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February 20. 2013 8:59PM

Updated: House votes to repeal new scholarship program

CONCORD  — The House wants to repeal a new school scholarship program funded through business tax credits.
 
The House voted 188-151 to approve House Bill 370, which would repeal the program lawmakers passed last year over former Gov. John Lynch’s veto.
 
Opponents of the bill, say lawmakers should wait before repealing the program which began Jan. 1. The bill was passed by the last term’s Republican-controlled Legislature, while Democrats this year have targeted the program for repeal.
 
Bill opponents said the program will provide opportunities for families around the state to have a choice in their students’ education. But they said it is not a voucher bill.
 
“Let’s give this program a chance,” said Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett. “There’s not much to lose, but a tremendous amount to be gained in giving all our citizens a choice in educating their children.”
 
But opponents call it a back-door voucher plan that takes money away from public schools as private and religious schools cherry pick the best and least expensive students to educate. And they say it is unconstitutional because it provides state tax money to religious schools, something specifically prohibited in the state constitution.
 
“It is poor education policy and badly conceived legislation,” said House Education Committee Chairwoman Rep. Mary Gile, D-Concord. “We cannot ask local communities to absorb any more loss of funding.”
 
The bill’s fate is uncertain in the Senate. Two current Republicans in the Senate opposed the program last year, but one of those senators, Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, announced at the public hearing on HB 370 that she would not support repealing the program because it should have the opportunity to function before being repealed.
 
"Today’s action by the House is premature, and as this bill moves to the Senate I will not support a repeal,” Stiles said after the vote. “The School Choice Scholarship Program has garnered significant interest from students, parents, and business owners who applied to it based on their understanding of the law. I believe we should allow the program and these applicants this opportunity before voting to repeal program that has yet to even begin.”
 
Under the program, students can receive up to a $2,500 scholarship to attend private or parochial schools. Homeschooled students can receive up to a $750 scholarship. School districts losing students because of the scholarships also lose an average $4,100 per student in state education aid.
 
Eight other states have similar programs.
 
As of Wednesday, businesses have contributed $135,581 in scholarship money to the program, which has a $4 million limit this fiscal year. One nonprofit — Network for Educational Opportunities — has registered to offer the scholarships.
 
The education tax credit program is under a legal cloud because the American Civil Liberties Union and others sued the state to block its implementation, claiming taxpayer dollars would be sent to religious institutions.
 
Supporters said there are students and their families waiting to use the scholarships next year.
 
Repealing this program is “telling those 400 children and their families ‘You don’t have a better opportunity out there,’” said Rep. Pam Tucker, R-Greenland. “We must give these children the opportunity to use these scholarships and see how this will work.”
 
Several representatives noted that the tax credit program does not address special education students or those with serious behavioral problems.
 
Private schools do not have to accept those students which costs much more to educate than successful students, they said, “Will these children have the luxury of choice,” asked Rep. Marjorie Porter, D-Hillsborough, “or will their education and high costs be left to public schools?” Opponents also argued the constitution prevents state money from going to religious schools.
 
Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, read from Article 6 of the state constitution on state money for religious schools.
 
“I did not read words detailing how it would be permissible to put money under a shell, move it around like in an old game of hutchenspiel, and then after the proper amount of laundering — viola — declare it acceptable to give to a religious school,” said Vaillancourt.
 
But supporters said the bill is constitutional because no state money is used for the scholarships, rather charity donations from businesses.
 
The bill now goes to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future.</INLINENOTE>
 
grayno@unionleader.com


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