Foster’s does an overview today of the voucher tax credit debate as we head into the court hearing next Friday, April 26, at 11:00 at the Strafford County courthouse. I make a couple of corrections in [brackets].
Most interesting is that while Sen. Nancy Stiles (R, Hampton) sticks close to voucher advocates’ talking points, Dean Whiteway, headmaster at Concord Christian Academy, take a very different tack, highlighted after the jump.
Controversial education tax credit law stays in place
By JENNIFER KEEFE
Sunday, April 21, 2013
The battle over the state’s education tax credit program — commonly called a voucher system by the public — was revived last week when the Senate tabled legislation to repeal the law.
Put into place in 2012 by the Republican-led legislature, the education tax credit awards tax credits to businesses that contribute toward scholarships for students to attend nonpublic schools.
Each student would receive a $2,500 “voucher” to assist in attending a charter school, private or religious school.
The legislation was controversial when it went through the House and Senate last year, and the 2013 bill (HB 370) to repeal the education tax credit program — which passed last year over Gov. John Lynch’s veto — has stirred the pot once again.
“It’s bad policy regardless,” said New Castle resident Bill Duncan of the education tax credit program.
Duncan founded a group called Advancing New Hampshire Public Education that follows such legislation in the state and has been tracking the tax credit program since it was introduced.
“The idea that the state would give a kid a $2,500 voucher to go to an unaccredited creationist school as an alternative to me is, on the face of it, bad policy,” Duncan said. “It’s not something that can be asserted to be better education or an improvement for the country or state. It just has no rational basis.”
Duncan, like other opponents of the tax credit, argues against diverting taxpayer funding away from public schools and into private or religious schools.
“Proponents can argue all they want, but it’s diverting money that was going into the general fund into the private sector,” said NEA-NH President Scott McGilvray. “We say that some of that money could have gone to fund things that had been taken away in education. It does impact public schools.”
The Democratic majority in the House passed HB 370 at the end of February. The Senate’s vote Thursday to table the bill effectively kills the legislation.
The House-passed budget, HB 2, also includes language that would repeal the education tax credit, but now that HB 370 has been tabled in the Senate, the Senate’s version of the budget won’t include that language.
Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, had voted against the education tax credit last year because she thought there were other ways of accomplishing the same thing.
However, Stiles voted against the repeal Thursday.
“When it came back as a repeal, I just really have difficulty as we change legislatures having one group coming in and repealing what the last group has done,” she said. “I don’t think that’s the way legislation should happen.”
Stiles said she’d like to give the education tax credit some time to see how it works out, and that while she’s heard the argument that the tax credit takes money away from public schools, nothing should change for those schools.
“Our adequacy dollars are based on enrollment, so if you have 100 kids in school you get money for 100 kids,” she said. “If one leaves, you lose that amount of money, but it doesn’t matter where they go or for what reason they leave.”
She said she doesn’t see a “huge number” of students pouring out of public schools to go to private or religious schools, but supports the idea of helping students have that opportunity.
The fact that the voucher tax credit is small because it has failed to get public or business support cannot be made into a rationale for keeping a bad policy in place. If the program were able to gain support over time, the law allows it to grow indefinitely. The result would be a real impact on our local public schools, well beyond the demographic shifts they already face. The bill’s sponsors talk behind the scenes about “enticing” students out of “government schools” and getting “as many students as possible out of the ‘system'”, while maintaining the public position Sen. Stiles quotes, that kids always come and go for many reasons.
“I’m all about giving every kid every chance to be successful to reach their highest potential,” she said.
That’s what our public schools are for.
She said when she opposed the legislation last year, she felt businesses could contribute to scholarships if they wanted to without having to go through the state taxes.
“We’ll see if they do or not with this,” she said.
But Duncan notes there has so far been little support from businesses.
Out of the $1,400 [$140,000] in tax credits that has been requested to date, $100,000 comes from Barrington manufacturing company Turbocam.
The state is allowed to grant $3.4 million in tax credits under this program to repay businesses for their donations, which would result in about $4 million in scholarships.
Businesses have 60 days to donate the money after making the request for a tax credit from the Department of Revenue Administration.
There has been an additional $1,500 [$15,000 worth of tax credit have expired without the business making the contribution] in credits requested, but no donations have been made.
“The business community isn’t for this,” said McGilvray at the NEA, adding a $2,500 voucher doesn’t give every child the opportunity to go to any private or religious school.
“It’s not going to make the difference,” he said.
The entire discussion, however, may be moot depending on the ultimate resolution to a court case on the constitutionality of the education tax credit program.
The suit brought by Duncan and his group Advancing New Hampshire Public Education [actually, it’s not my group – a wide array of New Hampshire clergy, parents and taxpayers are the plaintiffs], Duncan versus New Hampshire, will be heard for the first time on April 26 in Strafford County Superior Court before Judge John Lewis.
The suit asserts that the program violates several articles of the New Hampshire Constitution, specifically Part 1, Article 6, which states, “No person shall ever be compelled to pay toward the support of schools of any sect or denomination.”
Dean Whiteway, headmaster at Concord Christian Academy, said the focus of the legislation was not whether parents would send their children to a private school or religious school, but simply to provide the financial ability to parents.
He added all the points that have been raised in opposition to the program were framed with “it is unknown.”
There is very little unknown about the impact of this kind of program. It has been tried, and is just as controversial, in many states.
“There is no statistical evidence that would give any cause other than a political one as to why you wouldn’t allow the legislation to stay. The act sets out in preamble the reason for establishing such a bill, and the reason was choice for parents to send kids to nonpublic schools and competition in education.”
And he said instituting the tax credit was a “noble and reasonable” position for the government to take.
…and, by the way, is a major new source of funding for Dean Whiteway’s school, to the point that the Concord Christian Academy has formed its own “scholarship organization” to raise tax credit funded tuition donations under the program.
“What they’re giving in a credit to these families is far less than what they would give local school board in support of education,” he said. “You take the extreme position, which is the free-choice movement to take all tax dollars and redirect it to a school of their choice, and the state allowing the tax credit to businesses is probably a good beginning and certainly doesn’t go to the extreme.”
Dean Whiteway accurately describes in this short statement the whole vision for voucher tax credits. “All tax dollars redirected to the school of choice” instead of investing in our public schools is the acknowledged goal of voucher advocates. And, as Mr. Whiteway says, the New Hampshire program, while small, is seen as a good start down that road.
However, Duncan is concerned because he asserts the tax credit program has no real oversight.
The organization appointed by the state to administer the scholarship program is a California-based group called the Alliance for the Separation of Schools and State, which in New Hampshire is known as the Network for Educational Opportunity, or NEO.
“It goes to businesses, raises the money and gives it to schools,” Duncan said of the NEO. “This is the administrative infrastructure of this program.”
But ultimately, the decision will come down to the courts, and Duncan said there could be resolution before the end of the year.
“People debating this always render their own opinions about whether it’s constitutional, but the only place to establish that is in court,” he said. “Let’s just let the court tell us. I think we have a very strong case. But things have multiple sides.”