Concord Monitor: Let's not go back to the bad old days, 3/4/12

posted Mar 5, 2012, 4:43 AM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Mar 12, 2012, 1:28 PM ]

Published on Concord Monitor (

Monitor editorial: Let's not go back to the bad old days
By Monitor staff
March 4, 2012

In recent days, these pages have presented a number of arguments in support of amending the state Constitution to minimize court oversight over state spending on public education. The proposed amendment is a thinly disguised attempt to reduce the state's responsibility to fund public education and dump a greater share of the burden on local property owners. If it makes as far as November's ballot, voters should reject it resoundingly.

The amendment would grant the Legislature "full power and authority" to decide how much money to devote to funding education and how to raise and distribute that money. What the amendment's backers, among them former Concord mayor Martin Gross and Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, didn't tell readers is that when lawmakers weren't held to at least a minimal standard of state support by the courts, New Hampshire was consistently last in the nation in state support of public schools. That's the direction the Legislature will take again if lawmakers and voters give them the chance.

The constitutional amendment would eliminate the state's responsibility to pay for a basic, adequate education for all students. Free of that responsibility, lawmakers could target aid to needy communities while giving better off ones little or nothing. History suggests that passage of the amendment would lead to a modest increase in aid to some school districts and a massive downshifting of education costs to property taxpayers in most communities.

This was the picture prior to the 1993 and 1997 Claremont decisions and the increased state funding that has been doled out in response under one tortured aid formula after another. Residents in property-poor communities like Allenstown and Pittsfield paid tax rates six times or more higher than the owners of equivalent property in wealthier towns, yet their schools remained starved for want of resources.

In Claremont half the textbooks were at least a decade old. The district could only accommodate one-quarter of the first-grade students in need of intensive help with reading. Of the 130 computers at Stevens High School, 70 were non-functional.

In Pittsfield, the combined middle and high school violated multiple building codes. No advanced placement courses were offered at the middle school. Gym, music and health classes had to be canceled because the gym also served as the auditorium. To save money, some teachers taught two different classes simultaneously in the same room. The school's biology lab had just two electrical outlets.

Allenstown's middle school lacked a principal, was unaccredited, had no fulltime nurse, no networked computers and no art, music, foreign language, sports or physical education program.

The state Supreme Court's Claremont decisions didn't eliminate the inequities in educational opportunity among New Hampshire school districts or the unconstitutional disparity in tax burdens placed on residents of different towns. But at least for a time, they narrowed the gap.

Despite increased state aid, the gap between rich and poor school districts and the tax rates paid by the property owner in them continued to increase. The disparities are now nearly as great as they were a decade or more ago. That's because the Legislature fixed the base cost of an adequate annual education at an unconstitutional $3,450 per pupil. It also reduced the statewide property tax to a minimal level to avoid so-called donor towns. That decision starved the system of resources that could have been used to improve educational opportunity in needy school districts.

Allenstown residents, despite receiving state education aid, paid a local education tax rate of $16.30 and a total tax rate of $29.30 per $1,000 valuation in 2011. Meanwhile, Rye that year had an local education tax rate of $3.90 and a total tax rate of $10.30.

Taking state aid away from wealthier towns and giving it to poor ones would reduce the disparities, but it would also mean much higher tax rates, not just in rich towns but for communities in the middle as well. The amendment, with its minimalist requirement that the state do what it feels like to "mitigate" disparities, allows the Legislature to do is little or nothing if it chooses. History suggests that's exactly what it would do.

The amendment's backers know that the state is already perfectly free to target aid to school districts with the greatest need - after first meeting its constitutional responsibility to pay for an adequate education for every child, be they in a property-rich or poor school district. They also know that New Hampshire is not a state with "scarce resources" but one that can well afford to fund public education in the fair and equitable manner called for in its Constitution.

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