By Doug Ireland
---- — Only weeks after New Hampshire launched its education tax credit program to create private school scholarships for low-income students, it’s in danger.
An initiative led a year ago by Republican lawmakers has come under attack in the Democratic-led House.
It’s also been criticized by educators and others, who say its creates a private school voucher program that takes money intended for public education.
But supporters say the tax credit program offers more educational alternatives for families, especially low-income residents who can’t afford to send their children to private school.
As lawmakers debate the merits of the seven-week-old program in Concord, Kate Baker said she is concerned.
Baker is the executive director for the Network for Educational Opportunity’s New Hampshire office. The nonprofit organization has been chosen to administer the program, providing scholarships to many families in need, Baker said.
“It is, in my opinion, a win-win,” Baker said Friday. “Many of these children are in poverty.”
Some of the families testified before the House Ways and Means Committee during a four-hour hearing Jan. 31 to express their support for the program, she said.
They also came to oppose legislation, House Bill 370, which would repeal the tax credits given to businesses offering donations for scholarships.
The full House voted 188-151 in favor of the repeal Wednesday — the vote an indication of the split over the issue. While many Democrats support the repeal, many Republicans do not.
But caught in the middle of the politics and disagreement are the families of 450 children who have applied for scholarships through the program, Baker said.
“I think the 188 legislators who voted against the 450 children who have applied for scholarships is shameful,” Baker said.
“The families are outraged.”
Baker said she is disappointed lawmakers would try to derail the program, which began Jan. 1, before the first scholarship is awarded.
“I think it is a very poor way to govern,” she said. “To reverse it is irresponsible.”
Students can receive scholarships of up to $2,500 if their families meet income guidelines.
For a family of three, the income limit is $57,000; for a family of four, $69,000.
The program encourages private-sector donations for education, saving the state $8 million a year, Baker said.
As an incentive to donate, businesses are offered credits against what they owe under the state’s business profits and business enterprise taxes.
There is a $3.4 million limit on credits granted in the program’s first year.
The program is viewed favorably by the Catholic Diocese of New Hampshire, spokesman Kevin Donovan said.
There are students attending 28 Catholic schools in the state who could benefit from the scholarships, he said.
“We support the education tax credit program,” Donovan said. “Any move to repeal it we are opposed to.”
Republicans fight for program
Supporters of the program include House Republican Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, and Deputy House Republican leader David Hess, R-Hooksett. They issued joint statements following last week’s vote.
“Choice in education should not only be available to the rich,” Chandler said.
“We now have businesses who have committed donations and families who have applied for scholarships who are in limbo, not knowing if they will be able to receive those scholarships.’’
Hess said he agrees.
“Now, a politically motivated bill has threatened to end the program before it can be fully accessed,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate for those families and children who could benefit.”
Several Southern New Hampshire lawmakers pushed for the program’s creation last year, including former state representatives David Bates, R-Windham, and D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem. Bettencourt, former House speaker, was the lead sponsor of one of the two education tax credit bills.
His legislation passed the House and Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. John Lynch. The House overrode Lynch’s veto, while the Senate did not.
None of the eight co-sponsors of the repeal legislation are from Southern New Hampshire.
New Gov. Maggie Hassan said in her recent budget address she supports the program’s repeal, but the bill may never hit her desk.
HB 370 faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where support runs along party lines and Republicans have a 13-11 majority. Two Republicans voted against the program last year, including Sen. Nancy Stiles of Hampton, but she is expected to oppose the repeal.
But the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Mary Gile, D-Concord, said she hopes Stiles, a friend, supports the repeal.
Giles said Friday she sponsored the legislation for a number of reasons.
“First and foremost,” she said, “the primary responsibility of the New Hampshire Legislature, collectively, is to ensure our children have an adequate education and the children with special needs get the help they need.”
Gile also believes the program is unconstitutional because it provides public funding for religious schools.
“The constitutionality is a major concern I have,” she said. “I just think we need to concentrate on improving our public schools.”
That issue has also been raised by three civil liberty organizations, which have challenged the program in court. They claim it violates the separation of church and state.
Giles said she also has concerns about the Network for Educational Opportunity and its administration of the scholarship program.
Public school officials back repeal
Other opponents of the program include local school superintendents and the organization Advancing New Hampshire Public Education.
The nonprofit group’s founder, William Duncan, said it’s the equivalent of a voucher program that saps public schools of the resources they need to properly educate New Hampshire children.
“Vouchers are just a way to take money away from public schools and give it to private schools,” he said.
Salem School Superintendent Michael Delahanty and Londonderry Superintendent Nathan Greenberg agree the tax credit program would hurt public schools.
“I certainly support the repeal,” Delahanty said. “My primary opinion is funds are diverted from public education. ... I think it was a misguided program to begin with.”
Greenberg, like other opponents, also questioned the use of taxpayers’ money to fund religious schools at the expense of public schools.
“I think repeal of the tax credit program is the appropriate thing to do,” he said.
“I think (the program) creates a constitutional violation.”