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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bills may boost private schools

CONCORD – School choice advocates and Republican legislative leaders said Monday that an average $1,500 tax credit would allow more low-income students to attend non-public schools of their choice.

Opponents counter the state tax credit for business owners would rob public schools of $15 million and includes no accountability for the quality of programs.

House and Senate GOP leaders are putting their weight behind making New Hampshire the ninth state in the country to offer tax credits for businesses supporting scholarships to non-public schools.

House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem said the aim is to assist parents whose children are not thriving in their assigned public school.

“Good schools should not only be available to the rich; all children should have the opportunity to choose what school to go to,” Bettencourt said at a news conference. “I’m not seeking just an adequate education for our children; we are seeking an excellent education for our children, one that allows our kids to be competitive with the brightest minds in the world.”

The average cost of a religious elementary school is $5,228 a year, more than double the average scholarship.

It’s a third what it costs for a religious high school, $7,664 on average annually.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne said he’s learned serving on an education foundation that a small scholarship can act like a “bridge loan” to families struggling to place their children in private schools.

“We need to be a state that welcomes different approaches to education,” Lamontagne said. “It’s a baby step, but an important baby step.”

Jeff McLynch, head of the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute, said the credits would rob cash-strapped public schools of money and have not been shown to improve student performance when implemented elsewhere. McLynch testified against the first of two bills, HB 1607, on tax credits before a House committee that has the co-authorship of House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon.

A Senate panel is set to hear a second measure, SB 372, that, unlike the House version, would means-test scholarships for the financially neediest and has 11 GOP senators on board, including President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford.

The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy examined existing tax credits in eight states and found they affected less than half of 1 percent of current spending on public schools, were constitutionally sound and had strong support of participating parents.

Rhode Island (2006) is the only New England state with these tax credits and has small participation; Pennsylvania (2001) is the only other state in the Northeast and has the largest number of served students in the country.

“Rich people have school choice; poor people do not, and it has great consequences for educational opportunity,” said Charles Arlinghaus, executive director of the Josiah Bartlett Center.

Business could claim as credits against either the state taxes on corporate profits or on business activity their donations to organizations that spend 90 percent of their revenue on non-public school scholarships for students ages 5 to 20.

The average scholarship would be worth $2,500 and can be used at any independent school, including a home school that meets state and federal anti-discrimination laws and has compulsory attendance.

Sen. Jim Forsythe, R-Strafford, said he’ll seek to amend the Senate bill so the scholarship could be used for a student to attend a public school other than his or her neighborhood school.

“Freedom to choose is what has caused a constant increase in quality and decrease in cost for goods and services throughout our country’s history,” Forsythe said.“Conversely, it is well understood that monopolies lead to a decrease in quality and/or higher prices.”

Public school defenders said the cost to taxpayer-supported schools would be much more than the $15 million a year in tax credits.

Bill Duncan of New Castle is a retired businessman and supporter of the group, Defending New Hampshire Public Education.

“So you want to use government money for parents to escape government control,” Duncan told the House panel Monday. “I do get that’s the purpose of the bill, but I do not believe that dismantling our public school system to replace it with private and home schools is a legitimate public purpose for state money.’’

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com; also check out Kevin Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter and don’t forget The Telegraph’s new, interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.