Editorial: Tax credit law is nothing but a trick
For centuries, ancient alchemists searched for a Philosopher’s Stone capable of turning lead into gold. Similarly, school choice proponents spent years searching for a way to get around constitutional prohibitions against turning public money into support for religious schools. They found it, not in the form of a unicorn’s horn or some other magical substance, but in a simple accounting trick. Hijack money meant for the state before it gets there and, in their view, it’s no longer public money. That’s what the state’s 2012 tuition tax credit law does, a law whose constitutionality was argued last week before the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
The law allows companies that contribute to a scholarship program created to subsidize a qualifying student’s education in a private school, whether secular, sectarian, or at home, to deduct 85 percent of the donation from money they would otherwise owe the state in business profit taxes. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority upheld a similar voucher program in use in Ohio. New Hampshire’s constitution, however, is very clear on the subject.
In Article 83, it specifically states that “no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools of institutions of any religious sect or denomination.” Clearly, public money should not be used to support religious teaching or a curriculum based upon it – such as creationism, which contends that the Earth is just thousands of years old – instead of real biology and geology.
Let’s hope, for the sake of public education and constitutional principles, that the New Hampshire Supreme Court sees the accounting trick for what it is, an end run around the constitution. A statement made by Justice Carol Ann Conboy suggests that the court won’t fall for fiscal legerdemain. “The factual reality is,” Conboy said, “without the credit, those businesses would be obligated to pay the taxes to the state.” And what they don’t pay, someone else must.
Supporters of the vouchers claim that they give low-income families a shot at doing what many well-off households do: Pay for their children to attend the private or parochial school of their choice. That claim, to the extent it’s true, is overblown. The average scholarship granted last year was $1,246, a tiny fraction of the cost of attending almost all schools, public or private.
When, using a voucher paid for with tax credits, a student transfers from a public school to a private one, the local school district loses thousands of dollars in state education aid. Since most of a school district’s costs are fixed, the transfer of one or even a dozen students does not reduce what the district needs to spend. Instead, it must find a way to make do with less, to the detriment of students.
Because the 2012 law was duly enacted by the Legislature, the attorney general’s office is obligated to defend it. To do so, Associate Attorney General Richard Head told the court that the law was constitutional because the money meant for the state was not given to religious schools but to parents to spend as they wish. That’s true, but it’s merely another attempt to violate the spirit and intent expressed in the constitution.
The high court, we assume, will see through that, too, and put an end to a law crafted to allow parents to pay for private school with public money.