As the Legislature considers a bill that would repeal the controversial Education Tax Credit scholarship, the outsized role of religious institutions in the program is at the center of the debate.
Of the 332 students who received scholarships through the program in 2017, nearly 70 percent attended self-described Christian schools, according to annual reports filed with the state. One of the non-profits that administers scholarships, Giving and Going Alliance, only gives scholarships (75 in 2017) to children attending a small group of Christian institutions.
Soon after the tax credit law’s passage in 2012, a group of plaintiffs sued the state arguing the law unconstitutionally transferred would-be tax dollars to religious institutions. The Supreme Court dismissed the case, ruling the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to sue, but a new constitutional amendment passed last year that changes the standing rules could lead to a new lawsuit.
If opponents do challenge the program again, they will likely focus on the disproportionate amount of scholarships given to students attending Christian educations as evidence that the program is less about choice and more about promoting religious education.
But some supporters of the ETC scholarships say that argument isn’t fair because many of the low-income students they support don’t choose religious schools because of their faith, but rather because they are the only reasonable options in their area outside the public school system.
“It does seem to be a more geographic (decision) than anything else,” said Kate Baker, the executive director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which administers ETC scholarships. “Religious schools exist in all the geographic areas in New Hampshire and the tuition is affordable at the schools.”
It would be unfair, she added, to take away the state’s only school choice program simply because students use it to attend religious schools.
“The ETC scholarship program is the only thing that exists in the entire state for a child who has been bullied, or is below grade level, or who has experienced discrimination so it’s important that it stays in place,” Baker said.
Matt McMenaman, admissions director for the the Catholic Mount Royal Academy in Sunapee, estimated that 35 percent of the students who attend the school using an ETC scholarship aren’t Catholic.
“Generally the reasons we get for coming are the educational experience and whole environment we try to foster at the school,” he said.
The proportion of students using the scholarships to attend religious schools has stayed the same between 2015, the first full year after the lawsuit was dismissed, and 2017. During that time, the number of recipients has more than doubled.
Bill Duncan, a former state Board of Education member and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against the ETC law, said he doesn’t buy the argument that geography and academic superiority explain why so many scholarships go to Christian schools.
“If the rationale is academic rigor, then the solution is to address that in the schools, not to create another system,” he said. “If rigor were the criteria, then we would have a different voucher program than we have.”
UNH professor Todd DeMitchell, who studies school choice programs, said he wasn’t aware of a comparable program in another state where a nonprofit entity acted as a broker, taking donations from businesses, which in turn receive state tax credits, and using that money to pay for scholarships and administrative costs.
During the first six years of the program, the response from parents on annual surveys has been overwhelmingly positive. The vast majority say that they “agree” or “strongly agree” that they’re satisfied with the school their child is attending thanks to the scholarship and have observed improvements in academic achievement.
But the program is still young enough that only a handful of students have completed a mandated post-graduation survey meant to measure the scholarships’ usefulness.
It may be years, therefore, before the state has enough data to measure whether students who left the public school system for a religious institution benefited academically.