New Hampshire Magazine explored the Supreme Court’s nearly 20-year old decision on education funding and what it’s meant for New Hampshire schools. Here’s an excerpt:
The landmark Claremont decision made the state — not local school districts — responsible for paying for a minimum, or adequate, education for every child. Doing so required redistributing wealth and equalizing educational opportunity. While progress has been made since then, and more money is being spread over fewer school children than ever before, according to a new study released by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, little has changed in the inequity between property-poor and rich schools.
“There is still wide variation in local tax rates as well as per-pupil expenditures, a leveling of which was at the heart of the Claremont lawsuit,” wrote the center’s Executive Director Steve Norton and economist Greg Bird.
The state, [retired attorney John] Tobin says, is neglecting places like Groveton, and adds, “It’s worse than neglecting; it’s bleeding them.” He points out that, because of the great disparities in the total value of real estate from “property-rich” towns like Rye and “property-poor” towns like Groveton, homeowners and businesses pay far higher rates in the poor towns while raising less money for schools. A property-rich town can raise enough money to spend very generous amounts for its schools with a much lower property tax rate.
He says he was surprised by the lack of political will to solve the problem: “I guess I was a little naïve. I thought there would be more compliance [with the ruling].”
While acknowledging the additional education aid, Tobin says it has not kept up with inflation, increased requirements on schools, growing poverty, an expanding heroin epidemic and declining population in rural, isolated and economically depressed areas.
He says the issue is “a tax equity problem — [demonstrated by] gross disparity in spending and a gross disparity in tax rates. The court said the tax rate [for education] can’t be four times higher in Pittsfield than Moultonborough.”
One possible solution that stalled several years ago was a Constitutional amendment to allow the state to target aid to the neediest schools. It has recently won the support of the state’s Business and Industry Association. New Hampshire is one of the only states that distributes aid based on student population, rather than need. But the current proposed amendment, CACR 7, doesn’t say anything about targeted aid for needy schools. It would simply give the Legislature unfettered discretion to do whatever it wants on school funding.
Few observers see a court-legislative showdown, but more of combination of forces. As Tobin says, “Ultimately the remedy is about Constitutional law and political will.”