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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Manchester family has private school dreams

MANCHESTER – To Shalimar Encarnacion, a chance to send her children to private school would mean giving them a new lease on their future.

She’s unhappy with the large class sizes her kids currently face in the Manchester School District. ...

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MANCHESTER – To Shalimar Encarnacion, a chance to send her children to private school would mean giving them a new lease on their future.

She’s unhappy with the large class sizes her kids currently face in the Manchester School District.

With her 14-year-old daughter Angelica in remission after a year of chemotherapy and radiation for Hodgkin’s lymphoma and her 10-year-old son Angel’s struggles with ADHD, Encarnacion said her kids desperately need more individualized attention that she believes a small, private school could bring.

“They’re bright kids, and I really think they could thrive in smaller classrooms,” she said.

But paying for a private school education seemed nearly impossible financially when the family first investigated the option a few years ago. Encarnacion had nearly given up until she heard about the state’s education tax credit program, which gives tax breaks to businesses that donate to private school scholarships for low-income students. Families around the state can apply for the scholarships, managed by the Network for Education Opportunity.

But now, the tax credit program is being challenged in the state Supreme Court, through legislation, and in Gov. Maggie Hassan’s proposed budget. And Encarnacion said she can’t help but feel like her children’s education is under attack.

“This is something for kids,” she said. “This is giving parents a choice, and having businesses invest in their own communities. I think that’s awesome. The people that have issues with it, they’re not thinking about the kids.”

The tax credit program, passed into law by the Legislature in June, permits business owners to qualify for up to 85 percent of what they contribute in scholarships from what they owe under the Business Profits Tax and Business Enterprise Tax.

The credits are limited to no more than $3.4 million next year and $4.1 million in the 2014-15 year.

To receive a scholarship under the program, families must make no more than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $70,000 a year for a family of four.

But while supporters of the program say it’s an important step to improving school choice in the Granite State, it does face plenty of opponents.

State lawmakers in the House voted to repeal the law that made New Hampshire the 10th state to offer the tax credits, and in her budget proposal Feb. 14, Gov. Maggie Hassan proposed funding other educational institutions by repealing the tax credits, saying the program diverts millions in public funds to private and religious schools with “no accountability.”

Last month, two organizations filed a legal challenge against the state in Strafford County Superior Court, asking that the program be deemed unconstitutional, amounting to illegal support for religious schools.

For families like Encarnacion’s, the challenges to the tax credit program are troubling. Angelica Encarnacion attended only about a third of her eighth grade year thanks to cancer treatment.

She graduated from middle school with the help of a tutor, but after deciding to go back to school full time this fall, she has been struggling with the transition.

For Angel, focusing on learning is a challenge, and in a class of dozens of students, he is often left behind.

But medical expenses have made an already challenging financial situation harder, and Encarnacion said she first began looking for a public charter school she could send her children to tuition-free.

After finding nothing that met their needs, she began talking to friends with children in private schools. It was through a friend that she first heard about the tax credit program last summer.

The program, Encarnacion soon decided, could be her children’s ticket to a better education.

Since then, she has been working with Kate Baker, director of the Network for Education Opportunity, to apply for scholarships under the program. If her children can receive scholarships, she hopes to send them to Mount Zion Christian School in Manchester, just down the street from their home.

The K-12 school offers small class sizes and work-study programs to help students get real world experience and put money toward their education. The school has a religious focus but also provides sports, arts and an academic program focused on incorporating technology into learning.

And while Angelica and Angel have mixed feelings about attending a small, private school – worried about losing touch with friends, dreading uniforms and fewer students to spend time with – they said they recognize the benefits.

“I think it could help me get into a better college, and just be more educated,” Angelica said. “As long as I don’t have to wear a skirt, I’ll be fine.”

Whether they will actually be able to attend the school, however, is still up in the air. The high school program costs $7,450 each year, and would not be affordable for the Encarnacions without the tax credit scholarship. The bill to repeal the program is expected to move on to the Senate soon, where it will face an uncertain fate. The Republican-led leadership has said it does not favor repeal.

In the meantime, Encarnacion said she will bide her time, praying and crossing her fingers that the program will stay intact.

“This is a program that is worth it for families,” she said. “This gets businesses to invest in their communities, to better their communities. Seeing that will make students better citizens. What’s wrong with that?”

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashua
telegraph.com. Also follow Curtis
on Twitter (Telegraph_DC).