CONCORD — Beth and Eric Keck of Northfield were looking into a private school for their high-school aged daughter, but were worried about the impact on the family budget. Then they learned about scholarships made possible by education tax credits.
The Tax Credit Scholarship Program, launched in 2012, allows businesses to take deductions on their state business taxes for donations to a scholarship fund that enables qualified students to attend private schools.
The Keck family was among many who told their stories to lawmakers in person or by letter on Wednesday as the House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony on a bill sponsored by Democratic lawmakers to repeal the scholarship program.
“When our daughter began looking at Concord Christian Academy, we were not aware of the tax credit option and felt we were reaching way beyond our financial means,” according to a letter the Keck family wrote to scholarship donors, which was distributed to lawmakers.
“But she was eager to apply as she was not enjoying her education environment, despite pulling straight A’s and being president of her class at our regional high school.”
At Concord Christian Academy, their daughter benefits from smaller class sizes, teacher involvement and Socratic dialogue, and “she deeply appreciates the weaving of Christian values throughout the school culture and curriculum, and feels enriched by this aspect as well.”
It was a story heard many times over, even though many who had come to testify had to be turned away as the lengthy hearing was continued to March 5.
“HB 632 would crush the hopes and dreams of families to have their child in the school of their choice,” according to Lori Robertson, director of admissions at Concord Christian Academy, who came with 14 letters like the one written by the Kecks.
“HB 632 would devastate the dreams of students who have hopes and desires to attend the school they want to attend in a private or religious institution,” Robertson said.
$6 million diverted
Supporters of the repeal effort, with a Democratic majority in House and Senate, are hoping to reverse the most significant legislative success of school choice advocates in recent years.
If they succeed in passing a bill that repeals the tax credit program, it will most likely be vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu, a strong advocate for school choice.
Opponents of the tax credit program see it as an unconstitutional law that directs taxpayer money to private schools, which in New Hampshire means mostly religious schools.
Milford Democratic state Rep. Joelle Martin, the repeal bill’s lead sponsor, described the tax credit program as one that allows tax dollars that would otherwise become state revenue to be shifted to “an out-of-state organization that pockets thousands of dollars and ships left over money to private and religious schools in the form of scholarships.”
Martin said the program diverts $6 million in tax revenue that would otherwise be available for public education in the state, which she said is drastically under-funded.
“We cannot rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said. “We should not be redirecting state-bound money to schools that are not accessible to all students. Scholarship applicants to this program can be discriminated against based on ability, medical condition or gender identity, just to name a few.”
The law was challenged in court by public education advocate and former state Board of Education member Bill Duncan and other plaintiffs. A Superior Court judge ruled the law unconstitutional, and the case was appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court dismissed the case on the basis that Duncan did not have standing to sue the state over such a broad issue, and so the law remained in effect.
Last year, voters approved a constitutional amendment giving private citizens standing to sue the state, and Duncan has said the lawsuit could be revived.
Republicans tried unsuccessfully last year to pass a broader school choice bill that would give parents the state’s basic per-pupil grant of roughly $3,600 to spend for private school tuition or home-schooling if they so choose.
While that bill failed, the Legislature did expand the taxation that qualifies for the tax credit program to include interest and dividends taxes, in addition to business taxes.
“These education scholarships, funded not with public money but with private donations, have helped hundreds of lower income families met their children’s learning needs,” said Ann Marie Banfield, with the conservative policy group Cornerstone Action.