Finally, state can make progress on education, Grant Bosse, Concord Monitor, 6/1/12

posted Jun 2, 2012, 6:29 AM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Jun 2, 2012, 6:31 AM ]

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Home > Finally, state can make progress on education

By Grant Bosse / For the Monitor
June 2, 2012

After more than a decade New Hampshire voters may finally have a chance to have their say over education funding. The series of increasingly perverse rulings in the Claremont education lawsuit left us with a state responsibility to provide an "adequate education" but no real attempt by the courts or to figure out what that meant. Even if we were to settle for adequate, defining adequacy is best left to legislators, school boards and parents, not un-elected judges.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court duct-taped together various snippets from the state Constitution to decide that every dollar of taxes raised toward this ephemeral goal had to be assessed equally statewide.

The court's dictates hamstrung the Legislature in its efforts to target state aid to school districts that needed extra help, without needlessly raising taxes in towns with a healthy enough property tax base to take care of themselves. The long overdue solution is a constitutional amendment to restore legislative control over school funding and end the threat of never-ending litigation from towns dissatisfied with the legislative process.

Rarely does compromise improve legislation. It usually renders legislation weak, contradictory and confusing and makes everyone equally unhappy. A camel is a horse designed by committee, as the saying goes.

But the proposed amendment agreed to by Gov. John Lynch and legislative leaders is, to quote Rep. Dave Hess, "a work of art."

The slow, painful drafting of CACR 12 actually produced a product superior to its earlier iterations. The left has long objected to any amendment as a dereliction of legislative responsibility for public schools. Some on the right insist that any amendment that articulates any state responsibility threatens local control of schools. The precise language of CACR 12 should alleviate both concerns.

Let's look at the language that would go on the November ballot if the House and Senate approve CACR 12 next week. It's just two sentences, with emphasis on what I think are the key phrases.

"In fulfillment of the provisions with respect to education set forth in Part II, Article 83, 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 furtherance thereof, the Legislature shall have the full power and authority to make reasonable standards for elementary and secondary public education and standards of accountability and to determine the amount of, and the methods of raising and distributing, state funding for public education."

By delineating the legislature's ability to mitigate, rather than equalize local disparities, this amendment would restore state authority to target aid where it is most needed.

Where and how to target state funds will be controversial, but it is a question for the elected branches of government, not the courts. It will not prevent the state from supporting local schools, but it will give New Hampshire voters ultimate authority over how to do so.

Some folks I agree with on almost everything argue that New Hampshire towns have always been solely responsible for public schools, and that any state aid over the years is merely an extra-constitutional gift from a generous legislature. But this ignores the fact that New Hampshire is not a home-rule state. Cities and towns can't do anything unless the state gives them permission. Local responsibilities are state responsibilities. Some people may want to change that balance, but CACR 12 would neither threaten local control nor abrogate state responsibility.

The Claremont saga has done nothing to improve the quality of public education in New Hampshire, or in the plaintiff towns that sued to overturn the old system. Giving New Hampshire voters a chance to approve an education funding amendment will move our state out of the crippling shadow of the Claremont lawsuit, end the court's intrusion into the realm of tax and education policy, and allow us to focus on policies that might actually do something to make schools better.

(Grant Bosse is lead investigator for the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank based in Concord. He is a member of the Monitor's board of contributors.)

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