State education funding solution offered, UL, 4/28/12

posted May 2, 2012, 4:46 PM by Bill Duncan

New Hampshire Union Leader
Published Apr 28, 2012 at 3:00 am (Updated Apr 27, 2012)

CONCORD — Leaders in the state House of Representatives are floating language for a constitutional amendment on education funding they believe may win enough support to send a proposed amendment to a public vote.

The proposed language for CACR 12, which was sent Friday to members of the House Republican caucus, includes the magic word that had stalled previous versions of the amendment: “responsibility.”

“We took into consideration the concerns we heard from members of the House,” said Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, who sent the email to the 293 members of the Republican caucus. “We're certainly hoping that people will give this language full consideration and take the time to digest it before making up their minds.”

A Senate-passed amendment, backed by Democratic Gov. John Lynch, stated that the Legislature has the authority to define reasonable standards for education and that it has a responsibility to provide a public education. That amendment was defeated by a wide margin in the House last month.

The “responsibility” language had been the main sticking point for House leaders, who in the past few months said it will continue to give the courts too much say over education funding. All parties agree that an amendment is necessary to allow the state to more directly target funding to needier school districts without the constraints imposed by the state Supreme Court's Claremont decision in 1997.   [DNHPE Comment: Not true.  Many Democrats think that no amendment is needed.] That court ruling said the state is obligated to fund an adequate education for every child. Targeting aid to poorer districts is allowed, but only after each child in each district has been covered by a basic grant.

The new language reads: “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 the furtherance thereof, the Legislature shall have the full power and authority to make wholesome and reasonable standards for elementary and secondary public education and standards of accountability as it may judge for the benefit and welfare of this state; and the full power and authority to make determinations as to the amount of, and the methods of raising and distributing, state funding for public education as it may judge for the benefit and welfare of this state.”

Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, an assistant majority leader, said he believes the new language meets the responsibility test without acquiescing to the Claremont decision.

“This basically plows new ground,” Hess said. “I think it is very creative and very accurate and basically describes the role of the state in education funding over the last 200 years.”

To be placed on the general election ballot, a proposed constitutional amendment needs a three-fifths majority of the House and the Senate. Two-thirds of general election voters would need to approve the change.

Hess said he wasn't pleased that the language has gone public, as House leadership was hoping for “honest, sincere and frank” responses from members that now might prove more difficult to obtain. He said copies were sent to Lynch's office and to Senate leadership so they weren't surprised.

“At this stage of the game, we had hoped and intended this to remain an internal document, but that was not to be,” Hess said. “Realizing it was entering the public arena, we decided to share it with the Senate and the governor as a matter of courtesy.”

Jamie Richardson, Lynch's policy director, said the governor hasn't yet formed an opinion about the new language.

“The governor's office has just received this new amendment language within the past day, and the governor will be reviewing it,” he said.

Senate President Peter Bragdon could not be reached Friday for comment.

While Bettencourt called the governor's support and advocacy for the language “absolutely critical” to its success, the language was not shared with Democratic members of the House.

“While I am fully committed to a bipartisan amendment, my primary and most productive role in this process is to gather GOP support within my caucus,” Bettencourt said. “Therefore, given the size of our caucus, I wanted to get a jump start on addressing their questions and processing their feedback. We have been talking to open-minded members of the Democratic caucus for several months and will continue to do so.”