For years the question of an adequate education, and its subsequent costs, has hung over the state like a black cloud, if gloomy metaphors work for you.
That’s been the case ever since the state Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the state must pay the entire cost of an adequate education to every community statewide, regardless of a community’s financial need.
Gov. John Lynch has always wanted to address the issue of funding an adequate education. Now in his record fourth term, and effectively a lame-duck governor because he won’t be seeking a fifth term, Lynch offered a proposed constitutional amendment on the adequacy issue. His proposal would essentially give the responsibility of funding and determining an adequate education to the legislature.
Lynch said he’s hoping the measure would allow the state to more effectively target aid to communities that need it the most.
“It is my strongly held belief that the state has a responsibility to ensure that every child in New Hampshire has the opportunity for a quality education,” Lynch said in a statement. “But to accomplish that goal, we need an amendment that allows the state to target aid to communities with the greatest needs, and that is what this amendment will do.”
New Hampshire is the only state that has a requirement that the state pay the entire cost of an adequate education to every community. Following Lynch’s proposal, the legislature would get the authority and responsibility to define standards for public education, establish standards for accountability and mitigate local disparities in educational opportunity and fiscal capacity, according to the amendment. The amendment would give the legislature “full discretion” to determine how to raise and distribute state funding for education. The amendment maintains court review if the state fails to meet its responsibilities.
Most political observers weren’t necessarily surprised Lynch offered something, but the execution seemed odd from a politician who rarely missteps and who is usually methodical. His office just sent out a press release, with no fanfare, and no one else was included, no press conference, nothing. That caught leading lawmakers off guard.
“I’m not surprised he has an amendment, but we don’t have a good sense of his game plan,” said political analyst Dean Spiliotes.
House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, said in a statement he thought this was just a lame duck governor “more interested in the appearance of a legacy than actually solving the problem.” O’Brien also said he himself had offered a constitutional amendment to restore the legislature’s authority over education funding. That measure was expected to be taken up by the Senate in 2012.
Following Republicans’ winning large majorities in the House and Senate in 2010, it seemed this would have been a potential area for Lynch to work with some Republican members of the legislature. There did appear to be a sense from both sides that they wanted to do something, Spiliotes said. Lynch has always prided himself on working in a non-partisan manner.
“I’m not really sure why he went through this process in that manner,” Spiliotes said. “It was one area where there seemed to be some potential to work across the aisle.”
The amendment could simply be a last-minute attempt by Lynch to get something done. O’Brien’s reaction to the legislation, as well as that of Senate President Peter Bragdon, who, according to an Associated Press report, was “visibly upset” to hear that Lynch offered his amendment and actually said he was disappointed with Lynch, kind of sums things up on their end. Is it possible Lynch sensed he wasn’t getting anywhere on the issue with Republicans and figured he needed to offer something?
“We don’t know the behind-the-scenes,” Spiliotes said, adding it would appear Lynch would have been better served to coordinate it with interested Republicans.
“The governor and the leaders in the House and the Senate have been talking ... for months, since the spring,” said Colin Manning, Lynch’s press secretary. “They’ve been talking a long time.”
So should they have been surprised?
“This is something they’ve been talking about for months,” Manning repeated.
Lynch has long held that he believes the state needs an amendment to ensure the state has a responsibility for education and the ability to meet the needs of the neediest communities, Manning said. He added Lynch believes it is important for courts to continue to have a role.
If the end game is to push for this amendment next year, Lynch didn’t appear to do himself any favors by not at least notifying Republican leadership in advance. He may have alienated Republicans in how he released his amendment — and if he were to be truly pushing for passage next year, he’s going to need lots of Republicans to hop on board.
So if he could make his proposal again, would he do it differently?
“It’s not something we’ve discussed,” Manning said. “He has an amendment that he believes accomplishes the goals he has articulated the last couple years, and he thinks this is the best way to ensure every child in New Hampshire has an equal opportunity for a quality education in New Hampshire.”
This has clearly been a big issue for Lynch for some time, and Spiliotes figured there probably was some legacy component to it. Maybe he has a game plan in mind, or maybe he just wants to be able to say he tried.
Arnie Arnesen, host of Political Chowder, said Democrats would fight an amendment like this tooth and nail if it had come from a Republican governor.
“Instead of a constant obligation, instead it’s a crap shoot,” Arnesen said. “If Republicans want to destroy education as we know it, now they have that license. If Democrats want to invest in education, now they have license to do it, but the people can’t do it.”
As far as gubernatorial campaigns go, education funding will surely be an issue — it always is. There have been a lot of proposals on this issue, so the fact that Lynch has a particular version out there right now might not make a huge difference, Spiliotes said.
“Was this a real attempt to start negotiations in January or was it just to keep it salient as elections come up?” Spiliotes said.