DNHPE 2/25/12 Special Edition: We don’t need a Constitutional Amendment. We can Target School Aid Now!

posted Feb 26, 2012, 8:02 PM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Feb 26, 2012, 8:22 PM ]
Defending New Hampshire Public Education
Contact: Bill Duncan 603-682-4748
 We don’t need a Constitutional Amendment.  We can Target School Aid Now!

The New Hampshire Constitution protects our children's right to an public education.  Legislators have tried to repeal this provision since long before Claremont, forecasting the worst if we didn’t act.  None of the that has happened. 

What has happened as a result of the Claremont decision is that we have defined the minimum curriculum that should be taught in our schools.   We have created a system of accountability.  And we have started giving each child a state grant so that her school can teach at least the minimum curriculum.   For some towns, that grant is the Statewide Education Property Tax.  But where the towns don’t have the capacity themselves, the State sends “adequacy aid.” 

These are hard won gains that are serving us well.  We now have the framework for supporting our great public education system that parents overwhelmingly support. 

But there’s a little fiction built into that description.  We have defined adequacy at too low a level.  Anyone knows that the $3,456 per student, plus more for certain categories of kids, is not enough for an adequate education.  But if we do want to ensure that every child had an adequate education, we can do it now. 

We don’t need a constitutional amendment.

We can target aid to schools that need it now
So why all this talk about a constitutional amendment?  The Governor and the Senate leadership say it’s to allow targeting.  But we already do that.  We just need to do more.  And could do more.  If adequacy doubled to $7,000, the state could double the Statewide Education Property Tax.  In a town like Portsmouth that exceeds the minimum, it’s no problem.  Portsmouth would reduce its local property tax by the same amount.  Done!  The State would be paying for adequacy in Portsmouth without using new state revenues.  In towns like Berlin or Claremont that don’t have the tax base for that, the state would send the needed adequacy aid.

But we don't have the money
Ah, you say, but there isn’t enough money for that.  That’s true.  But the constitutional amendment is not a remedy for that.  Instead, the constitutional  amendment prevents the court from requiring the Legislature to come up with the needed money.

Now we’re at the nub of it.  What proponents of the constitutional amendment might as well be saying is,

“We want to educate our kids, we really do, but not if we have to raise revenues to do it.  That’s why we want a constitutional amendment that makes it enough harder to sue the state that we’re unlikely ever again to worry about the courts forcing us to educate our kids.  In the towns that can afford it, there will be good schools.  In the others, they’ll do the best they can, and the state may kick in some money, but without any real obligation.  That is the best we can do.”

So eliminate the courts - virtually or entirely
In all honesty, why would amendment supporters say the amendment doesn’t take the court out of it?  There’s no point to an amendment except to take it courts out of it.

But there’s a fine line of disagreement between the House and Senate Republicans.  Senate Republicans (and, apparently the Governor) agree that getting the courts “virtually out of it” is good enough.  They recognize that, for all practical purposes, no town would ever succeed in suing the State again if this amendment passes.  The House says that’s not good enough.  They want the third branch of government cut out entirely and nothing less is acceptable. 

But no matter what language the House, the Senate and the Governor might ever agree upon, there is still no point to an amendment unless you want to reduce state aid to education.

But we wouldn't reduce aid!
If you tell legislators that you are concerned about a reduction in aid, they look hurt and say, “We’d never do that!”  But New Hampshire already provides the most minimal state support for public education and this Legislature has tried to decrease it further.  They reduced adequacy by 20% last year and the House would have done it again this year if they could.  They made big cuts to UNH.  They want to opt out of No Child Left Behind, at a cost of $70 million per year.  They fund special education, school building aid and vocational aid much less than the law requires.  They cut the tobacco tax to further cut overall revenues.  They want the revenues from gambling to replace business taxes, not to enhance state revenues. 

This is not a Legislature looking for revenues to fund an adequate education.  It is a Legislature that introduced a tidal wave of anti-public education bills.  Why would they suddenly become big supporters of public education if the proposed amendment passed and Constitution said the Legislature had “full power and authority” to decide about education and only had to make “reasonable” efforts to support it?  New Hampshire’s towns and citizens would have very little leverage. 

Don't fall for it.
Don’t fall prey to the cry, “I’m tired of this debate, let’s just pass it.”  The amendment eliminates the constitutional protections we have now, but solves nothing.  It doesn’t prevent the return of donor towns or guarantee targeting.  If state funding for education doesn’t go to zero under this amendment, which it could, it could swing wildly year to year and no school system will know how to budget.  And the debate will never end.

So this isn’t a close call.  If your legislator supports public education, he or she will not support CACR 12.  There’s nothing preventing the State from funding a good education for our children now..