So it’s down to the House’s version. That might have an easier time passing the legislature, but more difficulty in the public test, a statewide vote.
The state’s role in education funding has been fixed amid controversy for decades (see the Dec. 1 issue of the Hippo for more of the backstory). There are those who support a constitutional amendment that would limit the court system’s ability to regulate education funding and could allow lawmakers to send aid to needier communities. Then there are others who support the court’s role to watch over the system to make sure the state is distributing aid to everybody, in good times and in bad.
The House and the Senate each passed their own versions of constitutional amendments this year. House Speaker William O’Brien wanted to break up the logjam. Gov. John Lynch had made a proposal this fall as well, and O’Brien, more or less, wanted to get rid of Lynch’s proposal. So he scooped up Lynch’s language, endorsed it, and then promptly urged the House to shoot it down, which it did on Wednesday, Nov. 30. The House also killed the Senate’s version.
“The constitutional amendment I proposed would affirm a state responsibility for education and allow the state to target aid to communities that need it most,” Lynch said in a statement. “This would allow us to provide the best education possible for all our children, regardless of where they live.”
As it stands now, the state must spend $3,450 per New Hampshire student each year. That’s regardless of how much each district spends on education and how rich or poor a community is. The kids in Bedford get that amount per student and the kids in Berlin get it too. The state’s funding formula does provide opportunities for communities to get additional funding through other state aid channels, such as if a district has a lot of students in free and reduced lunch programs or if a district has many students from low-income families. A constitutional amendment would presumably allow the legislature to target aid to needier communities, while potentially holding back on funding to districts with plenty of money.
Lynch did not attend a public hearing for his proposal on Nov. 22 and he didn’t attend the House session on Nov. 30. He had hoped his amendment language would be taken up in January.
That Lynch didn’t come out in support of his proposal isn’t actually surprising. He was probably aware it wouldn’t have support in the legislature, particularly since O’Brien’s proposal passed the House with a supermajority.
“Amending our constitution is serious work, and I would have expected this amendment to go through the normal hearing process, with an opportunity for careful review and public input,” Lynch said in his statement. “Unfortunately this was not the case.”
It’s all curious. Lynch surprised many when he made his proposal. Lynch had been in talks with O’Brien and Senate President Peter Bragdon several times this year and, according to O’Brien, never presented language that would be acceptable to him. He seemed to catch both O’Brien and Bragdon off guard. How it played out is interesting because it had seemed, following big GOP victories in 2010, that resolving longstanding education funding issues was an area of common ground for the legislature and Lynch.
It appears to have ultimately fallen in line with other contentious issues. Or has it? House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt sent a letter to Lynch outlining his and House leadership’s desire for a constitutional amendment. Several members of the House leadership ultimately voted for Lynch’s proposal, including Bettencourt. Bettencourt said in his letter the vote itself was not a political ploy.
“Republican leadership in the House remains committed to accomplish a constitutional amendment on education funding as evidenced by the fact that we stood with you yesterday in support of your proposed legislation,” Bettencourt wrote, adding he looks forward to beginning negotiations once again with Lynch to work toward a bipartisan agreement.
Of the three proposed amendments, Lynch’s proposal incorporated the most potential for judicial review, while O’Brien’s proposal essentially removed the courts entirely from the education funding process and would have treated education like any other government department. The Senate version fell somewhere in the middle.
The Senate is scheduled to take up the House version of the constitutional amendment in January. At that time, it can deal specifically with the language in that bill or amend it. If it amends it and ultimately passes it, the measure would go back to the House. Any measure would take a three-fifths majority, 239 votes, to pass the House.