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Editorial: Next education funding commission must learn from the past

Published: 6/13/2019 12:05:24 AM

A quarter-century ago, the city of Berlin joined Claremont, Franklin, Pittsfield and Allenstown in a lawsuit challenging the state’s system of funding public education, which relies primarily on local property taxes to fund public education. The state Supreme Court, in two landmark decisions known as Claremont 1 and 2, ruled the system unconstitutional.

Public education, the court said, is a state responsibility, not a local one. The state’s system unfairly burdened taxpayers in property-poor towns and deprived students in those towns of an equal opportunity of obtaining an adequate education. The court ordered the Legislature to fix the problem. It hasn’t.

Yesterday, for want of state funding, Berlin closed its third elementary school building. “The Claremont decision in 1997 should have resolved this. We never should have been put in this situation,” Corrine Cascadden, superintendent of Berlin schools, told Manchester-based Channel 9. Nor should the score or more of other New Hampshire communities whose residents are forced to pay exceedingly high property taxes just to fund schools that struggle to provide the basics.

Every governor and every Legislature for the past two decades has failed to meet the high court’s mandate to pay for public education. Instead, they’ve hidden behind the legislatively sanctioned fiction that the cost of providing an adequate education, in a state where average per-pupil spending tops $18,000 per year, is roughly $3,600.

Last week, a second set of communities suffering because of the state’s failure to adequately fund public education, won their lawsuit. State law “sets the current base adequacy aid award for all schools at $3,562.71 per student, based on a formula determined by a legislative committee in 2008. The parties agree that not a single school in the state of New Hampshire could or does function at $3,562.71 per student,” Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David Ruoff said in a lengthy ruling that found the state still in violation of its constitutional duty.

Ruoff, like the justices in every prior school funding decision, said that determining the true cost of an adequate public education, as well as the source of the revenue necessary to pay for it, is a legislative not a judicial responsibility. Essentially, he told lawmakers to get to work. The response in both the House and Senate is apparently to create a commission to reconsider the state’s school funding formula and propose revisions that would meet constitutional muster.

There have been past commissions. Back in 2000, then-governor Jeanne Shaheen appointed a “blue ribbon” commission to craft a school funding solution. A 10-member commission was convened in 2008 under then-governor John Lynch. So far all efforts have failed. The latest proposed commission will apparently be given two years to study the problem.

Past commissions failed because they got mired in politics. The new commission will have to be independent of the Legislature to have a chance of success. Past efforts to address school funding have had the same basic approach: This is how much the state can afford without finding a significant source of new revenue. How can we make an adequate education cost that much?

If this latest proposed commission takes the same approach, more time will be wasted and another generation of students will be wronged by the state.

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