Groups challenge NH school-choice plan

Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State termed a new Education Tax Credit a “backdoor voucher scheme” to divert taxpayer funds to religious schools.

By Bob Allen

Three civil-liberties organizations filed a lawsuit Jan. 9 challenging New Hampshire’s new school-choice bill that provides scholarships funded by tax credits for underprivileged students to attend private schools.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union, say the Education Tax Credit program that took effect Jan. 1 will divert funding from public schools. They say most of the benefit will go to religious schools, because two-thirds of the state’s private-school students attend schools that indoctrinate children in a particular faith.

“This is just a backdoor voucher scheme,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Whether it’s through a traditional voucher or a tax credit, the result is the same: Taxpayers are subsidizing religious instruction.”

The program allows businesses to reduce their tax liability by receiving an 85 percent tax credit in exchange for donations made to K-12 scholarship organizations, which will pay for tuition at private schools. Since there will be no state oversight of the schools receiving scholarship monies, the plaintiffs say religious schools will be able to use the funds for religious instruction, indoctrination and discrimination.

They do not challenge the rights of religious schools to teach their own beliefs, but they claim the tax credits violate the state constitution’s guarantee that “no person shall ever be compelled to pay towards the support of the schools of any sect or denomination.” They say the New Hampshire Supreme Court has strictly interpreted that provision to prohibit any diversion of tax funds to support religious activities of sectarian schools.

New Hampshire is one of 11 states offering tax-credit scholarships for underprivileged students in private schools. The bill, adopted by the legislature’s override of a veto by then-Gov. John Lynch, is the first in the nation to include support for homeschooling expenses.

“Tax credits are not considered government money and thus carry virtually no risk of increased regulation on homeschooling,” the Home School Legal Defense Association said in a statement supporting the measure. “The bill will assist families who wish to escape from public schools be better able to choose homeschooling instead of enrolling in public school programs.”