Eight years ago a new Representative and a new Governor arrived in Concord to begin their service to the State. Both had run campaigns that emphasized a strong commitment to “solving” the school funding dilemma. It took two years to get organized. This year, as they complete four terms, the State can look back on six years of school funding “stability” during which school districts were able to predict with some certainty the amount of financial support that would be forthcoming in each of the six years of the last three biennia.
On Wednesday, the House will vote on a proposal to present language for an amendment to the State constitution that would dramatically change the legal structure under which educational funding would be calculated by future legislatures. After participating at every step of the way as a loyal supporter of the Governor’s leadership on this issue, I will vote against his recommendation in the last scheduled session of the year.
In the vote, I will be joined by an overwhelming majority of Democrats who are concerned that the proposed language would open the door for future legislatures to dramatically cut funding for public education, just as the current legislature has done for higher education, health and human services, and other essential state government programs. I will also be joined by members of the far right who are concerned that the proposed amendment would transfer significant power to the State at the expense of local districts. As I write this column, the House vote is too close to call.
What is not too close to call is the ultimate outcome if the language were to be placed on the ballot in November. With strong opposition from the authors of the Claremont law suit, the School Boards Association, the School Administrators Association, the teachers both in and out of the union; it is improbable that the vote would generate the necessary 2/3rds necessary to become law. But what would happen if the measure were on the ballot is that voters would be subjected to the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of advertising and lobbying efforts both for and against the initiative.
As an elected official, I have a responsibility to try to support programs and policies that will benefit my district. Given what I have observed first hand in this term, I cannot support the loosening of the control on public school funding that was imposed by the Supreme Court. As much as I have tried to get comfortable with a “trust us, we (the legislature) know what’s best” approach, I cannot participate in a process that would place at risk the already modest level of State support for our schools.
Further, I have grave concerns that towns such as New London, which have benefitted from “donor town” status which allowed communities to retain excess state tax collections while reducing local tax rates would see that status disappear as the Legislature hunted for scarce resources.
Over the past two years much has been written about down-shifting. In the budget developed by the current legislature great care was taken to make sure that, generally, the down-shifting happened to specific individuals or organizations, rather than entire communities. College students now pay the highest public college tuition in the country and receive the lowest level of financial aid. Hospitals now must absorb the cost of the care they provide for patients who can’t pay or don’t have insurance. And, it took a mild winter to generate funds to address many local road repair projects and avoid down-shifting to municipalities.
A failure to continue to protect the current level of education funding would have a different effect. Coming on top of the current efforts to moderate increases in local school taxes, an erosion in state funding would force local tax payers to shoulder the burden and we would see directly the down-shifting that is a concern to all of us.
While our Governor has decided that his commitment ends with getting a school funding amendment on the ballot as he leaves office, I must respectfully conclude that the wrong amendment has potential to undo the improvements that he has already helped achieve. If there is to be one, a new direction for improving our support of school funding should be debated and defined in the upcoming campaign.
Education Bills in the New Hampshire Legislature > CACR 12 A Constitutional Amendment on Education Funding >