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Editorial: Adequacy number is a running joke

Last modified: 6/21/2015 1:11:01 AM
The same New Hampshire Legislature that allowed the state’s model mental health care system to collapse for want of funding is slowly doing the same for public education. The plight of schools struggling to get by with too few resources, and taxpayers struggling with property tax bills that keep increasing to offset the paucity of state education funding, is the subject of an ongoing and excellent series on public education aired by New Hampshire Public Radio.

While other states are moving forward, New Hampshire is falling behind in ways that fail its students, shortchange the state’s economic future and serve as a disincentive for young families to move here or remain here.

State building aid to school districts, which once paid up to 60 percent of the cost of replacing or renovating a school, was suspended six years ago and will not be renewed this year. The education funding proposals before the Legislature – one to direct more aid to the relatively few districts whose enrollments have swelled and the other to fund full-day kindergarten – raise no new money. They rob from some school districts to help others.

Money, but not a lot of it, follows the student under the aid formula lawmakers crafted in response to the Supreme Court’s Claremont rulings, which found the state constitutionally responsible to pay for an adequate education for every student. The big losers under the proposal at hand will be districts that have lost students. They are often poor districts with shrinking populations that can’t reduce expenses when every class shrinks by one or two students. Either they make do with less at the expense of their students or local property-tax payers pay more just to stay even.

At the heart of the problem is the Legislature’s determination that an adequate education for a child without special needs or low-income background can be had for $3,500 per year. That figure was laughable when it was adopted in 2008, when average per-pupil spending was in the $10,000 range. Today, per-pupil spending averages more than $14,000 per year. The state education king may not be naked, but he’s parading around in a jockstrap and pretending it’s a tuxedo.

Everyone in and out of the State House knows the adequacy number is a joke, a figure set so as not to rock the no-broad-base-tax boat.

It’s inconceivable that such a paltry sum would meet the state’s constitutional responsibility under the Claremont decisions. So why has no school district or consortium of districts or taxpayers group sued the state? We’re afraid that we know.

Every justice on the current state Supreme Court was appointed by then governor John Lynch, an opponent of the Claremont rulings and supporter of constitutional amendments to do an end run around them. The fear is that, should the $3,500 figure be challenged, the court would use the opportunity to reverse its position on the state’s responsibility for school funding. School districts and local taxpayers could end up worse off.

Other states are moving ahead.

Recognizing the importance of early childhood education, the state of New York just agreed to fund universal preschool for 4-year-olds. Meanwhile, New Hampshire 5-year-olds have the second-lowest attendance rate in full-day kindergarten in the land. The state’s schools haven’t collapsed, but that’s because local taxpayers pay the second-highest property taxes in the nation under a school funding system that remains unconstitutional.


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