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School Choice Advocates Pitch Tax Credit Scholarship Program

Flikr Creative Commons / evmaiden

Many proposals encouraging educational choice are pending in Concord this year. One with strong backing would use tax credits to encourage businesses to pay for school scholarships.

Critics say this would starve public schools of much needed funding, but supporters say this is a way to give students more options while avoiding constitutional concerns that have doomed past proposals for school vouchers.

Republican Senator Jim Forsythe from Strafford believes in school choice. If you ask him why he thinks this bill is good for New Hampshire he'll tell you all about the good that choice can do.

"Currently people do have choice but it’s generally the more wealthy people," he says, "Choice is always a good thing in my mind, choice is something that provides competition, and creates efficiency" among other things.

He is championing a proposal that would create a credit against the business profits tax for businesses that donate to scholarship organizations. This idea has got plenty of champions, including the House Speaker, and Senate President.

Forsythe says that’s with good reason. He says, "support for tax credits out numbers opponents by 2-1. The majority of americans support tax credits for education."

But the bill also has its critics. Rick Trombly of the New Hampshire NEA, the state's teachers union,  says this proposal has a fundamental problem.

"Because NH has a constitutional prohibition on public tax dollars going to fund education to religious schools, they always try to find their way around it," says Trombly, "and this is the latest attempt to try get around the traditional NH philosophy of putting public tax dollars to the support of public schools."

The bill would create a maximum of $15 million dollars worth of scholarships; recipients would get $2,500 dollars on average. They could apply that to tuition at a private school, an out of district public school or to homeschooling. Their original district would lose the per-child adequate education grant, $3,450 dollars.

In other words, while the mechanism is different, the bill accomplishes the same thing as vouchers.

Voucher bills have been debated in Concord for years but never passed, but Trombley concedes this bill has real shot.

"When the voters went to the polls last November you know they elected a number of legislators who just simply are not supportive of public education," he says.

Similar laws are on the books in eight other states. Backers here cite Florida, where the law has been in place since 2001 as proof that this works.

"Anybody who was looking for a miracle has to keep looking because it’s not as if education in Florida was revolutionized as a result of this program," says David Figlio, a researcher at Northwestern University who has studied the Florida law.

He thinks in general it’s been good for Florida, but he notes New Hampshire is a very different place. Private schools are more expensive here, and in Florida the grants are worth around $4,000 dollars.

Figlio says in Florida the program really does make private school possible for low-income families, but in New Hampshire that probably won’t be the case.

"All the theoretical evidence should suggest there should be a lot more people choosing private schools who are the high flyers," he says.

But the bill’s sponsor Senator Jim Forsythe says New Hampshire has to start somewhere, because "this is the chicken or the egg thing."

If the bill helps private schools, more of them will open, says Forsythe, and the competition between schools would eventually force down their costs.

Critics are skeptical: they say that education is a public good, and shouldn’t be left to the whims of marketplace.

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