In April, the New Hampshire House of Representatives had a golden opportunity to do something heroic for Granite State kids by passing a universal education savings account (ESA) bill, but it flinched at the last minute and “retained” it in committee. The result is more than a little disappointing. The program had tremendous potential to radically improve the lives of thousands of children throughout the state by giving them the chance to escape their failing and underperforming public schools.
Despite those setbacks, because the bill was not defeated (and did not even receive a vote one way or the other), there is hope things will change in the next legislative session.
With an ESA, state education funds allocated for a child are placed in a parent-controlled savings account. Parents then use a state-provided debit card to access the funds to pay for the resources chosen for their child’s unique educational program.
The tabled bill would allow ESAs be used to pay for tuition and fees at private and parochial schools, as well as textbooks, tutoring services, computers and other approved hardware, online courses, and educational therapies and services. The ESAs could also be used to cover the fees required to take national standardized achievement tests, such as the SAT and ACT. Leftover funds would carry over each year of the child’s eligibility and would be available to help pay for tuition at postsecondary schools or used to fund the federal 530 college savings plan, also known as the Coverdell Education Savings Account.
Only 51 percent of New Hampshire 4th graders and 46 percent of 8th graders tested “proficient” in math on the 2015 National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) test, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” Only 46 percent of 4th graders and 45 percent of and 8th graders tested proficient in reading. These results show New Hampshire’s public school system is failing to educate roughly half of their 4th grade and 8th grade students to a proficient level in reading and mathematics.
The troubling performance of New Hampshire kids on NAEP underscores the desperate need for the state to expand school choice opportunities far beyond what is currently available. Simply, too many public schools in the state are failing to adequately prepare students for productive lives.
This ESA program can help rectify this problem. The overwhelming majority of the available empirical evidence shows education choice offers families equal access to high-quality schools that meet their widely diverse needs and desires, and that they do so at a lower cost and while simultaneously benefitting public school students. The accounts are also incredibly popular with ESA parents in the states in which programs are up and running.
Constitutional issues should also not be a concern. A thorough, recently released legal review of ESAs from the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy and the Institute for Justice concluded there is “no doubt” an ESA program would be permissible under the state’s constitution.
Granite Staters are fond of the “live free” part of their motto, but part of living free should be granting to parents the right to choose the school of their choice for their children. No child should be stuck with whatever school is closest merely because it is closest.
When parents are given the opportunity to choose, all schools, public and private, must compete for their students and improve, which gives more children the opportunity to attend a quality school, and just maybe, change the trajectory of their lives.
Given the current political composition of the General Court, there is no excuse for why New Hampshire shouldn’t implement an ESA program next session. The bill has already made its way through the Senate, and EdChoice notes 53 percent of the 80 New Hampshire legislators they polled in 2016 supported an ESA program, with just 38 percent opposing. Legislators should not let another golden opportunity for New Hampshire children once again slip by.