School Choice Under Attack in New Hampshire

A new law crafted to increase school choice for all New Hampshire students took effect January 1. Just one week later, groups opposing the law, including the ACLU and the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit to challenge its constitutionality on religious grounds.

The New Hampshire law provides an incentive in the form of a tax credit up to 85% of corporate donations to non-profit scholarship organizations that would provide grants for low- and middle-income students to use at private schools or for homeschooling. At present, there is only one such organization in New Hampshire, the Network for Educational Opportunity, and it is important to note that this organization is secular in nature.

The plaintiffs in the suit are alleging that the law essentially violates the separation of church and state principle, arguing that because most students pursuing private school education in New Hampshire do so at religious institutions and since tuition at religious private schools is on average lower than at non-religious private schools, the law illicitly compels citizens to support religious institutions. Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a third organization supporting the case, stated the argument quite tersely: “This is just a backdoor voucher scheme. Whether it’s through a traditional voucher or a tax credit, the result is the same: Taxpayers are subsidizing religious institutions.”

If the above line of reasoning seems a bit “holey” (pun intended) to you, you are definitely not alone. In fact, nine other states have adopted laws resembling the one recently adopted in New Hampshire. None have been overturned in court. It is hard to see how private citizens donating to organizations of their choice in order to eventually allow for parents to have more options for their childrens’ schooling amounts to government endorsement of religious interest. If anything, the law actually removes power from the government in the form of tax credits and transfers this power to the people, empowering citizens to make choices in line with their values and in their own best interests.

New Hampshire House Republican Leader Gene Chandler lamented the consequences of the pending suit, pointing out that “This frivolous lawsuit will no doubt cost the taxpayers of New Hampshire money and tie up resources.”

Unfortunately, the policymaking (or breaking) atmosphere in New Hampshire has become less friendly to school choice in recent months. The new Democratic-led House of Representatives is threatening to repeal the law, with the new governor in support of repeal. Hopefully lawmakers see past the special interests of public school unions and eventually come to realize that laws like the one in New Hampshire are not a scam passed in order to underhandedly benefit some fabricated corporate or religious agenda, but are rather meant to give real parents an opportunity to make better educational choices for their real children.

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