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 Mary Gile (D-Concord) gets her way, the tax credit will be repealed by June.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from businesses whose owners know perfectly well that the tax credit they’re supposed to get is in danger of being repealed even before it can be applied.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

To Undecided Reps, Rx for Fear: Read the Bills

As I checked my Twitter feed recently, the oft-quoted axiom came to mind about a lie getting halfway around the world before truth gets its pants on. An overwrought writer responded to a tweet I wrote for Cornerstone, in which I urged the New Hampshire legislature to override Governor Lynch’s vetoes of the partial-birth and fetal-homicide bills, by tweeting “Who cares if women die! Protect the fetus, so you can ignore it once it’s born.#christiantaliban”

I am not enough at home in the Twitterverse to wage effective rhetorical war 140 characters at a time. Yet I cannot back off completely. My Twitter scold, whoever she or he is, is not conveying the truth. Neither did the governor in his veto messages. Representatives and senators can choose to make their decisions based on fact instead of fear when they consider overriding the vetoes on the 27th. Read the bills.

A recent veto message by Governor Lynch on a school choice bill contained an erroneous claim. Charlie Arlinghaus of the Josiah Bartlett Center called out the governor for his “factually incorrect veto.” Arlinghaus concluded with the stinging admonition, “Read it before you veto it.”  In a second school-choice veto three days later, the governor based his objections on what was actually in the second bill. I only wish there had been two fetal homicide bills so the governor would have had a chance to correct himself again.

In vetoing the fetal homicide bill, Governor Lynch falsely claimed that “this legislation … would allow the State of New Hampshire to prosecute a pregnant woman”.  The governor missed the plain language of  HB 217: “nothing in [this bill] shall apply to any act committed by the woman pregnant with the fetus”. In fact, HB 217 would not apply to any pregnancy termination caused by any person acting with the consent of the mother.

And then there’s the partial-birth abortion ban. “Who cares if women die?” Everyone cares, except those who unfortunately don’t want to hear about abortion-related maternal deaths. Remember, self-proclaimed reproductive choice advocates  fought this year to block a separate bill requiring the state to collect abortion statistics, so we all could get some authoritative information about how many women and girls suffer post-abortion complications. (That bill, HB 1680, was passed after being amended to authorize study of the idea.)

The governor wrote in his veto message that the HB 1679’s two-physician requirement for emergency situations could cause a delay that might harm a pregnant woman. No. Even if HB1679 passes, any one physician would continue to be able to terminate a woman’s pregnancy, at any point in the pregnancy, by any method he or she finds appropriate except partial-birth, in which the fetus is partially extracted from the woman’s body before being “terminated.”

Back to Twitter: “Protect the fetus, so you can ignore it once it’s born.” How does HB 1679 protect a fetus? The bill’s opponents are afraid there’s some anti-Roe monster in the closet. Not in this one, there isn’t. A woman’s right to choose abortion is unaffected.  Claims to the contrary are false. Read the bill.

As for “#christiantaliban”, no one concerned with truth could have written that. It’s catchy, though, and is probably halfway around the world as I write, along with the false claims that these bills will harm women.

The truth is still putting its pants on, so to speak. It’s right there, though, in the bills. The fears expressed by the governor and the hapless tweeter are groundless. The facts won’t change between now and the 27th.