Educational Opportunity Scholarships in NH: the view from Concord

Part 1 of 2

Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.  ~G.K. Chesterton

Dominique Vazquez-Vanasse has two little boys, and as a busy mom she doesn’t normally spend her day waiting to stand in front of microphones and talk to a roomful of strangers. Neither does Kim Nichols. Only a special occasion can rate that kind of interruption of family routine. January 31 was such a day, as a legislative committee took up a bill to repeal New Hampshire’s Educational Opportunity Tax Credit.  That endangered credit funds a scholarship program from which Dominique’s and Kim’s children might benefit.

If Rep. Mary Gile (D-Concord) gets her way, the tax credit will be repealed by June.

“Repealing this would directly affect many children, including my own,” said Vasquez-Vanasse. Nichols is a single mother whose son was ill-served by his area’s public school but is now thriving in a private school. “I pay for his education by giving up virtually everything else.”

Gile was unmoved. She called credit “public money,” adding “This is poor fiscal policy and poor educational policy.” In Gile’s world, a credit is a voucher is an unconstitutional attack on public education. Gile set the tone for a nearly four-hour hearing before the New Hampshire House Ways and Means committee, during which parents who were new to politics and had taken the day off work to fight the repeal bill got a serious lesson in civics.

The endangered credit is supposed to go to businesses that donate to a scholarship fund for the benefit of children grades K-12, for use at the school of  a parent’s choice. Last year’s overwhelmingly Republican legislature passed the tax credit law, with an effective date of January 1, 2013. A funny thing happened on the way to January 1: the November election flipped the House. Among the electoral casualties were many representatives who support school choice and had voted for the credit. Giles and seven co-sponsors swiftly filed their repeal bill, HB 370.

Kate Baker is executive director of the state’s Network for Educational Opportunity (NEO), the 501(c)3 charitable organization that was to administer the scholarship fund. She is now in the position of soliciting contributions from businesses whose owners know perfectly well that the tax credit they’re supposed to get is in danger of being repealed even before it can be applied. Baker says that in the first four weeks of January, donations amounted to about $126,000. “That’s not bad,” she says with a smile. Asked by a reporter before the January 31 hearing how much the repeal effort has hurt donations, Baker paused before replying, “It’s given us a lot of publicity.”

No scholarships have been distributed, and in fact none were scheduled to be awarded this academic year. This was supposed to be a year to build up the fund. The mere threat of tax credit repeal has slowed the process. That’s fine with the sponsors of HB 370.

Their testimony to Ways and Means was persuasive only to those accepting the fallacy that a tax credit (in this case, a partial offset of a business’s charitable contribution) is identical to a voucher (money or a credit given directly to a student’s family). The error was repeated too many times by too many people at the hearing to be a random misstatement. Another term that repeal proponents used a lot that day was “diversion of educational funds,” as though any charitable donation by a business means depriving the state of operating funds.

Gile incorrectly stated that NEO’s people “all live outside of New Hampshire,” which undoubtedly came as a surprise to Baker, a New Hampshire resident. “We should not be subject to forces that are here today and gone tomorrow.” One wonders of one of the “forces” to which she refers is last year’s Republican legislative majority.

Co-sponsor Rep. June Frazer (D-Concord), a lifelong educator, cited five “reliable sources,” including the U.S. Department of Education and the National Education Association teachers’ union, whose studies purport to show that student assessments do not show an appreciable difference between public and private education. She cited a New York Times editorial (another reliable source?) saying that public money finds a “back door” to private schools, amounting to a church-state entanglement. She added, “I have lumped vouchers and tax credit programs together. Both use tax money.” Rep. Marjorie Porter (D-Hillsboro) told the committee about the “questionable science and math” to which students might be exposed if parents rely on parochial-school or homeschool curricula. Rep. Steve Vaillancourt (R-Manchester) gave the shortest testimony in favor of repeal, calling the tax credit “blatantly unconstitutional.”

Not all legislators agree with HB 370. Rep. David Murotake (R-Nashua), a member of the Nashua school board, testified that a state-chartered school, the Academy for Science and Design, prompted the Nashua district to promote “positive changes to the way teachers teach in our schools. Just as charter schools are one form of school choice, so is the education tax credit law. Giving parents an ability to choose their child’s school, whether public or private, drives the normally monopolistic school system to innovate and compete to attract students.”

Sen. Nancy Stiles (R-Hampton), who opposed the tax credit when it was passed last year, now opposes repeal. “Give [the tax credit] time. You don’t have any data. When you do, you can decide if it’s a good idea or a bad idea.”

Dominique Vazquez-Vanasse, like the other parents in Concord on January 31, had to wait a long time to testify. By 3:00 p.m., a migraine was setting in. Her sons were a bit fidgety after hours in the hard seats in Representatives’ Hall.  Legislative protocol lets legislators and ex-legislators speak before the general public gets a chance. Some of the parents who had come to oppose HB 370 had to leave by mid-afternoon to pick up kids or go to work. Finally, though, the Ways and Means members got to hear from parents.

The Ways and Means committee will vote shortly on HB 370, with a full House vote expected by the end of February.

Rep. Pam Tucker opens press conference on HB 370; Dominique Vazquez-Vanasse in right foreground

Rep. Pam Tucker opens press conference on HB 370; Dominique Vazquez-Vanasse in right foreground