May 9, 2012
As originally publish in the New Hampshire Union Leader
An amendment on education funding in New Hampshire is long overdue and is only common sense. The only thing stopping the legislature from putting one on the ballot are the misconceptions of one group of people and the tax fantasies of another. Both groups should be overlooked and an amendment adopted.
The source of the conflict is a series of state Supreme Court ruling called the Claremont decisions which basically said, in 1999, that the way we had funded education – largely through local property taxes with a small amount of state aid – was unconstitutional.
They interpreted the phrase “cherish the interest of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries and public schools,” to mean that the state can’t delegate its authority and has to use a state not a local tax to pay for a basic portion of the funding. The inherent ambiguity of the phrase is what led many people to think of the decision as a bit of an overreach.
Some of the more liberal leaning legislators hoped the decision would force an income tax or at least a transfer of education to the state – one big school district of you will. But that was always a fantasy and there has never been much support for a state school district (nor should there be).
Current state education spending is about $2.7 billion or $15,000 per pupil. The state transfers about one billion dollars, a little more than a third of spending. In any system where state aid is a minority of revenue, people in both parties agree those limited dollars ought to be targeted on the basis of need (just as most government programs are). But the court specifically prohibits that.
One course would be for the legislature to dispute the court’s ruling and assert its own interpretation of constitutionality. But in the most libertarian leaning there ever was and probably ever will be, there are precious few votes for such an approach.
A reasonable amendment that would allow targeting aid and change little else would restore the ability of the legislature to make its own decisions instead of wondering first what the court will allow.
The latest version, a recently tweaked draft being considered by a committee of conference, is supported by the leading scholarly critic of Claremont jurisprudence Gene Van Loan and former justice Chuck Douglas. Needless to say, it isn’t wishy washy.
Nonetheless, there is a group that opposes it as some sort of assault on local control and claims that New Hampshire is some sort of home rule state. They are wrong on most counts.
New Hampshire does not now nor has it ever had complete local control. Skeptics point to a provision in the constitution granting towns the right of electing their own teacher. While towns have that right, from the beginning the state regulated them and what they taught.
The first law under the new republic specified the credentials required of a teacher, the subjects that must be taught, and the different subjects that must be taught in a shire town. The curriculum rules were altered again in 1807. Then in 1808, additional curriculum requirements were placed on towns and the regulations on teachers were again changed with more state minimums placed upon them before they were allowed to be hired by the town.
In the first forty years of the republic, laws were changed seven times creating more regulations regarding curriculum, required local regulatory officials, required taxes, and minimum state standards for teachers.
In fact, when the first direct state aid program was passed in 1828 (it was about 10% of total revenue), it was used a carrot to better enforce compliance with state regulation and the state superintendent of public instruction.
Don’t get me wrong, we should fight against local interference in curriculum decisions. I don’t think the state should insist of teaching this or not teaching that even if I happen to agree. Parents locally should decisions about textbooks, subjects and curriculum. But the structure of New Hampshire’s government has always permitted interference and the language of the current amendment will affect that reality not one jot or tittle.
It remains upon us and will remain upon us to limit over regulation by both conservatives and liberals to preserve local decision making.
The proposed amendment is both sensible and reasonable. Legislators should offer it to the people for their consideration this fall.