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New threat to close church-state gap

As chairman of the state Board of Education nearly two decades ago, Ovide Lamontagne, the first Republican to declare his intention to run for governor next year, argued in favor of school vouchers and amending the state Constitution to permit taxpayer support of religiously-affiliated schools.

Lamontange's goals, judging by his informal debate with a New England College graduate student at a political event last week, haven't changed. As governor, he would seek to have state education funding, and funding within a school district, follow the student. If that means students and parents abandon a failing school for others and it closes, so be it. He would also seek to overturn the 1887 constitutional provision barring public support of religious schools.

Lamontagne is wrong on both counts. Competing for public school students and the funding that comes with them is not the way to improve a struggling school. As New England College student Amanda Ledwith told Lamontagne, it only serves to starve the school of many of the resources a failing school needs to improve.

It's nice to believe that the key to education is an extraordinary educator on one end of a log and a student on the other. Devoted teachers and strong leadership at the top are crucial to success. But schools also need books, computers, science equipment and more - plus enough money to compete and keep the best staff possible.

Removing the ban on taxpayer support of religious schools, even when the money is allegedly used for only secular purposes, would be a terrible mistake that would shrink the separation of church and state. Nor is it likely that the two-thirds of voters needed to amend the Constitution would ever support it. Knowing that, proponents of public funding for religiously-affiliated schools in some states, including New Hampshire, have adopted a different, and dangerous strategem.

In April, the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court came down with a ruling that created a "roadmap" for getting around constitutional bans on taxpayer support for "religious matters," as Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said in a blistering dissent.

Like New Hampshire's Constitution, Arizona's contains a ban on public support of religiously-affiliated schools. In an end-run around its constitution, Arizona lawmakers passed a law granting a tax credit for money donated to private school "tuition organizations." Parents who give $500 to a parochial school can have their tax bill reduced by an equal amount. Using the law, Arizonans donate more than $50 million per year to such organizations, two-thirds of which help fund religious schools.

In an amazing demonstration of sophistry, Justice Anthony Kennedy, author of the majority opinion in the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization case, said that granting tax credits is different from giving tax revenue to religious institutions because "awarding some citizens a tax credit allows other citizens to retain control of their own funds in accordance with their own consciences." But the money not paid by those who received tax credits would have to be made up by charging other taxpayers that much more.

Lamontagne did not propose adopting the same approach in the Henniker meeting, but we'll be waiting to hear his position on it. On Wednesday, the six members of a committee created by the last session of the Legislature held its first meeting. The committee was formed to "Study the Implementation of a Tax Credit Plan in New Hampshire." It is being chaired by Republican Sen. James Forsythe of Strafford, a fervent proponent of school choice, and includes Republican Reps. David Hess of Hooksett and J.R. Hoell of Dunbarton.

The committee could propose that the Legislature follow Arizona in allowing taxpayer support of religious schools. It's safe to say that Gov. John Lynch would not support such a move. Would Lamontagne?

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