February 03, 2014
NH scholarship program offers family a new start, but faces legal challenge
When the New Hampshire Legislature passed an educational tax credit program in 2012, a new world of opportunities opened for Tia Fader. She was the mother of two children who were struggling academically, and in need of a new start.
Now, after her daughters have found success in the School Choice Scholarship Act, it’s under assault from groups arguing it may unconstitutionally siphon money away from public schools.
Leah, Fader’s oldest daughter, was bullied throughout elementary school. Despite reaching out to the school, very little changed. “The school forced the bullies to write an apology letter, but the mistreatment did not stop,” Fader said.
Leah was often sent to “hang out” with the guidance counselor, principal and psychologist because the teacher would have a hard time teaching the young girl, Fader said. Soon the girl’s grades slipped, along with her willingness to learn.
Fader hoped a change of scenery might do some good, so for the next several months she drove her daughter to another school more than 40 minutes away from their home in Merrimack, N.H. But the long trips to and from school became too expensive, leading Fader to briefly homeschool.
Although Leah didn’t enjoy her previous public school experience, she wanted to be back with her friends. Fader re-enrolled her at their local school to finish up the last of her remaining elementary years, but the problems quickly returned.
Fader was told by her teacher that Leah would be “eaten alive” in middle school. The girl failed two terms in fifth grade by not turning in assignments. The school suggested to Fader that Leah take remedial math and not take any additional language courses.
As Leah’s struggles continued, her younger sister, Candace, was entering kindergarten. Fader says sheets upon sheets of homework were brought home daily. By the end of first grade, Candace, too, lost her curiosity to learn and started asking if she could stay home from school.
Everything changed after the creation of the state educational scholarship program. Businesses can now donate to the scholarship program and get a tax credit equal to 85 percent of their contribution.
Fader was able to use the program, which allots each child with a scholarship, the average of which must be $2,500, to find a private school that matches the girls’ learning style.
Since the switch, Fader says her girls come home with smiles on their faces. “My prayers have been answered,” she said. “For the first time in their lives, I drop them off without the guilt of knowing that they might not be safe, or learning, or their individualism stifled.”
The performance of her daughters has been very clear. Leah is now at the top of her math class and learning two languages, while Candace is an avid reader. Fader said the smaller class sizes and the comprehensive curricula geared towards a child’s natural curiosity are helping turn her children around.
The New Hampshire scholarship program, however, is facing major challenges.
After passing the Republican-controlled House and Senate, then-Democratic Gov. John Lynch vetoed the bill. The Legislature was able to successfully override the veto, making the act law.
But the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United For Separation of Church and State allege the program takes money away from the state and gives it to private religious schools, and filed a lawsuit trying to stop it.
A state judge ruled the program unconstitutional under New Hampshire law in June. The New Hampshire Supreme Court will now hear the appeal.
The Network for Educational Opportunity, the nonprofit group that oversees the scholarship program, in a statement to Watchdog.org, said, “The lower court’s ruling is regrettable since it imposes a limitation on the options available to parents. With all due respect to the court, the judge attempts to take away many parents’ right to direct the educational futures of their children. We are optimistic that justice will prevail in our appeal to the NH Supreme Court because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that tax credits are private contributions.”
Fader said it would be “devastating” if the program were discontinued. “I would have never been able to give my children the opportunity to learn the same way I parent if it were not for this type of program.”