Editorial: Education tax credit program should be repealed

Last modified: 3/13/2014 11:04:09 AM
It’s not every day that the attorney general and the governor find themselves publicly at odds over important state policy, but it happened this week – and thank goodness.

At issue is a 2012 law that set up a tax credit program for businesses, essentially rewarding them for donating money to a fund that provides “scholarships” to help some children attend religious or other private schools, receive home-schooling or attend a public school outside their home district. Controversial from the get-go, the program was approved by the Legislature over the veto of then-Gov. John Lynch.

A superior court judge ruled last summer that the program could not be used to support religious school education. And this week Gov. Maggie Hassan weighed in, filing a brief encouraging the state Supreme Court to uphold the lower court ruling – in opposition to the attorney general’s office, which is defending the law.

“The governor treasures the diversity of private schools in our state, and fully appreciates their contributions to tolerance and learning. But the decision to contribute to a private religious school is a personal decision. It should not be supported by the state’s tax structure, and it should not have the effect of diverting scarce taxpayer dollars from crucial public needs,” Hassan said in her brief.

She’s right. The Supreme Court should do as the governor suggests. And, beyond that, the Legislature should pull the plug on the entire program.

The religious aspect to the program is the most objectionable. Supporters have attempted to blur the line between church and state, granting a tax break to those who would support religious institutions – diverting much-needed tax money for that purpose and forcing the rest of us to make up the difference. But even with the religious schools exempted from the program, the scheme still robs public schools of needed resources in order to make it easier for families to send their kids elsewhere. In a state so miserly in financing public education, the idea is misguided in the extreme.

Does the government have an interest in helping families send their kids to Bishop Brady or the New Hampton School? Should businesses be rewarded by the government for contributing to such an effort? Of course not.

Traditionally, on the federal and state levels, constitutional provisions separating church and state banned taxpayer support of religious institutions. But in 2002 a U.S. Supreme Court dominated by conservatives knocked a hole in that wall and permitted the issuing of taxpayer-funded vouchers that could go to a religious school if the money was used only for secular purposes. Then, in 2010, the court threw open the door to forced taxpayer support of religious education by approving tax credit programs similar to the one now at issue in New Hampshire.

How does any of that square with the part of the New Hampshire Constitution that specifically says “no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for use of the schools or institutions of any religious sect or denomination,” and also holds that “no person shall ever be compelled to pay towards the support of the schools of any sect or denomination”?

We hope the court here agrees with the governor and sees the tax credit program of a clear violation. But like-minded legislators, those who believe they have a responsibility to improve the public schools rather than thwart them, should go even further: repeal the program and focus their energies on making the public schools the best they can be.

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