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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

No to amendment on school funding

Telegraph Editorial

Five years ago, when the state Legislature was considering yet another constitutional amendment to keep the courts out of how the state funds education, we published a critical editorial under the headline: “Trust Legislature? You must be kidding.”

That was back in 2005. You don’t have to be a mind-reader to figure out what we think of the idea in 2011.

Last month, both the House of Representatives (252-113) and the Senate (16-8) passed similar – though not identical – versions of constitutional amendments that basically would give lawmakers “full discretion” over the amount of state funding for public education.

Among the slight differences between the two amendments is the House version (CACR 12) calls for giving the Legislature the “authority and full discretion to define reasonable standards,” while the Senate version (CACR 14) adds the word “responsibility” in the mix.

It is the presence of that word that has become a main sticking point between the two chambers. House Speaker William O’Brien has labeled the term a “nonstarter” for him, and the House Special Committee on Education Funding deadlocked, 7-7, on the Senate bill last week.

Both chambers must agree to specific language by a three-fifths vote (60 percent) to place it on the 2012 ballot, where it must receive a two-thirds vote in order to be adopted.

Gov. John Lynch is open to an amendment that permits the state to target funds to those communities most in need, but he believes any such amendment must affirm the state’s responsibility to provide an adequate education for all.

This year marks the first time since the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s landmark Claremont decisions of the 1990s that either body of the Legislature has been able to muster enough votes to pass such an amendment.

In those decisions, the court ruled that the exclusive reliance on the property tax to fund education was unconstitutional and that the state must define an adequate education and then allocate the necessary money to fund it.

Now, lawmakers want to turn back the clock to pre-Claremont days and regain full discretion – without any interference from the courts – to determine how much money to distribute in education aid and to which communities.

In other words: Trust us to do what is best for the children of New Hampshire.

But haven’t we already been down that road? That’s what happened in the early 1980s when, in response to a school-funding lawsuit, the state agreed to designate a set percentage of the cost of education to be distributed under the so-called Augenblick formula to property-poor communities.

So what happened? The Legislature did not live up to that commitment, which ultimately led to the Claremont rulings years later.

Should either of these proposed amendments become law, the end result would be predictable:

 • Fewer state dollars for public education.

 • Higher property taxes in those communities that value the importance of education.

 • A subpar education for children in communities that either don’t so value it or don’t have the financial resources to do otherwise.

That’s not the kind of world where our Legislature – which as we’ve seen can change pretty dramatically from session to session – should have the final word for eternity.