Later this year, if the New Hampshire House agrees with a measure passed by the state Senate on January 18, students in low-income families in the Granite State could receive scholarships to attend the schools of their choice.
On a 14-9 vote, the Senate approved S.B. 131 to create the 21st Century Scholars Fund, which will provide scholarships of up to $3,500 for children in low-income families to attend the public or private school of their choice. All 14 members voting for the measure were Republicans, and eight of the nine negative votes were cast by Democrats. One senator was absent.
“I think it is important we look at all avenues for providing education,” said state Sen. Carl Johnson (R-Meredith). He proposed the scholarship fund as an amendment to a bill before the Senate that set guidelines for participation in the Healthy Kids Program, which provides health care services to children in low-income families.
At press time, the House had not set a date to debate S.B. 131, though Johnson said it could happen any time.
The proposed 21st Century Scholars Fund is a hybrid between state-funded vouchers and scholarships supported through both corporate and individual tax credits. If the measure becomes law, the fund will begin with $1 million from the state’s coffers. During the second year, the state will appropriate another $1 million only after $500,000 is donated by the private sector.
Under the program, the state would give individuals a credit against what they owe in taxes on interest and dividends, equal to the amount of donations they make to the scholarship fund. Individuals would have to apply for the credit, and the limit on the total amount of credits to be granted by the state would be $100,000. Corporations would be able to receive credits against the Business Enterprise Tax in the amount of donations to the scholarship fund, with the total amount of credits limited to $400,000.
Individuals and corporations would be permitted to donate an unlimited amount, but would receive credits only for the amounts specified in the law.
“In the past, when school choice was proposed, funding would have come from the education trust fund, but this time it has come from the general fund,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who has served for 12 years in the state Senate and previously served four years in the New Hampshire House, has also been a school board member for Interlakes School District for the past 23 years.
The 21st Century Scholars Fund is modeled after New Hampshire’s Healthy Kids program, which provides health insurance to low-income children. The Scholars Fund will provide scholarships of $3,500 for children in families whose income is at or below 200 percent of the poverty level. The fund also will provide scholarships of $2,500 for children in families with incomes between 201 and 250 percent of the poverty level.
The scholarships can be used at any public or qualified private school. Schools where tuition is less than the scholarship amount cannot provide a rebate to parents; instead, they must return the money to the state. Only students currently enrolled in public schools will be eligible for the scholarships. Once a student receives a scholarship, he or she will continue to do so as long as his or her family meets the income requirements.
A board appointed by the governor, Senate president, and speaker of the House will oversee the program.
“The 21st Century Scholars Fund is not just about private school education–it is about providing choices,” said Kathy Getchell, director of the School Choice Center: New Hampshire, a statewide advocacy group. “This bill would allow a public school student to receive a voucher to attend another public school more suited to meet his needs.
“This bill, if implemented into law, would greatly benefit many low-income families whose children have few educational choices,” Getchell continued. “Allowing more choices will increase the demand for different types of schools.”
As for passage in the state House, Johnson is optimistic.
“I’m very excited about that because [some state House members] are anxiously waiting for the bill to come over,” Johnson said.
Some of the senators who voted against the measure said it would violate New Hampshire’s state constitution, which contains in Part II, Article 83 a “Blaine Amendment” prohibiting public funds from going to private religious schools.
However, in an analysis published by the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a New Hampshire-based think tank, former state supreme court justice Charles G. Douglass III writes that a school choice program would be constitutional, so long as it is “religiously neutral,” “provide[s] no more than incidental benefits to a religious sect or religion in general,” and is “brought about as a result of the independent choices of parents who receive the public funds.”
Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.
For more information …
The Josiah Bartlett Center report, The Constitutionality of School Choice in New Hampshire, is available online at http://www.jbartlett.org/files/pdf/constitutionality05404.pdf