as a pretext to neuter the ESA option; critics’ proposals include limiting eligibility to the lowest-income students and requiring that they spend at least a year in a public school before receiving an ESA.

ESA options are wildly popular among all families in states that have them, and for good reason.

ESA options are wildly popular among all families in states that have them, and for good reason: School choice produces significant benefits for students and for society at large. Excluding children who would benefit from an ESA or forcing them to spend a year in a school that isn’t working for them before having access to alternatives unnecessarily delays their educational progress.

Granite Staters want more education choice. According to a survey by EdChoice last spring, 58 percent of New Hampshire voters support enacting an ESA while only 31 percent oppose it. Parents of school-aged children are even more supportive, with 71 percent in favor and only 23 percent opposed. Voters also expressed a strong preference for giving all students access to ESAs, with 61 percent favoring universal access and only 37 percent preferring a means-tested program.

Governor Sununu and New Hampshire policymakers have the opportunity to make their state a national leader in education choice. It’s time to live free and lead.

Lindsey Burke is the director of education policy and the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation.

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