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June 19. 2013 8:42PM

Parents, student aid agencies seeking answers after court's scholarship ruling

Hundreds of Granite State students who want to attend religious schools this fall will not be eligible for scholarships tied to business tax credits under a court ruling released this week.

The two scholarship organizations the state approved to dole out the money say they will proceed with granting scholarships to students who plan to attend non-religious schools if a court doesn’t put the decision on hold until the state Supreme Court hears a promised appeal from the state Attorney General’s Office.

The decision means Litchfield mother Kim Nichols won’t be eligible for a scholarship to help pay for her son to attend a Catholic school in Nashua.

Nichols, who pays more than $12,000 in yearly tuition to Bishop Guertin High School, said she was “furious” with the judge’s decision.

“It’s a very big sacrifice to be able to send him to this school,” Nichols said Wednesday. “We’re not religious. We chose it because the curriculum works for our son. We’re looking for a good school; that’s it.”

She said her son is doing “unbelievably better” at Bishop Guertin than he did in public school in Litchfield.

Nichols applied to The Network for Educational Opportunity in Concord, a scholarship organization that raised about $250,000 for scholarships from 10 businesses, including about $120,000 in the final week before last week’s deadline, said Executive Director Kate Baker.

She said parents are best positioned to make decisions about their children’s schooling, and many want to send their kids to faith-based schools. Under a Superior Court ruling, parents wanting to send their children to religious schools can’t receive money from a new scholarship program that relies on donations from businesses in exchange for an 85 percent tax credit on their business taxes.

“I’ve raised the money and my entire purpose to do this is to create options for families and help them overcome barriers,” Baker said.

She said 1,018 students applied for scholarships and she estimated about three-quarters could be tied to religious schools. Baker said a child’s school choice and the cost of tuition are not factored into the decision-making practice.

“We’re going to use their income size and family size,” she said. “We have hundreds of families whose incomes fall below $30,000 a year.”

The average values of all scholarships awarded by a scholarship organization can’t exceed $2,500.

Until a court rules otherwise, scholarship organizations can’t award scholarships from those funds to children who want to attend religious schools, according to Richard Head, an attorney in the state Attorney General’s Office who argued in court for religious schools to be included.

The Concord Christian Academy Giving and Going Alliance in Concord, the other approved scholarship organization, said it plans to abide by the decision.

“Absent a stay of the Court’s decision, we will therefore be required by the tight calendar requirements of this new law and this very restrictive decision to limit our upcoming awards to individuals who are not exercising their rights to take advantage of one of the many fine programs offered in NH by religiously affiliated schools,” said a statement released Wednesday.

The AG’s office plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court, Head said.

“It’s a complicated question and one of first impression for New Hampshire, so it makes sense for the New Hampshire Supreme Court to weigh in on these issues,” Head said.

As for determining whether a particular school is “religious,” Head said: “I think it is complicated and we at the state level, that’s the primary issue we’re still reviewing to determine the sort of the mechanics of implementing Judge (John) Lewis’s injunction and we may or may not need some clarification from him regarding those mechanics.”

According to the judge’s decision, the plaintiffs— eight taxpayers and a business — counted 154 non-public schools in New Hampshire using information from the state Department of Education. Excluding 38 special education schools, the plaintiffs said 71 of the 116 remaining general-education schools were religious, or 61 percent.

The intervenor-defendants, which includes the State of New Hampshire, counted 161 or 162 total non-public schools, of which 62 were religious schools, the judge said. The latter included special education, resulting in a 38 percent overall rate of religious schools but not a parallel comparison with the plaintiffs’ percentage.

In a footnote in his 45-page ruling, the judge said the parties didn’t offer a definition of a “religious” school. “From the positions and evidence the parties present, however, the Court considers a ‘religious’ school generally to be ... one run by, or affiliated with, a religious sect or denomination, where an important mission is religious instruction and where teaching is generally imbued with a religious dimension,” Lewis wrote.

Beverly Primeau, chair of the Concord Christian Academy Giving and Going Alliance, said that the alliance believes parents should have a choice of schools whether faith-based or not.

“Our organization is founded on faith and we intend to support faith-based schools,” she said.

Primeau said she didn’t know how many students applied and declined to say how much money was raised.

In a statement released after the court decision, the New Hampshire Democratic Party called the ruling “a victory for local schools, public education in New Hampshire, as well as Granite State students and their parents.”

Officials at the state Department of Revenue Administration didn’t return phone messages this week.

mcousineau@unionleader.com


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