Let voters' voices be heard on education funding

Last modified: 3/4/2012 12:00:00 AM
In 2011 the Legislature balanced the budget without new taxes, reformed Medicaid and pensions, and reformed taxes on business owners. The economy has started to recover.

But education funding remains unfinished business. A formula passed in 2011 ensured towns don't lose education dollars and prevented the return of the dreaded statewide property tax. But this 2011 formula does not resolve the decades-old education funding dilemma spawned by the state Supreme Court's Claremont-related decisions that requires the state to fund every dollar of the cost of an adequate education through equalized grants for every student across the state regardless of need. Sooner rather than later, taxpayers will be confronted with an income tax or sales tax, probably both, to pay the court-ordered costs of education.

Changing or tempering the court decision can only occur through a constitutional amendment proposed by the Legislature and enacted by voters. After 14 years of living with the Supreme Court's takeover of education funding, voters may have that opportunity in November if the Senate's bipartisan constitutional amendment, CACR 12, which has the support of Gov. John Lynch, is also passed by the House

CACR 12 would put state and local elected leaders in charge of education funding decisions as well as providing the criteria for a quality education so necessary for students in an increasingly competitive world.

CACR 12 would give the Legislature the ability to target state education dollars to communities most in need. Since the Claremont decision of 1997, every new funding scheme is greeted with scrutinizing eyes ascertaining how every community fares in the race to garner state dollars. Many towns with high income levels, a substantial tax base, and few at-risk students have received huge state grants because of the court rulings that call for equalized grants regardless of need. At the same time, other communities that everyone would agree need assistance due to larger numbers of at-risk students, lower property values and income levels have lost funding. Such a system is not rational by any metric. Nevertheless, court decisions require this formula. CACR 12 would allow the Legislature to target state funding and make those difficult decisions based on need - not formulas.

Could the Legislature walk away from education funding? No! CACR 12 allows targeted education aid but requires the Legislature to mitigate fiscal disparities among communities and educational opportunity among students. Is this a state takeover of education funding should the voters approve CACR 12? Absolutely not! Before the Supreme Court's Claremont decision, the Legislature had the authority to target aid and did.

At its heart CACR 12 provides the Legislature with full power and authority to do the job elected officials are supposed to do: make tough choices and set priorities. CACR 12 recognizes there are not unlimited taxpayer resources and puts elected officials, not judges, in charge of allocating those dollars.

Furthermore CACR 12 restores local control to school boards. The language of CACR 12 provides that the Legislature sets education standards and ensures accountability of those standards. Is this a state takeover of education? No! New Hampshire is not constitutionally a home-rule state, and since 1963 New Hampshire has set minimum education standards, determining minimum classroom size, teacher student ratios, etc. CACR 12 does not change the historical dynamic between Concord and New Hampshire communities, nor will CACR 12 in anyway impact home schooling.

Will disgruntled residents still be able to petition the Supreme Court if there is dissatisfaction with the decisions of the Legislature regarding education under CACR 12? Yes, the court will still be involved - but there will no longer be a presumption that every act of the Legislature is unreasonable, as has been the case since Claremont. This raises an extraordinarily high legal hurdle for the state to prove its actions are reasonable. This provision of CACR 12 returns the court to its traditional role of opining on the constitutionality of laws, rather than the Supreme Court becoming a super un-elected Legislature.

Some skeptics are not assuaged. On the right, some decry any state or court involvement in education policy or its funding. On the left, some maintain the state has total responsibility for funding education which should come from an income or sales tax or both.

However the vast middle of New Hampshire voters is wary of both those outcomes. These voters seek a balance between state and local decision making and believe that the court's role is subsidiary to that of elected officials in setting education policy and making funding decisions. Most important, the vast majority of voters recognize the New Hampshire Advantage of no income or sales tax has served us well for a long time - most recently in this deep, long-lasting recession. Voters realize New Hampshire's tax advantage is as critical to our future as educated students - and worth fighting for.

After 14 long years, it's finally time to let voters' voices be heard on education funding. The bipartisan CACR 12 represents the best opportunity to do so.

(Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro is the Senate majority leader.)

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