As the case has moved to the N.H. Supreme Court, what was a handful of local school districts, led by ConVal, has swelled into 25 districts and the state School Boards Association demanding more equitable and fair school funding from the state of New Hampshire, and soon.
The 25 districts submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the original petitioning districts, which also include Mascenic, Monadnock and Winchester, in May, noting the harm to the four petitioning districts is felt all over the state. “The flaws in the current system cause great harm to public school districts, students, teachers, and property tax payers throughout the State,” it says, adding that the districts now calling for change educate 30 percent of the state’s public education students. Among the amicus districts are Keene, Chesterfield, Harrisville, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — plus such large districts as Manchester, Nashua and Concord.
As the brief notes, the state, in the wake of the 1990s Claremont rulings, was tasked with meeting its constitutional obligation to provide its children an adequate education. The court, wary of overstepping its authority, left it to the Legislature to determine what an “adequate education” means, and how to pay for it. The Legislature, unwilling to enact a broad tax to augment the revenues already in place, opted to carve out a piece of everyone’s local property taxes and call it a “state education tax.” As for how much, they seriously lowballed the figure, counting on unrealistic class sizes and ignoring many facets of education that are vital to modern schools. The brief also argues that during the past decade in particular, the state’s unwillingness to raise the amount it pays local districts has made the inequity between communities even wider.
Once the definitions were set, the Legislature set the amount per student it would return to districts from the “new” state tax at $3,456. In 21 years, that amount has risen only to $3,636.
The ConVal suit, filed on Town Meeting Day in 2019, argues that even by the state’s own lowball definitions, what’s being sent to districts is only about a third of what’s owed. It asked the court to find the state in violation of the law and to immediately award the district the full amount — nearly $10,000 per student — its own definitions say is “adequate” for educating a student. The idea that a court would, weeks before the end of a fiscal year, triple the amount the state was to pay a district — knowing every other district would immediately seek the same — was a pipe dream. And Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David Ruoff did indeed set aside the question of payment. He also deferred to the Legislature on the issue of how “adequate” aid ought to be determined and how much it should be, except he clearly noted what the state has been paying does not even begin to cover what it said it would pay for.
So the case is now, predictably, in the hands of the state Supreme Court. One of the requests of the amicus brief is that the court require the Legislature to remedy the unfairness of the adequacy payments by the end of the next legislative session, or July 1, 2021.
While we wouldn’t expect the court to step in, as requested by ConVal and Co., and rewrite the formula or to recalculate the amount it requires, we could see the court setting a deadline and again tasking lawmakers with making those determinations.
As a report last week in the Concord Monitor noted, this case is playing out as a legislatively created Commission to Study School Funding does its work of examining the state’s school financing system. That commission plans to complete its work and have a report for the governor and Legislature by the time the new session begins in January.
The first Claremont ruling was issued in 1993, and it came only because the disparity in education between the state’s richer and poorer communities had been evident for decades. But as the Claremont rulings showed, New Hampshire will never really address the inequities of its education funding, and therefore never really provide an “adequate” education to its children, until the Legislature shows the will to do so.
We may be close to that point. Many of the lawmakers elected in 2018 ran on education equity platforms. But right now it’s likely there are not enough of them to both pass a new adequacy law and overcome the very likely veto from Gov. Sununu, a defendant in the ConVal suit.
So whatever the court determines, ultimately the issue is one on which voters must make themselves heard to ensure any real movement.