CACR 12 would make education funding a fiction, Bill Duncan, 6/1/12

posted Jun 1, 2012, 7:26 AM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Jun 3, 2012, 9:04 AM ]
This DNHPE opinion piece appeared here, on Saturday, in the Concord Monitor, and here, on Sunday, in the Portsmouth Herald.

Years of education funding debates, committees, negotiations, lawyers, votes, leaks, dead ends and editorial ink culminated Thursday in a crowded ceremonial press conference in which New Hampshire’s legislative leadership presented us with…a minor work of fiction.

House Speaker O’Brien has taken center stage to sell it to us as an Historic Opportunity to target school aid to needy communities, put the education funding battles behind us and provide our kids with an excellent education. But when you look, the amendment is not really about educating our kids. It’s about giving Speaker O’Brien’s Legislature “fully power and authority” over New Hampshire education.

Our New Hampshire constitution has always held a promise to our kids. It says a child’s education is a fundamental right, like voting or free speech, and requires the Legislature to support it. CACR 12, the education funding amendment, strives to eliminate that promise. Just read it. 

In fulfillment of the provisions with respect to education set forth in Part II, Article 83, the legislature shall have the responsibility to maintain a system of public elementary and secondary education and to mitigate local disparities in educational opportunity and fiscal capacity. In furtherance thereof, the Legislature shall have the full power and authority to make reasonable standards for elementary and secondary public education and standards of accountability and to determine the amount of, and the methods of raising and distributing, state funding for public education. 

There is the fuzzy first sentence saying that the Legislature has the responsibility to “maintain” an education system and to “mitigate” disparities among communities. As a goal, this is a big step back from guaranteeing our children an adequate education.

The amendment goes on to say that “the Legislature shall have the full power and authority….” to decide everything about education. In other words, the courts must consider virtually any law the Legislature passes about education to be acceptable. As the Speaker said, “Anyone going to court to challenge the public standards established by the Legislature will carry the heavy burden of proving that those standards are unreasonable, that they aren’t rational.” How extreme would the Legislature have to be for the Court to find that it had exceeded its full power and authority?

But does the amendment make it possible to target aid to needy communities? No. The amendment allows the Legislature target school aid, but it can target now. Rep. Gary Richardson, Hopkinton Democrat and leading advocate of amending the Constitution to facilitate targeting, is a fierce opponent. He told Kevin Landrigan, “You can put all this nice language on it and it doesn’t change a thing.”

Does the amendment put education funding battles like “donor towns” behind us? Actually, the amendment provides no protection against donor towns or any other funding formula but does ensure that the education funding debates will continue. The Speaker said it clearly. If Manchester and Nashua want education aid, he said, they should come to the Legislature and make their case. Translation: Forget predictability. Check in with each Legislature to see what courses you can offer and what your property taxes will be next year.

You’ll have to compete year to year for any funding you do get. “As a practical matter,” the Speaker said, “this will mean that the Legislature will treat education funding along with…funding priorities…such as transportation, law enforcement…” But that’s just the problem. Funding for roads and prisons can only come from the state budget, not property taxes. But public education is a partnership between communities and the State. When education is no longer a fundamental right and competes with law enforcement for funding, it becomes the one state obligation the Legislature can lay off on the property tax payers. And it will.

That process has already started. This year, state aid to education is almost $600 million, spread among New Hampshire communities in proportion to need. In anticipation of passing CACR 12, the Legislature has already reduced future state aid by $140 million. Next year, the Speaker wants to cut $400 million more from the state budget in order to reduce business taxes. How long would it be before state support for education would be back down to the pre-Claremont level of $50 million, with increased property taxes or reduced instructional programs making up the difference?

Proponents of CACR 12 need to wink when they say, “Let the people decide,” while Speaker O’Brien tells his fellow Republicans that there is big money waiting in the wings to campaign for CACR 12. This should not be about big money campaigns. Instead of looking for ways around our constitutional promise to educate our kids, instead of looking for ways to reduce education funding, the Legislature should resume the never-ending project of strengthening New Hampshire’s economy and way of life by building on our great system of public education.