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June 02. 2012 8:21PM

Key vote on education funding this week

CONCORD — From Pittsburg to Salem, every New Hampshire resident who has a child in public schools or pays property taxes has a stake in Wednesday's House and Senate votes on a proposed constitutional amendment that would largely overturn the landmark 1997 Claremont II court decision on school funding.

The plan leaders of the House and Senate and Gov. John Lynch want Granite Staters to approve on Nov. 6 says the Legislature, has “full power and authority” for the way state funding of education is raised and distributed.

Essentially, if passed, the amendment would allow future lawmakers to target aid to the neediest communities, presumably at the expense of the richest communities.

But some fear that without the Supreme Court to keep a check on lawmakers, such an amendment would allow them to drastically cut education aid to all cities and towns, effectively sending the state back to the pre-Claremont lawsuit days when property taxes footed more than 90 percent of the bill for education and communities with lower property values had to set their tax rates higher than “property-rich” ones to raise enough money to provide their children with basic educational opportunities.

Three-fifths majorities of the 395-member House (there are five vacancies) and 24-member Senate are needed on Wednesday to send the question to the voters. The governor's signature is not needed, but given Lynch's popularity and political influence, his support is viewed as critical to getting the necessary votes in the Legislature and support among the voters.

If those 60 percent super-majorities are achieved on Wednesday — and it is not a sure thing, especially in the House — approval by two-thirds of the voters will be needed on Nov. 6 to add the language to the constitution.

If the amendment does become part of the state constitution, the next Legislature presumably will change the current funding formula for state aid, but it's anyone's guess at this stage what the new formula will look like and what communities can expect in future funding.

Currently, communities receive from the state a base grant of $3,450 per pupil. In an attempt by the state to help poorer cities and towns, additional funds are granted based on the number of students each community has on the federal free- and reduced-lunch program, the number of special-education students, the number of those learning English as a second language and the number of third-grade students who have not tested proficiently in reading.

Proponents of a constitutional amendment have long pointed out that the court's requirement in the Claremont decision that all students, regardless of their communities' property wealth, receive a base amount of funding from the state for an “adequate” level of education constantly increases the amount of money required from the state. And that, they say, constantly increases pressure for larger or more state funding sources, such as a broad-based tax.

“Regardless of how much money you spend, it's a finite pool, and if you have to distribute it on a per pupil basis, the money you're sending to Bedford that it doesn't need is money that you can't use in Berlin,” said Charlie Arlingaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center, a conservative public-policy group. “If you want to help people in Berlin more, you also have to send money to people who don't need it.”

State Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, predicted lawmakers will pass the proposal to the voters on Wednesday. He said taxpayers should rest assured that future Legislatures will not leave cities and towns footing an inordinate amount of the bill for education if the amendment passes.

As evidence that lawmakers are committed to education, Bradley noted that they solved an $800 million shortfall last year without cutting basic aid to elementary and secondary education.

“You have to judge people by their record, and that's our record in the most extraordinarily difficult times imaginable,” he said.

But Bradley said many communities “don't have the same need as a Berlin or a Manchester or a Strafford or a Claremont or a Farmington. Most people, when they take a step back from thinking about what the funding spreadsheet means to them, will see that we have to target aid to the neediest school districts in a way that's rational and fair.”

Bradley said it's “way to early to tell” what a new distribution formula will mean for the richer communities, “but this allows flexibility to target aid to the neediest communities, and I think a future Legislature needs that flexibility.

“But I absolutely don't believe we're going to be short-changing students in this state,” Bradley said. “This doesn't allow the state to walk away from its responsibility.”

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