Education tax credit will aid few public school students
In the quickly approaching school year, about 100 students statewide will receive scholarships under the state’s new education tax credit law. But the majority of those scholarships will go to home-schoolers or students already attending private schools rather than to public school students seeking alternative options.
Only about 15 of the 100 students receiving scholarships from the Network for Educational Opportunity, the main scholarship organization, will be moving from public to private schools. Of the other 85 scholarships, about 50 will go to students who are already home-schooled and plan to stay there, and the rest will go to children already attending private schools. The total amount of scholarship money is not final because the group is still waiting to hear back from some families, but the scholarships must average $2,500, said the network’s Executive Director Kate Baker.
In total, those 100 students make up just one tenth of the 1,000 families who applied for scholarships. The number of eligible students fell dramatically when a superior court judge ruled earlier this summer that the money couldn’t go to religious schools. All of this could change for the following school year depending on the result of appeals filed in state Supreme Court, with the defendants seeking to allow religious schools to participate and the plaintiffs hoping for a complete repeal of the law.
Under the law, if businesses donate to a scholarship organization, they will receive up to 85 percent back in tax credits. The law allows for up to $4 million in donations, but so far, only about $250,000 has been raised. At least 70 percent of the money awarded must go to public school children using it to transfer to private schools, Baker said. Home-schooled students can receive up to $625, which is not included in the $2,500 average per scholarship.
To critics of the law, the relatively small number of public school students seeking scholarships is evidence that the law was always intended to aid religious institutions.
“What’s the public purpose of a program implemented in a way that elicits applications almost exclusively from families that are already sending their children to private schools?” asked Bill Duncan, an education advocate and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Baker said focusing only on the 15 public school students is misleading. Of the 100 students the program is helping, about 90 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunch, she said. The scholarship program, she said, gives parents a chance to decide what is best educationally for their children. She is continuing to raise money for scholarships and has filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court in hopes of overturning the ruling that excludes religious schools.
Absent religious schools, there are still a number of private schools where the scholarships can be used. Students who have received scholarships plan to attend Hopkinton’s Beech Hill School, Pembroke’s Green Valley School – a Montessori-style program, and others, Baker said. Many families who already send their children to these and other private schools are struggling to foot tuition bills.
“The reasons for families coming are so diverse,” Baker said. “For home-schoolers, it’s just that the family needs the assistance to buy particular books.”
The scholarship program’s future is now in the hands of the state Supreme Court. In mid-July, the state attorney general’s office and the Network for Educational Opportunity filed appeals asking the court to reconsider the constitutionality of including religious schools. Richard Head, the state’s lead attorney on the case, said the state doesn’t believe the money is public because it goes directly to the scholarship organizations and the state makes no decisions on how it is used.
But the eight plaintiffs, led by Duncan, have filed an appeal seeking a complete repeal of the law. Concord Christian Academy and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester have sought intervenor status, which the court has not ruled on, but all three other groups are opposed to them intervening, Head said. At this time, the court has not decided when to hear the case.
Although a relatively small amount of scholarship money is going to private schools this coming school year, Duncan said he wants the law gone so a future Republican-controlled Legislature can’t attempt to expand it. He and the other plaintiffs consider the scholarship money to be public money and they do not want to see it go to private schools. He also wants the law repealed so more attention is given to other educational issues.
“This shouldn’t even be on the plate,” he said.
Baker, for her part, said much of the reason why the program is smaller than expected is because of Duncan’s efforts.
“(Duncan) seems to gloat about the program being a challenge to grow, yet the court case did create that problem,” she said.
Correction: The original version of this article misstated how the scholarship average is calculated. Scholarships for students planning to attend private schools must average $2,500 or less. Home schooled students can also receive scholarship money, but it is averaged separately.