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May 15. 2012 7:24PM

National school voucher group makes push in Concord

CONCORD – The nation's preeminent school voucher advocacy group is seeking to influence a vote this week on legislation that would set up a scholarship fund for students to attend private and religious schools.

Votes on House Bill 1607 and a parallel bill, Senate Bill 372, could come as soon as Wednesday. With strong support in both chambers, the legislation could be one of the most significant policy changes passed this session.

Patterned on similar programs in Florida and other states, the bill would allow businesses to claim tax credits for the money they contribute to a private school scholarship fund for low-income students.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, based in Indianapolis, has hired the local lobbying firm Callahan†and†Gartrell to mount a campaign in support of legislation, which has included mass phone calls apparently targeting the districts of representatives who had voted against the bill the first time around.

Founded in 1996 by noted economist Milton Friedman, the organization is considered the nation's foremost advocate of voucher programs, which enable students to use public education funding at a wide range of schools, including religious and private institutions.

Backers of the legislation have sought to distinguish it from controversial voucher programs, noting that it would rely mostly on private money, not public education funds.

Bill Duncan, the founder of Defending New Hampshire Public Education, a group formed to oppose the legislation, said the involvement of the Friedman Foundation shows the New Hampshire bill was cut from the same cloth as voucher programs.

“This demonstrates that this is not a homegrown bill or concept where New Hampshire citizens are saying we need to do this,” he said. “I would call this a case of national agenda working its way to New Hampshire.”

Duncan found out about the phone campaign when a recipient of one of the calls, Mimi Silverman, contacted him.

Silverman said she received a call on Saturday from a woman who identified herself as from the Friedman Foundation and told her about how there was a bill that “would send money to go underprivileged kids so that they would have choice about whether to stay in an under-performing school system,” Silverman said. The caller offered to put her in touch with one of her representatives, John Graham, R-Bedford, who is one of more than 40 Republicans who voted against the original bill. Silverman ,who is opposed to the bill, declined.

Leslie Hiner, the Vice President of Programs and State Relations for the Friedman Foundation, said the organization is supporting the campaign but is not directly involved in crafting or advocating for the bill.

“We're a national foundation, but we work state by state,” she said. “Typically we'll get involved locally when someone give us a call and asks for help. In New Hampshire in particular we've had a long-standing commitment.”

The Senate in March passed an earlier version of the bill 17-7, a wide enough margin to override an anticipated gubernatorial veto. The House voted 173-127 for its version of the bill, short of the three-fifths needed for an override.

Since that vote, however, the bill has undergone significant changes aimed in large part at limiting the financial impact to public school districts when students leave for private schools -- and take per-student funding with them.

Under the amended legislation, the scholarship fund would be limited to $4 million the first year, then $6 million, and $8 million the third year.†The state would make $2.7 million available to†school†districts to offset the loss in the first two years of the policy. The additional money would reduce the loss for†school†districts from a projected $4.8 million in the first year to $3.7 million, and from $7.1 million in the second year to $5.5 million.†

Students would receive up to a $2,500†scholarship†to attend private or parochial†schools†. The student's family would have to be at 300 percent of the federal poverty level or below.†

Businesses that contributed to the scholarship fund, would receive an 85 percent†tax†credit†against state business†taxes†.†

A veto from Gov. John Lynch appears likely. “The Governor has serious concerns about the impact this would have on state revenues, plus concerns about using public money to fund private schools,” said spokesman Colin Manning.


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