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Ed Tax Program In Holding Pattern Pending Supreme Court Action

Principia School
Flickr Creative Commons

New Hampshire’s new Education Tax Credit Program has been around for all of six months, and so far, it’s had a rough time.

Last week a superior court ruled the program can’t give scholarships to religious schools But this is just the latest difficulty for the program.

The Network for Educational Opportunity was the first organization to step up and offer the tax credit funded scholarships that became legal this year after being pushed through by a republican legislature over a governor Lynch’s veto. Kate Baker is its Executive director and she calls the organization NEO, pronounced like the protagonist from The Matrix. Baker was active in Ron Paul’s last two presidential runs and she’s got a certain enthusiasm.

My entire job has been to try and create options for families,” she says getting more excited as she talks, “so you can look at education like shopping, right? So you can go and say, I like this and I like that, but I don’t like this one!”

From the start, opponents including teachers’ unions and much of the educational establishment have fought the tax credit scholarships.

They paint the tax credits as equivalent to school vouchers, siphoning students and funding away from public schools. They have pointed out links between NEO and a group called the Alliance for the Separation of School and State, which calls for ending “government involvement in education.” They called out NEO for a – never-implemented – plan to offer commissions to catholic schools that helped them do fundraising. And of course they took the program to court. Last week a Superior Court Judge in Strafford County ruled it unconstitutional to give state tax-credits for scholarships that go to religious schools.

“It affects about three quarters of my applicants, so it doesn’t affect everyone, but it affects so many that I really can’t just leave it alone,” Baker explains.

The decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court, and the state will seek a stay on the ruling, which would allow NEO to give scholarships to religious schools this year. But as things stand three-quarters of the families applying for scholarships won’t be eligible.

That would nix folks like Mark Latorella, from Boscawen, who wants to send his kindergartner and third grader to the Portsmouth Christian Academy.

He says one reason he and his wife hope to send their son to that school is because “my older son has asynchronous development, and the particular model that they have over at Portsmouth Christian is a developmental model, where if a kid is strong in one area they will advance him, and where he or she is weak they will build that up.”

Latorella also plans to teach at the school, and is moving his whole family to Dover. If he has to pay full tuition to send his two sons to that school it’s about $8,000 dollars a pop.

“It leaves us with some tough choices. Retirement, we definitely don’t take vacations, we don’t eat out a lot,” he says.

In a Holding Pattern

As things stand, NEO will have to do serious book-keeping just to use the money it’s raised. The law requires that NEO give 70 percent of the scholarship money to students who were in public school last year. And the scholarships all have to average out to $2,500 dollars.

“That was actually the metric that scared me the most,” says Baker. She explains that only about 10 percent of her applicants came from public schools. “We got to about a hundred children in that category, which I know doesn’t seem very high, but we raised $250,000 dollars so it is actually the right ratio.”

Few public school students in the applicant pool mean NEO will have to them give bigger scholarships, somewhere in the neighborhood of $7,000, to get to the 70 percent figure. The families that are left would get closer to $1,000.

Baker says she will wait as long as she can to give out the scholarships, hoping for a court action that will give her more flexibility.

Could it Die on the Vine?

But so far, the program that has kicked up all this fuss remains tiny. NEO has raised only 7 percent of the tax credits it’s allowed, and will give around 100 scholarships.

“They’ve raised very little money, they can give very few scholarships this year,” says Bill Duncan, the activist who brought the lawsuit. He thinks the ruling could cause the tax credit to basically die on the vine.

“I think you can say with confidence that not much can happen in the program this year.”

And if that happens, families that want to send their kids to private school, will have to do what they’ve always done. Because as Mark Latorella says, his sons’ education is the number one priority.

“At this point we don’t know exactly how that’s going to work yet, but we’ll do what we have to do,” he says.

And the same goes for NEO, which will remain in a holding pattern until this matter is decided by the Supreme Court.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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