L ast week, Gov. Chris Sununu told a crowd in Rochester he’s “all for” a constitutional amendment that would give the state Legislature sole authority over education-funding issues. The news was hardly shocking.
Lawmakers and governors have been stumping for such a move since the state Supreme Court’s first Claremont decision more than two decades ago. Ultimately, in two separate rulings, the court found the state government has a constitutional responsibility to educate New Hampshire children, and directed the state to figure out the cost of an “adequate” education and fund it.
Of course, actually paying to adequately educate the state’s children would run afoul of the so-called “New Hampshire advantage,” which ensures the wealthiest Granite Staters pay as little as possible in taxes while those living in property-poor communities pay a far higher percentage. The clear road forward was to figure out a fairer way to pay for state and local services than through property taxes.
Instead, then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and the Legislature attacked the problem in reverse, figuring out first how much they could raise by taxing local property owners even more, but calling it a “statewide” education tax. Once they had a figure, they determined what an “adequate” education should cost, statewide. Amazingly, it worked out to be just what that new statewide education property tax would raise. And hardly surprisingly, it amounted to just a small fraction of what it actually costs to educate a child in even the stingiest district in the state.
The other aspect of the Claremont lawsuits was fairness. The five districts that sued noted that relying solely on property taxes of wildly varying rates across the state is unfair to taxpayers and to the children in those communities that can’t afford an equal education. The court agreed, so simply raising more through property taxes wouldn’t solve the issue of fairness. That issue has been a bugaboo for lawmakers and the courts for the past 20 years. What’s seen by poorer towns as fair is decried by richer towns, and vice versa.
At one point, there seemed to be some equilibrium — or, perhaps, simply resignation on the part of taxpayers — but then the tea-party-led 2012 Legislature went on a cutting spree, leaving poorer towns struggling again. Lawmakers later dealt with that through targeted “stabilization grants” to districts in need, but in 2015, started phasing out that help.
The state has consistently ranked among the bottom five nationally in helping pay for education. Somehow, stunningly, New Hampshire’s public schools have continued to rank among the best in the country — though that may not last, given the current administration’s attempts to divert public funding to private education.
Now there are rumblings that Claremont and other poor communities are again gearing up to challenge the state’s school-aid scheme.
The courts have sent some conflicting signals at times on the issue, but wouldn’t be involved at all if not for the Legislature’s long history of shirking its duty to fairly and adequately fund public education. Add in the failure of a string of governors from both parties to lead on the issue.
Having found that the constitution requires the state to educate its children, the court then left everything else up to lawmakers: deciding how much that cost; deciding how to pay for it; deciding how to make that system fair to all. Really, the top court has stayed out of the issue since saying: “You have this responsibility.”
Sununu portrayed the situation as if the court is at fault for the state’s inequitable and insufficient education aid. That’s a blatant attempt at misdirection. Sununu isn’t the first governor to call for an amendment to take the courts out of the issue, but his statement last week that “we have to make sure the full funding power isn’t a formula just derived by the courts” makes so little sense we can only interpret it as an attempt to sway the public into thinking the courts arrived at a formula and imposed it upon the Legislature. That did not occur.
Blame hardly falls upon the courts for the fact that lawmakers and governors alike have played coy with the issue, steadfastly upping the pressure on local taxpayers and school officials while cutting existing taxes on businesses.
It’s not the courts that have produced this disgraceful situation. But given the consistent inaction by our state’s politicians, more lawsuits — and thus, more court rulings — seem inevitable.