'We need an amendment, but not this one'

Last modified: 6/3/2012 12:00:00 AM
I agree with Gov. John Lynch that we need a constitutional amendment to permit targeting of state funds for education. Being a supporter of education and financially realistic, I agree that we have a limited amount of money available and we need to be able to direct more state aid to school districts that have low assessed property valuation. I dare say, a majority of Democrats and Republicans can agree on that principle. Given this shared belief, agreeing on the language for a constitutional amendment to allow targeting should be a relatively simple matter. Unfortunately, the language proposed by Republican leadership in the House and Senate does much more than to allow targeting of aid for education.

The proposed amendment gives the Legislature total discretion over the amount that the state will contribute to local school districts for education. The second sentence of the amendment states that the Legislature 'shall have the full power and authority . . . to determine the amount of . . . state funding for public education.' A person does not need to be a lawyer or a constitutional expert to understand that this language means the Legislature could significantly reduce state funding for public education. In fact, the language is so broad that the Legislature could decide that the funding of public education is primarily a local responsibility and send almost no money to some communities.

At the same time while insisting on full control over funding, the amendment also gives the legislature 'full power and authority to make reasonable standards' and 'the responsibility to maintain' a state education system. This puts the state firmly in control of local educational decisions. State control always comes at the expense of local control.

The question of targeting money to poorer school districts has never been the real issue. The problem has been the philosophical struggle over who has the responsibility to pay for education, and who, ultimately, has the authority to determine whether the amount is constitutionally adequate. In the Claremont decisions, the New Hampshire Supreme Court determined that the admonition to the Legislature to 'cherish' education contained in Article 83 of the New Hampshire constitution means the state has a duty to pay for an adequate education for every student. Those who disagree with the Claremont decisions argue that the Legislature should have the sole authority to determine the level of state support for education and insist on language in a constitutional amendment that would prevent any other judicial interpretation.

Our system of government depends on checks and balances between the branches of government. The proposed amendment eliminates the only check that we have on legislative mischief by eliminating any meaningful court review. (If the Constitution says that the Legislature has 'full power and authority,' there isn't much left for a court to review.) The argument that voters can simply elect different representatives at the next election, who will have their own budget to balance, is small comfort.

Unfortunately, the insistence on the part of the proponents of this amendment to alter the role of the courts and give the Legislature 'full power and authority' is depriving those of us who support targeting from voting on a constitutional amendment most of us could support. Given the makeup of the Legislature, it is possible that the votes will be there to pass the proposed amendment and send it to the voters in November. However, unless two-thirds of the voters are ready to give the Legislature 'full power and authority' and cede local control over education to the Legislature, putting this amendment on the ballot will not allow us to move forward and target aid for education.

(Rep. Gary B. Richardson of Hopkinton is the Democratic floor leader in the New Hampshire House.)

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