Tag: new hampshire

School Choice Lawsuit Explained

Last week, the New Hampshire Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Duncan v. New Hampshire, concerning the constitutionality of the “Live Free or Die” state’s trailblazing scholarship tax credit program. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief in support of the program. Over at the Friedman Foundation’s blog, I summarize the law’s history and the primary legal arguments on each side, including legal standing, public versus private money, and the use of public funds at religious schools. I conclude by outlining four possible outcomes:

1. The court rules that the plaintiffs lack standing. In this case, the trial court’s opinion would be overturned and scholarship students would be able to attend the school of their choice, religious or secular.

2. The court rules in favor of the program on the merits. That would mean either the court holds that tax credits are private money or that public money may be spent at a religious school so long as it reaches the schools in a manner that is indirect and incidental to the choices of parents. As in the first scenario, scholarship students would be able to attend the school of their choice, religious or secular.

3. The court upholds the trial court’s decision. In this case, the tax-credit scholarship program would continue as it has in the last year. The trial court forbid the use of scholarships at religious schools but allowed their use at secular private schools, out-of-district public schools, and homeschool environments. In this scenario, the Institute for Justice likely would challenge the decision in federal court for violating the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment since such a decision would require legislative hostility toward religion rather than neutrality.

4. The court rules against the program and rejects the severability clause. The trial court found that the severability clause that the legislature had added was valid, therefore the program could continue for parents selecting secular schools or homeschooling. The state supreme court could reach the same conclusion on the merits, but reject the severability clause. This would be the most devastating outcome for educational choice in New Hampshire, as it would completely obliterate the tax-credit scholarship program.

Ideally, New Hampshire’s Supreme Court will follow the precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Arizona Supreme Court by holding that taxpayers’ money is their own until it reaches the tax collector’s hand.

Live Free and Learn

Earlier this week, the Show-Me Institute released my study “Live Free and Learn,” the first analysis of New Hampshire’s trailblazing scholarship tax credit program, which is the first in the nation to include homeschoolers. The study found that participants in the program were overwhelmingly low-income and nearly universally satisfied. Some of the key findings include:

  • 97 percent of parents of scholarship recipients are satisfied with their chosen private or home school.
  • 68 percent of parents reported that they noticed measurable academic improvement in their child since receiving the scholarship.
  • 91 percent of scholarship recipients had a household income that would qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch program under the federal National School Lunch program (185 percent of the federal poverty line, or $43,568 for a family of four).
  • 74 percent of private school parents reported that they would have been unable to afford tuition without the scholarship.

I discuss the findings of the study in greater detail at the Education Next blog.

A Governor’s Warped Priorities

The governor of New Hampshire just submitted an amicus brief in the lawsuit against the “Live Free or Die” state’s scholarship tax credit program. Last year, Governor Maggie Hassan unsuccessfully sought its repeal. The brief offers nothing new in the way of legal arguments. As with the ACLU and, unfortunately, the trial court judge, the governor’s brief tries to imagine a constitutional difference between tax credits and tax deductions and absurdly assumes that money that a private corporation donated to a private nonprofit that financially assists private citizens sending their children to private schools is somehow “public” money because the state could have collected it in taxes had the legislature so decided. This claim contradicts both logic and the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in ACSTO v. Winn:

Like contributions that lead to charitable tax deductions, contributions yielding [scholarship] tax credits are not owed to the State and, in fact, pass directly from taxpayers to private organizations. Respondents’ contrary position assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. That premise finds no basis in standing jurisprudence. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.

The Cato Institute submitted an amicus brief defending the constitutionality of the program back in November.

What’s noteworthy here is not the legal reasoning, but the governor’s chutzpah. First, as the Union Leader noted, “Hassan is pushing state-funded, need-based scholarships for college students while trying to eliminate need-based scholarships for students in grades K-12.” The governor’s amicus brief does not explain why direct public expenditures that students can use at a Catholic college are perfectly constitutional but a low-income student using a tax-credit scholarships at a religious elementary or secondary school would, as her amicus brief melodramatically puts it, “jeopardize both the hallowed underpinnings of religious tolerance and freedom, and the prohibition against entanglement made sacred by [the] New Hampshire Constitution.” 

Second, Hassan is a strong proponent of “research and development” tax credits that pick winners and losers among certain types of businesses and business activities, thereby distorting the market. Moreover, by the governor’s faulty logic, these tax credits constitute direct subsidies of public funds to profit-seeking entities. R&D tax credits clearly reduce state revenue to fund activities that businesses are generally doing anyway for their own financial self-interest.  

By contrast, scholarship tax credits expand the market for private education without distorting it. Parents pick winners and losers among schools rather than the government. The corporations who receive the 85 percent tax credits do not benefit financially – indeed, they’d be better off financially had they not donated at all. Moreover, the Josiah Bartlett Center projected that, if fully utilized, the scholarship tax credits would save New Hampshire taxpayers millions of dollars in the long run by reducing state expenditures by more than they would reduce state tax revenue.

In short, Governor Hassan supports corporate welfare but opposes tax credits that assist low-income families seeking the best education for their children.

School Choice Lawsuit Roundup

School choice advocates have been winning in the halls of state legislatures and in the court of public opinion, so opponents have taken to the courts of law. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that school vouchers are consistent with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, opponents of choice have been scrambling to find novel reasons to challenge school choice programs. Here’s a brief summary of school choice lawsuits around the nation:

1) In Louisiana, the U.S. Department of Justice has sued to halt the state’s school voucher program, arguing that it hurts the desegregation effort. The DOJ’s already weak case was further undermined by a new study released today showing that school choice actually improves integration. Since 90 percent of the voucher recipients are black, the DOJ’s lawsuit would have the effect of keeping low-income blacks from attending the schools of their choice.

Earlier this year, Louisiana’s state supreme court ruled that the voucher program was unconstitutionally funded, but otherwise left the program intact. The governor and state legislators adjusted the funding mechanism in response.

2) Two days ago, a group of activists in Oklahoma sued the state over its special needs voucher program, arguing that it violates the state constitution’s ban on using public funds at religious schools. Last year, the state supreme court tossed out a challenge to the program by public school districts, ruling that they did not have standing since they are not taxpayers.

3) On the same day, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the state’s education savings account program, the first in the nation, is constitutional. Anti-school choice activists had argued that it violates the state constitution’s ban on publicly funding religious schools. The court held that students are the primary beneficiaries and that any “aid to religious schools would be a result of the genuine and independent private choices of the parents.” The decision will likely be appealed to the state supreme court.

New Hampshire Court’s School Choice Decision Was Flawed and Unprecedented

Last week, a New Hampshire trial court declared that the state’s nascent scholarship tax credit (STC) program could not fund students attending religious schools. The Granite State’s STC program grants tax credits to corporations worth 85 percent of their contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that aid low- and middle-income students attending the schools of their choice.

Writing on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Professor Kevin Welner of the University of Colorado at Boulder mocked supporters of the program who criticized the decision. Welner argues that school choice advocates should have expected this decision, declaring that it was “unsurprising” that the court should find the program (partially) unconstitutional. But what Welner calls unsurprising is actually unprecedented.

Only toward the bottom of his post does Welner reveal that the only high courts to address the issue thus far—the U.S. Supreme Court and the Arizona supreme court—have ruled STC programs constitutional in their entirety. Indeed, though all but two of the remaining ten states with STC programs have similar “Blaine Amendment” provisions in their state constitutions, opponents haven’t even bothered to challenge their constitutionality. Additionally, other state courts have ruled on the question of whether tax credits constitute “public money” in a manner consistent with the previous STC cases, demonstrating that the courts’ rulings were not the aberrations that Welner imagines them to be.

If school choice supporters had a reason not to be surprised, it was because the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State shrewdly went judge shopping. That’s why they brought their lawsuit in Strafford County instead of Merrimack County, where the state capital is located. Their strategy seemed to pay off, as the judge’s decision relies heavily on the dissenting opinions in the U.S. Supreme Court and Arizona supreme court decisions, and misapplies the limited precedent from New Hampshire. Nevertheless, the final decision rests with the New Hampshire supreme court. As I detail below, logic and precedent suggest that they should overturn the lower court’s decision.

NH Court: You Can Choose a School So Long as It’s Secular

Earlier today, a New Hampshire district court upheld the “Live Free or Die” state’s nascent scholarship tax credit (STC) program, but limited the use of scholarships to non-religious private schools.

Earlier this year, the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit claiming that New Hampshire’s school choice law was unconstitutional under the state’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the public funding of religious schools. The law grants tax credits to corporations in return for contributions to non-profit scholarship organizations that fund low-and-middle-income students attending the schools of their choice.

The decision hinged on whether or not tax credits constitute “public money.” Previously, the U.S. Supreme Court held that they do not, noting that when “taxpayers choose to contribute to [scholarship organizaions], they spend their own money, not money the State has collected from respondents or from other taxpayers.”

Likewise, the Arizona state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of Arizona’s STC program, forcefully rejecting the “public money” argument:

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, “public money” is “[r]evenue received from federal, state, and local governments from taxes, fees, fines, etc.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1005 (6th ed.1990). As respondents note, however, no money ever enters the state’s control as a result of this tax credit. Nothing is deposited in the state treasury or other accounts under the management or possession of governmental agencies or public officials. Thus, under any common understanding of the words, we are not here dealing with “public money.”

While neither the Arizona supreme court nor U.S. Supreme Court serve as binding precedent for how a New Hampshire court may interpret the New Hampshire state constitution, their reasoning should have carried great weight as the question before the court was the same. Nevertheless, the NH trial court rejected this traditional understanding of “public money” in favor of the plaintiff’s “all your money are belong to us” argument. In the words of the trial court judge:

This Court concludes that the program uses “public funds,” or “money raised by taxation” … Money that would otherwise be flowing to the government is diverted for the very specific purpose of providing scholarships to students.

This is precisely the understanding of “public money” that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected: 

Respondents’ contrary position assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.

The U.S. Supreme Court held, in essence, that your money is your own whether or not it qualifies for a tax deduction of some kind. A taxpayer’s money only becomes “public money” once the government actually collects it in the form of taxes. The NH trial court judge, by contrast, holds that any taxpayer’s income on which the government might have a claim is instantly “public money,” even before collection, and it remains so even if the existence of a tax credit or deduction means that government will never collect it.

Unfortunately, the legal theater of the absurd doesn’t end there. Charlie Arlinghaus, President of the Josiah Bartlett Center, which advised legislators on crafting the law, noted that the trial court’s logic leads to another absurd conclusion:

This ruling is particularly odd. The entire program is fine unless a parent by their own choice chooses a religious school. By this logic a program is illegal if neutral and only legal if actively hostile to religion. 

The Institute for Justice, which intervened on behalf of the Network for Education, the state’s first scholarship organization, will be appealing the decision to the state supreme court. IJ Senior Attorney Richard D. Komer stated:

The court’s ruling inflicts again the blatant discrimination that motivated New Hampshire’s bigoted Blaine Amendment in the first place.  We will immediately seek a stay of the court’s decision so that parents receiving scholarships can choose the educational options that best suit their child’s unique educational needs, regardless of whether that is a religious or secular school.

The trial court’s order halting the program is wrong on both the facts and the law. As a factual matter, the program is funded with private, not public dollars.  As a legal matter, the federal Constitution prohibits states from preferring non-religious schools over religious schools, which is precisely what the court’s ruling does.

We can only hope that the Granite State’s supreme court will exercise better judgment.

School Choice Survives Repeal Attempt in New Hampshire

Just moments ago, New Hampshire’s state senate rejected an attempt to repeal the state’s nascent scholarship tax credit law by a 13-11 vote*. The program grants tax credits to businesses worth 85 percent of their contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that fund low- and middle-income students attending private or home schools. The program took effect on January 1 of this year but scholarships will not be distributed until the new school year in the fall.

The support of Senate Education Committee Chairwoman, Senator Nancy Stiles, was decisive in saving the program. Last year, Sen. Stiles had voted against the school choice proposal, but she decided to oppose the repeal because she believed “it would be irresponsible to overturn it without seeing whether the legislation made a positive difference.” She also noted that without having had the opportunity to evaluate the program’s effectiveness, the opponents of the school choice program want to “rescind a program, not based on its effectiveness, but on philosophical differences. I cannot support or be a part of this effort.”

The legislative battle does not end here, however, since the NH House also repealed the scholarship tax credit program in the House version of the budget. Budget negotiations between New Hampshire’s Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate are expected to continue until about mid-June.

The law is also being challenged in court by the Americans for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU, who claim that the school choice program violates the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits public funding of private schools. Their argument is based on a false premise, which is why the courts have ultimately rejected it wherever it has been tried. A citizen’s money is her own until it reaches tax collector’s hand. A private donation therefore does not constitute “public funding” even if it qualifies for a tax credit or deduction. While impossible to predict the future, it is likely that the Granite State courts will rule in line with other states’ interpretations of the Blaine Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court’s understanding of tax credits.

*UPDATE: I originally reported that the vote was 14-10 to table the repeal bill. In fact, one state senator had mistakenly voted for the motion when he intended to vote against it and that was later corrected. The 13-11 vote was along party lines.