By CAMERON KITTLE
NASHUA – While supporters of an education tax credit program argue it will offer low- and middle-income families more choice, the average annual credit of $2,500 would only cover a fraction of the cost of tuition for some local private schools.
For example, tuition at Nashua Catholic Regional Junior High School is $6,413. Tuition at Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua is $11,750. Local private elementary schools run from $2,950 to $4,700, depending on the grade level.
Still, Nashua Catholic principal Thomas Kelleher said the education tax credit bills, HB 1607 and SB 372, could help support families who need some extra help and want more options for their children’s education.
“There should be choice,” he said. “If opportunities for choice are expanded, that’s good for everyone.”
The House of Representatives will vote on SB 372 either Tuesday or Wednesday. The bills would establish an education tax credit program and offer scholarships to low- and middle-income students if they choose to attend private, religious or home schools.
The program would allow students to receive an average of $2,500 a year if they choose to attend a private school or public school outside their home district, and home-schooled students would be eligible for up to $650 in annual scholarship money.
Businesses would fund the scholarships and receive an 85 percent tax credit in return, on either the business profits tax or the business enterprise tax.
The bill was passed in the Senate, 17-7, on March 28. A similar measure, HB 1607, passed the House last month and was initially approved by the Senate two weeks ago, but it will be reviewed by the Senate Finance Committee before the Senate takes final action on the bill.
With tuition running over $10,000 a year at some of the pricier private schools, opponents of the bill have said the tax credit program doesn’t provide enough relief for low- and middle-income families to give students choice.
Bill Duncan, leader of the organization Defending New Hampshire Public Education, said the bills will cause a significant drop in public school enrollment, and any funds lost by school districts will need to be replaced by property taxes.
“It’s going to cost school systems big time,” he said. “It’s being sold as rich people have choice and lower income people should have school choice as well, but to put all this public money into private schools with no accountability is entirely unjustified. The bill is really about privatizing schools.”
However, Sen. Jim Forsythe, prime sponsor of the Senate bill, said the scholarships will be flexible, depending on the price of the school’s tuition and the income level of the student’s family.
With some financial aid from the school as well, opportunities for school choice will increase, he said.
“Will this actually help poor people out? The answer is yes, based on experience in other states,” Forsythe said.
Nashua Catholic tries to keep tuition low, Kelleher said, but the cost still rises every year – tuition was $6,413 this year. That forces out many low-income families, Kelleher said.
“We don’t have a lot of low- and middle-class parents who send their children to our school,” he said. “We are a tuition-based school. We try to realize that parents make a great deal of sacrifice to send their children to a school like this, but the tuition rate is not decreasing. We try to limit it so that it stays within the cost of living.
“The philosophy behind a Catholic education is that Catholic schools should be accessible to everyone,” Kelleher added. “In that sense, a bill like this may ease the burden a little bit for some parents.”
Paul Berube, high school principal at Nashua Christian Academy, said he was in favor of the bill because it can help working class families pursue a Christian education for their children.
“This could help a lot of families get over that edge of being able to afford it or not,” Berube said. “From my perspective, more people having the availability is a good thing. I know many families who would jump at the opportunity.”
Both schools offer need-based financial aid, which is used from a pool of money in the budget every year. More low-income applicants who need financial aid could stretch that budget, but Kelleher said he doesn’t expect to see a significant impact because Nashua Catholic is a smaller school.
Opponents maintain that the two bills are bad for education.
Early estimates from the state Department of Education show that New Hampshire could lose more than $7.75 million in state grant funds currently given to local cities and towns. The state estimates it would lose $4,100 in state aid for every student who leaves public school, and the estimates project that Nashua could lose 160 students and $367,430. The School District would lose that amount each year for three years if the students remain enrolled in private school.
However, Forsythe counters that the Senate bill includes a “scholarship stabilization” provision that says school districts cannot lose adequacy aid that exceeds 0.25 percent of their annual budget. He said it was brought up as a concern about HB 1607, and senators tried to mitigate the losses to the school district with the provision.
Public school districts could still lose money if students leave for private or religious schools, but that’s the point of the bill, Forsythe said.
“It provides the competitive effect,” he said. “Other states have actually seen a positive effect because of that kind of provision. Tax credit programs like this have shown over and over again to have a positive impact on students exercising their choice.”
Another key provision, he said, is that 40 percent of all scholarships will go to students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch. If not enough students in that group apply for scholarships, the cost of the program will go down, Forsythe said.
Cameron Kittle can be reached at 594-6523 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, follow Kittle on Twitter (@Telegraph_CamK).