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N.H. High Court Bars Private-Tuition Tax Scheme

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The New Hampshire Supreme Court has declined to reinstate a tax-abatement program in the town of Epsom that was intended to benefit homeowners who sent their children to private schools.

The state's highest court on Dec. 23 unanimously upheld a state judge who had ruled that the $1,000 tax-abatement plan violated state law.

Epsom officials adopted the program in late 1990 both to promote parental choice in education and to help control escalating education costs. Since the town does not have its own high school, Epsom students attend high school in nearby Pembroke at a cost to Epsom taxpayers of nearly $5,000 per pupil.

The abatement program would reduce by up to $1,000 the real-estate taxes of any Epsom homeowner who paid the private-school expenses of a high school student from the town. Twelve people received the abatement during the first year.

State law allows town officials to grant abatements "for good cause,'' but the state Supreme Court last month agreed with a Merrimack County Superior Court judge, who ruled in August, 1991, that Epsom officials overstepped their authority by adopting the program. (See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991)

The courts said that local jurisdictions may grant abatements only when poor property owners cannot pay their tax bills or when assessment errors have been made.

Choice Plan Criticized

The court's decision in Barksdale v. Town of Epsom was the second blow to private school choice by the state justices in just over a month.

In November, the supreme court issued an advisory opinion to state legislators stating that a proposed choice plan that would include private religious schools would violate the state constitution.

A state senate bill would have allowed parents to send their children to any state-approved school, including religious and other private schools, with the resident school district paying up to 75 percent of tuition at the new school.

But the court's advisory opinion stated that such a scheme would violate the New Hampshire Constitution, which states, "No person shall ever be compelled to pay towards the support of the schools of any sect or denomination.''

Public-education supporters in New Hampshire said the two high-court rulings would help policy-makers focus on improving public schools instead of finding ways to assist students in private schools.

"The door appears to be closing on attempts to privatize public education in New Hampshire,'' said Fred Place, the president of the National Education Association-New Hampshire.

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