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Kathy Sullivan: Digging deeper into where school choice money goes

April 16. 2018 5:48PM

AFTER MY COLUMN on education tax credits, Jason Bedrick of EdChoice contacted me via Twitter to say a correction should be run because the program benefits kids attending either private schools or public schools outside their districts.

The law does provide tax credit to companies donating to scholarship organizations. In turn, scholarship organizations will provide scholarships to children attending private schools or public schools outside their district. That was an oversight on my part.

Bedrick’s tweet sent me back to review the 2017 scholarship reports filed with the Department of Revenue Administration. The reports confirm that despite the statutory language, the scholarship programs operating in the state have only sent tax credit money to private schools and home schools.

The two scholarship organizations currently eligible under the program do not promote the use of tax credits for public school choice. One organization only provides scholarships to Christian school students. The other vigorously promotes only private and home schools. Based in New York, its 2015 non-profit report lists Pamella DeVos as a member of its board of directors. Pamella DeVos and Betsy DeVos, the controversial Education Secretary, are both married to sons of billionaire Richard DeVos, former finance chair of the Republican Party.

As a graduate of a Catholic grade school, I am not opposed to private or religious schools. But public dollars should not be used to pay the operating expenses of private schools. Nor should public tax dollars pay for religious based education.

The Concord Christian Academy Giving and Going Alliance runs one of the scholarship programs. Its 2017 report shows 50 children (about 67 percent) of its scholarship recipients are Concord Christian Academy students. The reports do not say exactly how much was paid in tax credit tuition money to each school, but 67 percent would be about $188,000 diverted from New Hampshire’s general fund. The other schools that received tax credit tuition money from Giving and Going were the Claremont, Laconia, and Portsmouth Christian schools.

This is not surprising, as one of the purposes set forth in Giving and Going’s Articles of Agreement is to raise funds so that financially vulnerable children can attend Concord Christian.

This is an admirable purpose, and good on Giving and Going for wanting to educate children whatever their financial circumstances. But should a scholarship organization paid for with public tax credit money limit its distributions to Christian schools only? Perhaps the companies donating to Giving and Going only want to support Christian schools. But they could do that by donating directly to those schools.

Concord Christian’s website shows a major planned expansion, including a new gym, science labs, and a worship and performing arts auditorium. If Concord Christian can afford that expansion, does the school need $188,000 in public money to accept those 50 low-income students?

The other scholarship organization is Children’s Scholarship Fund. I went through every one of the schools it lists on its report as receiving public tax credit dollars. There were 257 children attending Catholic schools, Montessori schools, Waldorf schools, Christian schools, prep schools or home schools, but not one public school. Not even a public charter school.

The Children’s Scholarship Fund website was even more interesting. The application page states scholarships are awarded to students based on the education tax credit law, financial need, and “funds raised for tuition for a private school (listed here) or for homeschooling expenses.” Not one word about funds paid to pay for out of district public school expenses.

The link on the application page is to a list of New Hampshire’s private schools. Not traditional public schools, not any of the state’s charter schools. Children’s Scholarship Fund receives nearly $63,000 in public tax credit money for administrative costs, yet could not manage to include public schools on its application page.

There is no primer explaining how a public school student goes about attending a public school outside of his or her school district.

HB 1686 would expand the tax credit program, currently limited to the state’s two largest business taxes, to the interests and dividends tax. This would give wealthy investors a break for donations that will end up at private schools. It has passed the House, and is now before the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Despite the statutory language, this program is not about school choice; it is about giving public tax dollars to private schools and home schools. You still have time to tell your state senator to repeal this program, not expand it.

Manchester’s Kathy Sullivan is the former chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

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