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Excluding religious schools narrows reach of education tax credit

Last modified: 6/25/2013 12:41:30 AM
About 70 percent of scholarship applicants under the education tax credit law sought money for religious schools, and only a small portion of applicants were public school students looking to transfer to private schools.

The Network for Educational Opportunity, the main group facilitating private scholarships, raised $250,000 and received more than 1,000 applications. No scholarships have been awarded, but the group expects to fund about 200, said Executive Director Kate Baker.

But the law requires at least 70 percent of the money go to students transferring from public and charter schools to private ones, and those students only account for 10 percent of applicants. About 20 percent are home-schooled students and the rest already attend private schools. That means if a recent superior court ruling to exclude religious schools from scholarship money holds, the $250,000 raised will be divvied up among a much smaller number of schools and students than originally thought.

“I feel like this ruling is directly ordering me to discriminate against people for their beliefs, and I just don’t think this makes good sense,” Baker said.

The law was passed by the Legislature last session and allows businesses that make donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations to receive a tax credit for up to 85 percent of their donation. In a suit filed by eight plaintiffs against the state, a Strafford County Superior Court judge ruled last week that the money can’t be used for religious schools because it would violate the state Constitution but that the money can go to nonreligious schools.

The state attorney general’s office plans to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court, and Baker is hoping the judge will grant a stay and allow the scholarships to go forward as planned until the appeal is heard. Who gets a scholarship will be determined by financial need and the scholarships must average $2,500 per student. About 200 applications are from families making less than $30,000 a year. Baker is sticking with her original plan to announce scholarships next month.

At the center of the legal argument is whether the scholarships count as public money, although the money never technically passes through the government’s hands. But for parents who put in applications for the scholarships, the chief concern is their ability to pay for the education they feel is best for their children.

Dominique Vazquez-Vanasse of New Hampton, for example, pays almost $14,000 for her two sons, ages 9 and 6, to attend Laconia Christian Academy. Her older son has high energy and high intelligence, and he thrives in a smaller classroom, she said. Her younger son has selective mute-ism, an anxiety disorder, and also functions better in a small classroom setting. Her family is Catholic and would have picked a Catholic school if she chose a private school for religious reasons, she said.

The school, which she says is designed for blue-collar, working-class families, has in-house tuition assistance, but she and her husband still struggle to make payments. They recently applied for a loan application on their house and canceled their car insurance, and Vazquez-Vanasse, who is on disability, started a small scrap metal hauling and clean out company to bring in extra money.

“I’m really irate, I feel like we’re being discriminated against because we send our kids to a religious school,” she said.

Guy Kidd is another parent who hoped a scholarship would defray the costs of Portsmouth Christian Academy, where his 12- and 16-year-old sons go to school. His wife died from cancer last year, and she was the family’s primary breadwinner. They chose to send their children to private school because they felt the public education system in their hometown of Fremont wasn’t sufficient. The religious component was also a draw, Kidd said.

He believes Portsmouth Christian sets higher educational standards than the Fremont public schools. His sons don’t play sports or do other activities that would be free at a public school because paying for the education is the family’s No. 1 priority. Kidd and his sons are moving to Rochester next week, and he said they may move to another part of the country with better opportunities.

“To hear that a religious school or a private school of a particular denomination is not seen in the eyes of the law as being allowed to be part of this program I think is very unfair, and quite frankly it could drive me from the region,” he said.

Bill Duncan, a plaintiff in the case against the state and former Executive Council candidate, said diverting public money to religious or private schools shouldn’t be the state’s job. Instead, the state needs to focus on improving the public education system, which he said is already good compared with other places.

If people “want to make the argument that New Hampshire schools are bad schools, they should have at it, because they’ll lose,” he said.

Calling the business donations private donations is “a ruse,” he said, because the state then gives most of that money back to the businesses.

Richard Head, the state’s lead attorney on the case, said he will appeal because the state Supreme Court has never ruled on a similar case and because it’s unclear whether the plaintiffs actually have standing just because they are taxpayers. One of the eight plaintiffs is a business, however, and Head said that business clearly has standing because the law affects the business profits tax.

He argues that the donations are not state money because they are transferred directly to the scholarship organizations and the state never dictates specifically where the money goes.

“The advantage is that it’s entirely school neutral,” he said.

In addition to the Network for Educational Opportunity, the Concord Christian Academy Giving and Going Alliance has also been approved as a scholarship organization. No one from that group could be reached for comment.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @kronayne.)


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