Portsmouth Herald: Opportunity knocking on education, 3/2/12

posted Mar 2, 2012, 2:42 AM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Mar 12, 2012, 1:27 PM ]

DNHPE Comment: Highlighted below is the heart of Senator Bradley's argument, as presented here.  The trouble is, it's just not true.

March 02, 2012 2:00 AM

The upcoming vote on CACR 12, a proposed amendment to the New Hampshire Constitution that would empower the state to target school aid to needy communities, will be a defining moment for the N.H. House of Representatives.

By passing the bill, as amended by the Senate, the House can show it is driven by financial pragmatism rather than malice toward the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Further, the Republican-led House would be able to say that it accomplished something the Legislature has failed to do 50 times before: send an education funding amendment to the public for a vote. That alone would be a signature achievement.

With no income tax, New Hampshire relies heavily on property taxes to pay for K-12 public schools. Because some communities have low property values and little commercial or industrial development, they simply cannot raise enough money in property taxes to adequately fund education. A series of lawsuits found that the constitutional rights of students in these property-poor communities were being violated because they were not given equal educational opportunities. This right, the courts asserted, is defined in the state Constitution.

In ruling after ruling, the courts have found the state has a responsibility to fund an adequate education. But just what that meant, in terms of content and money, has been hotly debated for decades.

Today, the Legislature has defined adequacy and put a monetary value on it. But New Hampshire also does something that state Sen. Jeb Bradley diplomatically calls "irrational." It sends the same amount of adequacy funding, $3,450 per student, to every community, regardless of whether the community needs the money. This has led to the "irrational" act of giving money to towns that don't need it at the expense of those that do. It has caused the state to levy additional taxes on wealthy "donor towns," including many in the Herald's readership area, then take the money and give it to towns that don't need it.

John Broderick, former Supreme Court chief justice, explains the legal rationale for this action. "The Constitution is colorblind on the state's obligation, so it is constitutionally irrelevant where the student lives or how wealthy the city or town might be where the student resides." The Senate-amended version of CACR 12 would fix this problem by allowing the state to target money to needy communities. And really, that's all that needs to be done to fix this problem. That's why it is supported by the Coalition Communities, including Greenland, Hampton, Hampton Falls, New Castle, Newington, North Hampton, Portsmouth, Rye and Seabrook. It is also supported by the Business and Industry Association, many chambers of commerce and Gov. John Lynch.

The major difference between the House and Senate versions of this bill is that the original House bill would give the Legislature the "authority and full discretion" for education funding, while the Senate asserts the Legislature's "full power and authority and the responsibility" to fund education. The House version aims to remove the courts from the equation, while the Senate amendment would simply limit the courts' role while acknowledging that the state has a role to play in public education.

In our view, an amendment that removes the courts entirely from the equation might pass the House and Senate but will never get the two-thirds electoral majority needed to pass in the general public. Voters understand the need for checks and balances between the three branches of government.

We urge the House to pass the bill as amended. It would give the state the ability to target aid to needy communities without getting bogged down in a political power struggle between the courts and Legislature.