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Kathy Sullivan: There is a broad campaign afoot to undermine support of public schools

By Kathy Sullivan
April 01. 2013 6:12PM

The most important job of government is to insure that the next generation is educated. It isn't just because it is the right thing to do for kids, it also is the right thing for society, to preserve and protect our national security, insure a thriving economy and continue the tradition of American leadership. To do the job, we need a strong public school system.

That concept should not be difficult to grasp, and at one time it was promoted by people of all political stripes. Unfortunately, the idea that a strong public school system is important is under siege.

There are several threats to public schools. One is from the neglect caused by elected officials who are more interested in their tax-cutting records than they are in education (see, e.g., Ted Gatsas, mayor of Manchester). Another is from the far right, which has a palpable contempt for public education.

The far right insists on calling public schools "government schools," as if President Obama was personally running Stalinist-style indoctrination centers across the country. Actually, some of them in their paranoia actually do feel that way, as evidenced by some of the comments you can find regarding public schools.

They are aided and abetted in their quest by less paranoid, "conservative" Republicans, who have been seeking ways to divert tax dollars to private schools and religious schools as a way of providing school choice. A few years ago, the suggested method was vouchers, which never made it very far. Now, the method is a more complicated system which gives businesses tax credits for contributing to scholarship programs to send children to private or religious schools. It isn't just New Hampshire; this idea is being promoted nationally.

I have nothing against religious schools; I am the product of an excellent Catholic grammar school and Catholic college (a fact which might make some of those radical Republicans think twice about supporting religious schools, but I digress). But I have a problem with the use of tax dollars to fund religious schools, and that is what tax credits do.

These schools already receive tax-exempt status as non-profit organizations. Companies that want to donate scholarship dollars already receive the benefit of charitable tax deductions. Giving them New Hampshire tax credits on top of the federal tax deductions they already benefit from gives these donors a most-favored status that donors to other non-profit organizations do not receive, while draining tax dollars from the public school system that is educating the majority of the state's children.

Let these companies keep their tax deduction, but let's not give them tax credits added on top. Why should donations to religious or private schools receive better treatment than, say, a donation to a library, a museum, a homeless shelter or a food bank? It doesn't make sense.

And then there is the curriculum. I do not know if the conservative Republicans who are promoting the tax credit program really understand what is being taught in some of the religious schools actively seeking funding from the program. If they did, they would find out that these schools are not just using tax-credit receipts to teach religion (despite our state constitutional prohibition against funding religious education). Some of these schools teach politics wrapped in a religious aura, and it is a far, far, far right view of the world not based in reality.

One school in Dover that encourages the use of these tax credit scholarships teaches a warped view of both public schools and the United States government. Its web site states that the true goal of public education is the engineering of a citizen who parrots "a socialistic, centralized, Statist, relativistic world-view." Christian education, however, is a bulwark and lightning rod "for all society against the relentless expansionism of the total State."

With all due respect, why are tax credits being used to promote any political agenda, let alone a fundamentally paranoid view that our country's government is evil? If parents want to teach their kids that kind of stuff, they can do it on their own time or their own nickel. We don't have to help pay for it.

Actually, if they think government is that bad, isn't it just a little hypocritical to accept funding through a government voucher ... excuse me, tax credit program?

The Legislature has an opportunity to end this tax credit program. If companies want to donate, they can do so; ending the tax credit program doesn't prevent anyone from writing a check. The New Hampshire House of Representatives has voted to end the program; let us hope the Senate will join suit.

Kathy Sullivan is a Manchester attorney and member of the Democratic National Committee. She was chairman of the state Democratic Party from 1999-2007.

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