Ovide Lamontagne's desire to repeal a 19th-century amendment to the state Constitution came under fire yesterday as Democrats continue to push education as a top issue in this year's gubernatorial race.
At a recent forum featuring Lamontagne and his Republican primary opponent, Kevin Smith, the Manchester attorney used a discussion about school vouchers to express his opposition to an 1877 state constitutional amendment "which specifically states that no taxpayer dollars can be used to support religiously affiliated schools."
"That was an anti-Catholic, Know Nothing amendment which we adopted," said Lamontagne, a graduate of the Catholic University of America who served as chairman of the state Board of Education in the 1990s. "I urge the people of New Hampshire . . . to repeal that amendment and then we can have a debate about to what extent we want to provide full school choice and vouchers to schools that are religiously affiliated."
Lamontagne's comment was captured on video and posted to YouTube by the New Hampshire Democratic Party. Yesterday, party Chairman Ray Buckley and state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, took aim at the Republicans' gubernatorial front runner.
"I'm not sure if Ovide Lamontagne is running for governor or auditioning for Hot Tub Time Machine Part 2, Buckley said. "But listening to what he says on the campaign trail, he wants us all to go way back in time on education."
"We believe in public education," D'Allesandro said. "He wants us to go back to that 19th century creation where public money went to these private institutions. I think that's a travesty."
This is the second time in two weeks that Democrats have highlighted education in the race for governor, arguing that a strong public education system is fundamental to economic recovery. Last week, they held a press conference condemning remarks by state GOP Chairman Wayne MacDonald that implied Democratic gubernatorial candidate Maggie Hassan was using education as a distracting "side issue" instead of focusing on jobs and the economy.
Lamontagne and Smith have both expressed support for a school voucher system passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature this year that creates a state business tax credit to fund scholarships for students to attend private schools. At the forum, Lamontagne said the scholarship fund is "exactly" the kind of education initiative the state should be pursuing.
"We need to get the bureaucracy out of education so we have really a system that was designed after World War I, and it needs more site-based management," Lamontagne said. "That's the direction we need to go in."
D'Allesandro called the voucher system a "tragedy." Buckley said the most recent Legislature and Republican positions over the years have shown "a lack of commitment to public education" that "is something that is very troubling to the general public."
"The people of New Hampshire like their schools, they support their school programs," Buckley said.
Buckley said Lamontagne's role as chairman of the state Board of Education "was a major issue in the 1996 gubernatorial race," in which Lamontagne lost by a wide margin to Democrat Jeanne Shaheen after beating former Republican congressman Bill Zeliff in the primary.
"I suspect that the people of New Hampshire will react just as negatively, just as poorly, to even his updated versions of his positions of public education," Buckley said.
Read the Concord Monitor article here.