Nashua Telegraph Editorial: For Claremont, little has changed, 5/12/12

posted May 13, 2012, 4:54 AM by Bill Duncan

Published: Saturday, May 12, 2012

Fifteen years after the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s landmark Claremont ruling, you could forgive the plaintiffs for forgetting that they won.

A comprehensive story by the Valley News of Lebanon, republished by the Concord Monitor on Sunday, demonstrates dramatically that the state’s responsibility to fund an adequate education for all students and to do so with a tax that is “proportional and reasonable” has fallen far short for the very district that lent its name to the lawsuit.

In Claremont, where residents aren’t wholly pleased that the court case gave them a lasting reputation for struggling schools and high taxes, the high school has been on warning status from the New England accreditation committee for years.

Teacher pay is significantly lower than in surrounding communities, making turnover a regular challenge. Property taxes remain among the highest in the state – and they are levied on residents with less ability to pay than those in most other communities.

This is not what the plaintiffs had in mind. The point of the lawsuit was that the state had a responsibility to pay for an adequate education for all students, regardless of where they lived. And it had a responsibility to do it with a fair tax.

For more than a decade, state lawmakers tried to weasel out of this responsibility. When they finally owned up to it, they came up with a formula for “adequacy” that has nearly nothing to do with the actual average cost of educating a student in New Hampshire.

(“Adequate,” according to state law, costs $3,456 per pupil, plus some additional financial assistance for low-income students and for others with particular needs. In Claremont, average per-pupil spending is $14,829.)

As a result, communities still rely heavily on the local property tax to finance the schools. And, just as was true back in 1997, those tax rates vary widely.

Last year, local education tax rates across the state ranged from about $2 per $1,000 of equalized valuation to just under $20. Towns with lower rates obviously have an easier time raising money for schools – and everything else.

For many, many years, Statehouse lawmakers have argued that the answer to this is a constitutional amendment that takes away the state’s responsibility to provide an education to every student. If they could only use their pot of state money to target aid narrowly at the neediest school districts, they say, they’d achieve better results.

And this year, it’s just possible the House, Senate and governor will agree on such a plan and put it before voters in November.

Does anyone actually believe that such an amendment wouldn’t lead to less overall state spending and more political games playing? Can that possibly be in the interest of New Hampshire’s schoolchildren?

In an election year – the eighth election year since the Claremont ruling – it sure would be nice to hear from candidates for governor and the Legislature who embrace the court’s ruling.

Who agree that the state owes every child an adequate education.

Who argue that the taxpayers of Gilford and Bow have just as much interest in quality schools in Franklin and Allenstown as in their own communities.

Who believe that education is among the best uses of state dollars.

Such candidates would be willing to create a tax system that produced enough money to truly do the right thing. After 15 years, it would be about time.

– Concord Monitor
© 2012, Telegraph Publishing Company, Nashua, New Hampshire