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Why has New Hampshire’s private school tax credit failed?

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There is only one scholarship organization working on New Hampshire’s education tax credit program.  That’s a California group calling itself, among other things, the Network for Educational Opportunity and it has generated very little in scholarship donations.  The uncertainty generated by the voucher repeal movement and the court challenge to the constitutionality of voucher tax credits is surely a factor in NEO’s poor performance.  But there’s more to the story.

Most importantly, NEO is not credible as a scholarship organization.  Although it pitches the tax credits as a program for poor kids, the organization’s stated mission is about shutting down public schools.  But New Hampshire voters and businesses support their public schools.  Businesses, in fact, are heavily involved in helping our public schools develop the workforce of the future.

NEO also does not have the operational experience or know-how to operate a scholarship program.  The group started small and just kept shrinking.  Last year, it had a budget of $135,000, half that going to its one staff member.  As a scholarship organization, it had the potential to raise $10 million over the first two years and keep $1 million of that for administrative overhead.   So NEO staffed up to a level of 8, including “outreach volunteers.”  All are veteran libertarian and Free State activists.  One is a pilot.  One is involved in real estate.  Two are former legislators.  None have (apparent) experience relevant to running a scholarship organization.  

Then there are the schools NEO has involved in the program.  Tri-City Christian Academy, unaccredited and militantly conservative in its Christianity, actively recruits scholarship applicants and takes the lead in lobbying.  Seven of the 26 voucher supporters at a recent hearing were Tri-City employees or students.  NEO also held an outreach session at the Liberty Harbor Academy, a small, new, unaccredited school in a downtown Manchester office building.  It presents itself as a libertarian Christian school.  These are not strong anchors for a scholarship program asserting that it will provide a better education than New Hampshire’s public schools.

Controversy aside, the program would have had a hard time getting off the ground.  Why?  The sponsors ramrodded this bill through without building a broad coalition of support for the program.  Republicans had a super-majority in the Legislature and declined to work with with Democrats and others.

You see the results now.  There is none of the the oversight you see in other states or in New Hampshire programs like charter schools or other tax credit programs.  There are none of the testing and other educational accountability provisions common in other states – probably because the unaccredited schools most supportive of the program would not have accepted that kind of transparency because they would not have met credible standards.

Sponsors could have worked with the business community to determine what changes might draw their support.  They did not.  A program to provide vouchers as part of an overall plan to help kids in under-performing school districts could have drawn broader support, as it has in other states, but the sponsors did not pursue that.

Finally, the sponsors rejected multiple suggestions to seek an Opinion of Justice from the New Hampshire Supreme Court – an opinion the Court can quickly provide the Legislature on the constitutionality of proposed legislation.  Even negative court opinions have use to fixing legislation.  The New Hampshire ACLU guaranteed that, without the court opinion, there would be a constitutional challenge.  Now, the inevitable court case is an obstacle to carrying out the program.  

Last year, sponsors seemed to feel they had no need for support from business, Democrats, credible schools – or even the New Hampshire Supreme Court.  But now they are facing the voucher repeal fight with a tenuous program that only a few libertarians and religious schools care about.

The outlook for the program is grim.  Voucher repeal (HB 370) has passed the House.  The Senate will vote on the bill in mid-April but, win or lose, the program is still in trouble.  Voucher repeal will surely be in the House budget to be passed next week.  So repeal will continue to be a possibility as the House and Senate negotiate the budget.

The Supreme Court will probably not issue an opinion on the constitutionality of the tax credit until late in 2013.  Until then, any business tax credits under the program could be ruled invalid.

So the voucher program is doomed for this year.  But, more importantly, legislators can now see that the voucher plan is bad policy enacted by a run-away Legislature.  We need to repeal it before it does real damage to the education of New Hampshire children.

(cross posted here on the Patch)

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