The local school districts suing the state for more school adequacy aid finally got a response from the court Friday, though it did little to resolve the issue. Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David Ruoff effectively told the districts they didn’t need an immediate injunction, and he’ll tackle the merits of their argument within the next couple of months.
The request for an immediate injunction came when the ConVal Regional School District filed its lawsuit on March 12. Because the state’s final adequacy payment for the current school year was due April 1, ConVal asked for an immediate ruling. But Ruoff found that since the state’s — and district’s — fiscal years run through June 30, the case can be decided any time before then.
Ruoff set a hearing on the merits of the case for the week of June 3.
The district is seeking to basically triple the amount of aid the state provides per student, arguing the roughly $3,600 per student is nowhere near enough to adequately educate a child. Winchester has joined the case, and Monadnock says it plans to do the same.
On the face of it, there’s no question the districts are correct that the money provided by the state doesn’t come close to paying to school the children they’re responsible for educating. But fairness sometimes takes a back seat to legality, and what the state ought to be paying could prove irrelevant.
The idea of state adequacy aid stems from the Claremont education funding lawsuits of the 1990s. The state Supreme Court found in 1997 that the state has a constitutional duty to provide each Granite State child an “adequate” education. However, the court left it to the Legislature to determine what constitutes adequate, how to raise the money and how to distribute it.
Lawmakers somehow determined the amount required to provide an adequate education to the average New Hampshire student was a mere $3,456 — far below what the average district actually spent per student, even in 1999. Worse, in 20 years, that amount has risen only to $3,636. Meanwhile, the average actual cost of educating a student in New Hampshire this year is about $15,800.
ConVal argues that using the state’s own numbers, the actual cost of providing an adequate education under the Legislature’s definition — which does not account for transportation, meals, extracurricular activities, nurses, office staff, guidance counselors, tutors, aides or maintenance costs — is really $10,843 per student. And that’s even calculating teachers’ salaries at a fraction of what New Hampshire teachers actually make.
Ruoff must decide whether it matters that the Legislature has never defined an adequate education realistically, or that the court’s intention was to allow almost unlimited leeway in doing so. If, by understating the actual cost of providing a baseline education, and refusing to keep up with those costs as they’ve risen, the Legislature has not met its constitutional responsibility, then Ruoff may find for the districts.
However, if he does, it would throw the state’s finances into chaos. Tripling the per-student aid, if applied statewide, would mean the state has to potentially come up with more than $1 billion in additional school aid, perhaps by the end of June.
And just increasing the amount the state has to pay wouldn’t solve the biggest issue, which is how the state raises and distributes education funds. The ongoing issue — which was true in 1997 and remains true today — is the basic unfairness of a system that pays for education through widely varying tax rates from town to town. The state’s response to the Claremont rulings was to take a portion of local property taxes and designate them as “state” education taxes, before returning them to the communities as “aid.” Thus, the squeeze on property owners in poorer communities has only increased, while students from lower-income homes are falling further behind the curve.
Resolving this dynamic and relieving that pressure was among the key aims of many of the lawmakers elected last November, and there are several bills making their way through the Statehouse that aim to do so. One effort — to stop decreasing the “stabilization” grants to poorer towns that lawmakers enacted after cutting education aid in 2012 — has bipartisan support.
A more audacious effort is a bill by state Rep. Dick Ames, D-Jaffrey, that would increase state aid by extending the interest and dividends tax to capital gains. Ames estimates this would raise $160 million per year that could help pay for education without increasing property taxes.
Whether that’s the right solution or not, the only way to find a fairer way to pay for educating the state’s children must ultimately come from lawmakers. The courts may prod them, but legislators have to eventually muster the will to stop dumping costs on local taxpayers under the pretense that such burdens don’t count in “no broad-based tax” New Hampshire.