New Hampshire Court Should Strike Down Neo-Vouchers, AU Argues

 

An Americans United attorney appeared before a New Hampshire judge in April to argue against a state law that awards taxpayer money to religious schools.

Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United, told Judge John Lewis of the Strafford County Superior Court in Dover that a law passed last year violates the New Hampshire Constitution. The measure gives tax credits to businesses that donate money to non-profit organizations that distribute vouchers for tuition at religious schools.

Supporters of the law, which was passed over the veto of then-Gov. John Lynch, point to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a voucher plan in Cleveland, Ohio. 

But Luchenitser said the state constitution contains strict language barring the diversion of taxpayer money to religious institutions. That document reads in part, “[N]o money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools…of any religious sect or denomination.”

“The education tax-credit program will take tax funds away from the state treasury, away from the public schools, and deliver them to religious schools in violation of the text, the purpose and the case law of the New Hampshire Constitution,” Luchenitser said.

Americans United and the New Hampshire branch of the American Civil Liberties Union are representing eight plaintiffs in the case. The hearing lasted more than four hours.

Judge Lewis told the courtroom that money is clearly going to religious schools.

“There’s no dispute that some of the money under this program is going to go to a religious school without restrictions,” Lewis said. “The very first thing that’s being questioned is whether or not the money that’s used to fund tuition payments constitutes quote ‘money raised by taxation.’”

Associate Attorney General Rich­ard Head defended the law on behalf of the state. According to Seacoast Online, he argued that the money in question isn’t really tax aid.

The news site reported that Lewis called Head’s logic potentially “troubling” and added, “If they [businesses] had not decided to make that contribution, where would that money have gone? If the credit isn’t there, the money would go to the government.”

In other news about vouchers:

• The Colorado Supreme Court should strike down a Douglas County voucher program that provides public education funds to religious schools, according to Americans United.

AU, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a petition in April asking Colorado’s high court to accept the Larue v. Douglas County School District case and overturn a Colorado Court of Appeals decision that upheld the program.

The groups say that the voucher plan illegally diverts taxpayer money to religious schools in violation of the Colorado Constitution.

• Louisiana’s Supreme Court has struck down Gov. Bobby Jindal’s private school voucher program. By a 6-1 vote May 7, the justices held that the state constitution directs Minimum Foundation Program funds to public schools and the money cannot be diverted to religious and other private schools. The court also held that legislative procedures were violated in passing the law.

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Louisiana Federation of Teachers v. State of Louisiana asserting that the voucher program subsidizes religion with public funds and lacks accountability standards.

• Indiana’s Supreme Court has upheld that state’s voucher program. In a unanimous ruling in March, the five justices concluded that the plan does not violate a provision in the Indiana Constitution that bars tax funding for religion. In the wake of the Meredith v. Daniels decision, legislators voted to expand the program by making vouchers available to students in “failing” districts and giving vouchers to the siblings of current voucher students.

• A new study of a Wisconsin voucher program shows voucher students performing worse on standardized tests than their counterparts in public schools. The analysis, released by the state Department of Public Instruction, showed that Milwaukee’s public school students outpaced voucher students in all subjects.

The study also looked at Racine’s voucher program and found similar results. Nearly 28 percent of Racine public school students scored proficient or advanced on standardized math tests.  For voucher students, the number was 24.1 percent.

Scores in reading were 21.6 percent proficient or advanced in public schools versus 19.5 percent in voucher schools.

• Vouchers would harm education in North Carolina, a new analysis says. The report, issued by the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project, examined voucher programs in several states and concluded that they do not boost student achievement.

“[A] growing body of research shows that public schools do a better job of educating students, especially students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have special needs, or are struggling academically,” writes author Matthew Ellin­wood in the report.