It’s been more than two decades since the N.H. Supreme Court overturned the state’s education funding system with its Claremont II decision. In that ruling, which found in favor of five property-poor communities, the court found the state has a constitutional obligation to provide its children with an “adequate education, and that such education must be funded in a way that’s equitable to all.
Because New Hampshire has no income, sales or other so-called “broad-based” taxes, school districts have historically relied on local property taxes to fund their schools. Those local taxpayers are also footing the bill for municipal and county government, putting a heavy burden on those in towns with high tax rates. Because of this dynamic, school systems in those poorer communities also tend to have fewer resources to put into their schools. Thus, the education-funding system favored those in property-rich districts in two ways.
The Claremont II decision was meant to correct these inequities. But the court, after finding the system unconstitutional, deferred to the Legislature to fix the problem. Refusing to initiate any new large-scale revenue source, lawmakers defined an adequate education, created a panel to figure out what it should cost, and passed a law codifying that figure. Quite predictably, the process resulted in no actual new revenue-raising required; the New Hampshire Advantage preserved!
And the equitable funding and local tax relief those property-poor districts were supposed to get?
Twenty-two years later, that still hasn’t happened. We know it hasn’t because property-poor communities continue to lag in state testing — in fact, they’re doing worse, comparatively. We know it because at the same time, property tax rates in those communities are skyrocketing. We know it because multi-town school districts fighting over who gets the shaft under their particular tax apportionment formula has become an annual occurrence.
And we know it because once again, school districts have sued the state over the legality of education funding, and once again, a court has found that funding system unconstitutional.
Wednesday’s ruling in favor of the ConVal, Monadnock, Winchester and Mascenic school districts by Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David Ruoff made clear the state has not been upholding its share of the costs of educating New Hampshire’s students. But he didn’t, as the school districts had requested, order the state to pay up.
Instead Ruoff, as the courts have consistently done on this issue, made clear something must be done, but left it up to the Legislature to figure out what, and how.
The school districts’ argument was that the state has not met even its own laughably inadequate definition of “adequate aid.” They’re right. The current state formula calls for paying $3,562.71 per student — barely up from the $3,450 it set 20 years ago — though the average per-pupil spending by public schools in New Hampshire is, according to the state Department of Education, $18,901. And remember: The bulk of the aid the state is providing is simply local property taxes it collects, then gives back.
ConVal and company weren’t asking for the full cost of educating a student; they recognize there are costs a district chooses to bear that may not be deemed necessary in adequately educating a child. They sought $10,843 per student. The state countered that even that is far too much.
Ruoff’s ruling makes evident what anyone paying attention would already have known from the start — that the panel devising the cost of an adequate education clearly went about its work with the intention of minimizing those costs, rather than accurately reflecting them. Teacher salaries were set based on what the lowest-paid teachers made, rather than on averages. Class sizes were set based on the maximum allowable under state law, rather than by actual teacher/student ratios. Then other costs — such as facilities operation and maintenance — were calculated as percentages of those low-balled figures.
The ruling may well be appealed to the Supreme Court. In any case, it will take quite some time to sort out how to accomplish the task Ruoff set out for the Legislature. History indicates the Legislature might again attempt to adhere to the letter of his order without actually providing any additional funding. But many of those elected to the House and Senate last November ran on campaign promises to lower the burden on property taxpayers and increase funding for education. So there’s hope the state will finally offer a genuine boost in funding.
Notably, the biennial budgets approved by the House and Senate — which still must be hashed out in a committee of conference — include substantial increases in education aid. But Gov. Chris Sununu has already spoken out against those budgets and the tax increases that would fund them.
In other words, while this case ought to provide the impetus for the state to take another — and hopefully this time a good-faith — crack at defining what an adequate education entails, how much that costs and how best to fund it, the “no new taxes” mantra Sununu and too many other state politicians have embraced assures that solution will not come quickly, nor easily.