Political leaders from the right and left, Democrats and Republicans, agree that the current system of state aid to education is a failure. Without constitutional change, legislators are stuck tinkering at the edges of the current system that no one likes. Yet opponents of any constitutional amendment contend that we can’t trust the people we elect and the current flawed system would just be replaced with the problems of the past.
In one sense, they are quite right: each of the various constitutional amendments regarding state education aid would give the legislature the flexibility to change the current flawed education finance system. The only reason to oppose amending the constitution is because you don’t trust the people we elect.
Yet without change the authority over education policy rests with five court justices. In fact this is just as the anti-change group wishes it to be. In a radio forum, the leading trial lawyer for the group that filed the initial lawsuit summarized their goal as a bumper sticker: “stop me before I legislate.” Other opponents lament “we just can’t trust the legislature.”
They believe the legislature won’t do what they want, what they regard as just, so the power to act must be taken away from them.
But “we” the people in fact ARE the legislature. New Hampshire has a more representative legislature than any state in America. We elect a set of representatives to act on our behalf and none of them serves more than two years before we decide to re-elect them or throw them out of office.
Any system of state aid to education must by right come from the people we ourselves elect to make those decisions. Taking that power away from them means we don’t trust ourselves to elect people we can trust.
Furthermore, keeping authority out of the hands of the people we elect to represent us will condemn us to live with the system leaders from every party regard as a failure.
In the last election, the current system was soundly condemned by candidates in both parties. Shortly after the election, Democratic standard bearer Mark Fernald described the current system as “broken and out-of-control.” Ironically Mr. Fernald prefers the one change that would not require an amendment – the even more unlikely broadbased tax. Governor Craig Benson made fixing the education funding system without a tax the centerpiece of his campaign and listed “solving the education funding mess” as his top priority as Governor.
However, time and again attempts to correct the deficiencies of the current system have foundered on the current constitutional interpretation.
In June, The Josiah Bartlett Center’s comprehensive study of the current education finance system demonstrated graphically its failures, how poorer towns fall further behind their richer neighbors. Yet legislator after legislator said “we’d like to do something that makes more sense but the court won’t let us.” So we end of sending $13 million of scarce state resources to the four richest towns in the state – about the same amount it would cost to fund the waiting list for services for the developmentally disabled.
The same opponents of any change who won’t trust the legislature would have us believe our only choices are between the past and the present – the current flawed system and its problem-ridden predecessor. Their scare tactic is to convince us that any change condemns us to the past so we must avoid change at all costs. In reality, the extreme view that would reject change condemns us to the present failure and a hopeless future.
Without constitutional change, legislators make relatively minor changes to a system almost no one likes. The common sense changes most legislators would like to make are held hostage to the Supreme Court’s current interpretation – an interpretation that stopped both Democratic Governor Shaheen’s first attempts at a solution and the sensible targeted aid plan of North Country Republican Fred King.
The first step toward any common sense solution must be to amend the constitution to allow our elected representatives the flexibility to act on our behalf. To reject constitutional change is to say this is the best we’re going to do because “we just can’t trust the legislature.”