Don't kill constitutional protection of education in N.H., OpEd, Bill Duncan, 3/11/12

posted Mar 11, 2012, 5:19 PM by Bill Duncan

March 11, 2012 2:00 AM

"Live Free, Die Dumb," was the national headline about our education bills this year. Now the Legislature wants to finish the job by amending the Constitution to eliminate the state obligation to educate New Hampshire's children.

We have accomplished a lot over the years in response to the Claremont decisions. We have defined a minimum acceptable curriculum for our schools and made them accountable for it. We have started giving each child a state grant so that her school can teach at least the minimum curriculum. For some towns, that grant is the Statewide Education Property Tax. But where the towns don't have the capacity themselves, the state sends "adequacy aid."

Step back a minute and appreciate that. It's a big deal.

These are hard-won gains. But now we have the framework for supporting our great public education system that parents overwhelmingly support. Yes, $3,456, plus more for kids at risk, is not enough for an adequate education. But everything is in place. If we want to fund an adequate education, we can do it.

The obstacle is the Legislature, not the Constitution.

The irrational funding formulas we hear about result from politics that would be amplified, not remedied, if we removed the constitutional floor under state aid to education. We hear that "the court" requires us to give rich communities "huge state grants," and communities in need "have lost funding." Don't believe it. The court and the Constitution require fairness in educating our children. The rest is up to us.

There is no obstacle to targeting communities in need. Ah, you say, but there isn't enough money for that. That's true. But the constitutional amendment is not a remedy for that. Instead, the proposed amendment prevents the court from requiring the Legislature to come up with the needed money.

Now we're at the nub of it. What amendment supporters are really saying is: "We want to educate our kids, we really do, but we can't afford it. We need a constitutional amendment that eliminates that obligation and makes it harder to sue the state so that we're unlikely ever again to worry about the courts requiring the state to help poor communities educate our kids. In the towns that can afford it, there will be good schools. In the others, they'll do the best they can, and the state may help, but without any real obligation. That is the best we can do."

Why would amendment supporters say the amendment doesn't take the court out of it? There's no point to an amendment except to take it courts out of it.

The only disagreement between the House and Senate Republicans is how to do it. Senate Republicans (and the governor, sad to say) have decided that getting the courts "virtually out of it" is good enough. Sure, towns could sue. But they recognize that, for all practical purposes, no town would ever succeed again if this amendment passes. The House wants the third branch of government cut out entirely and nothing less is acceptable.

But no matter what language they might agree upon, the amendment will lead to less state aid for education.

This New Hampshire House agrees with Sen. Santorum: government-run schools are "anachronistic." Where possible, they have reduced revenues that could support education. They have cut education funding and tried to opt out of federal programs. They have introduced a tidal wave of bills to eliminate compulsory attendance, reduce teaching standards, eliminate kindergarten, and privatize education. If the proposed amendment passed and the Legislature had "full power and authority" to decide about education, they would have their way with our public schools.

Amending the Constitution would not put the issue behind us. It would eliminate the constitutional protections our children have now, but it would not prevent the return of donor towns or target communities in need. If state funding for education doesn't go to zero under this amendment, which it could, it could swing wildly year to year and no school system will know how to budget. And the debate will never end.

So this isn't a close call. If your legislator supports public education, he or she will not support CACR 12.

There's nothing preventing the state from funding a good education for our children now.

Bill Duncan, who is a former member of the Portsmouth Herald editorial board, lives in New Ca