Editorial: Fight for education at the polls, in court

Published: 3/7/2018 12:05:07 AM

Two decades have passed since the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that paying for public education is a state responsibility, one the state continues to shirk. The great inequities in school funding levels and the local property tax rates required to provide public education, the court said in its Claremont decisions, are unconstitutional. Unconstitutional then, unconstitutional now.

Taxpayers in a property-poor town can pay a tax rate three times higher than the rate in a property-rich town yet only raise enough money to hire teachers willing to work for one-third less than they could earn elsewhere.

On Sunday, in a pair of stories, Monitor education reporter Lola Duffort explained how public education is funded and why some struggling school districts are considering a return to court. If they sue, they should win. The Legislature, with the concurrence of governors from both parties, long ago agreed to pretend that the annual base cost of providing a student with an “adequate education” was about $3,600. That’s so absurdly low as to be unconstitutional, though there’s no guarantee that the court would see it that way.

Also unconstitutional is the state’s practice of kicking back any state education property taxes raised that exceed the amount of state education aid owed the towns. Lawmakers did that to silence squawking from so-called donor towns that did not want to subsidize the education of children in property-poor communities. The rebates clearly run counter to the Constitution.

One statement to Duffort by Kearsarge Republican Rep. Karen Umberger, the head of the special legislative committee created to study the formula the state uses to distribute education aid, illustrates the basic problem. “We certainly don’t want to spend more than we have. Because that’s what we have,” Umberger said.

That’s akin to the state saying we know we have a responsibility to build a bridge but we have only enough money for half a bridge, so that’s what we’ll build.

Last summer, the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies issued a report that said school funding inequity is as bad as it was in 1997, when the second Claremont decision was issued. Will another trip to court close the gap? Or, as Andru Volinsky, now an executive councilor and then the lead attorney in the Claremont suit, suggests: Is the better course the ballot box?

The five communities that banded together to sue the state over education funding were Claremont, Milan, Franklin, Pittsfield and Allenstown. They are among the communities that would benefit most from equitable, truly adequate state funding of public education. Today, those communities are represented by a dozen lawmakers, four Democrats and eight Republicans. Using House Bill 193, legislation to permit the transfer of state education aid from a public school district to a private school, as a guide suggests that even in those communities, education equity proponents have their work cut out for them. Every Democrat voted against the so-called school voucher bill, which would deprive local schools of revenue. Every Republican voted for it.

The school funding battle should be waged on both fronts, in the courts and at the polls.

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