Education funding is back in the limelight.
The Senate recently passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to target aid to needy communities, rather than spend a blanket per-student amount for every student in the state. It would give control over education funding back to the Legislature.
The education funding circus rolled into town last year. The House and Senate each passed its own version of education funding amendments, and this past fall, with little pomp and circumstance, Gov. John Lynch released his own proposed language for an amendment. Lynch has long spoken of his desire to address the education funding issue, but it’s entirely possible he’ll finish his record fourth term this year without having resolved the issue. House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, in an attempt to eliminate obstacles for the House version of the amendment, took Lynch’s language, attached it to a bill, sponsored it, and asked legislators to reject it, which they did.
The version the Senate passed last week has bipartisan support and the support of the governor.
“I am pleased with the bi-partisan support the amendment received in the Senate and truly appreciate Gov. Lynch publicly endorsing the legislation as well today,” said Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, in a statement. “It is imperative as we work towards putting this question before voters, that they see it has the backing of both parties and the governor. New Hampshire voters deserve the opportunity to weigh in on this issue. I am confident the amendment will have bipartisan support in the House.”
Support in the House could be more difficult to come by. Still, the House’s own version would be an even tougher sell in the Senate, and certainly with Lynch, whose support isn’t actually required. Those in favor of the Senate version are touting it as restoring flexibility to the process of making education funding decisions. The proposal would need a three-fifths majority to pass the House, before it goes on a statewide ballot this fall.
A difficult path
The road to an education funding amendment is fraught with peril. Since the 1997 Supreme Court decision, known as the Claremont decision, there have been more than 80 attempts to introduce some form of a constitutional amendment for education funding. Heading into last year, it had appeared as though there was some common ground between House and Senate leaders and Lynch in that regard, but so far, the sides haven’t all reached agreement.
The education funding landscape changed dramatically following a pair of Supreme Court decisions, the second one occurring in 1997. Since then, the state has been required to provide education adequacy funding for every student in the state, which amounts to $3,450 per student, with more allotted for special education students and English language learning students. Some districts can obtain more funding from the state through various channels, but as a base, the state distributes $3,450 per child in the state, regardless of how much each district spends per child.
There are plenty of folks who say any talk of an amendment is simply going to rewind things to where they were prior to the Claremont decision ? and during that time period, they say, the legislature simply didn’t live up to its obligations with regard to funding education.
“Education is a fundamental right,” said state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester. D’Allesandro was the lone Democrat in the Senate to vote for the amendment, which passed 17-7. “Getting dollars to people who need them the most is essential. This amendment does not take the courts out of the equation. I have voted for amendments in the past, I am proud to support CACR 12 and to help move it forward in order to give the people the chance to vote on it in November.”
Everyone involved in the discussion acknowledges that $3,450 is hardly the cost of an adequate education. A central question is whether or not the Legislature should be able to give more money to needy districts, while giving less to wealthier districts that spend in excess of $15,000 per student on their own.
O’Brien has pointed to the fact that a supermajority passed the House’s education funding proposal. The court system currently has “strict scrutiny” over education funding, which some say gives the courts too much control. O’Brien wants the Legislature to be able to treat education funding as it does any other department in the state budget process.
“We live in a democracy, not a judicial oligarchy. If the issue is education funding, we elect representatives to make decisions,” O’Brien said this past fall in an interview with the Hippo. “If they make bad decisions, then they should be un-elected. … It’s called democracy.”
Responsibility, authority, discretion
The interplay between three concepts ? responsibility, authority and discretion ? has always been key in the constitutional amendment debates.
The Senate’s proposed amendment reads as follows:
“In fulfillment of the provisions with respect to education set forth in Part II, Article 83, the legislature shall have full power and authority and the responsibility to define reasonable standards for elementary and secondary public education, to establish reasonable standards of accountability, and to mitigate local disparities in educational opportunity and fiscal capacity. Further, the legislature shall have full power and authority to determine the amount of, and the method of raising and distributing, state funding for public education.”
The word “responsibility” is key. If the legislature just has the power and the authority to fund something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to fund it. That the Senate proposal would give the Legislature the responsibility would seem to suggest that it can’t just ignore the state’s role in funding education in a tough budget cycle.
The House version would go further toward giving the Legislature unadulterated control over the issue. O’Brien doesn’t want the word responsibility in the mix. He wants full discretion on how to raise money, whether to raise money and on how to distribute that money to schools. Proponents say an amendment like that removes judicial review entirely from the equation. O’Brien says the judicial system shouldn’t be in the mix anyway.
It’s a tough road to passage regardless, as many don’t want to see any constitutional amendment, fearing it would result in an unfair system where some schools get more money than others. They wonder, how would the Legislature determine which districts are “needy” and which are “wealthy?” What about the districts in between? If the House, Senate and Lynch ultimately sign off on an amendment, get ready for a fierce fight on both sides.