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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: Education funding solutions redux

June 24. 2017 8:46PM

STASHED IN A CORNER atop an old file cabinet here in the Donn Tibbetts Press Room at the State House is a 20-year-old bottle of Cordon Negro Brut, left behind by reporter Ralph Jimenez, now an occasional contributor to the Concord Monitor editorial page.

Ralph's original "post-it" notes are still attached: "Fellow ink-stained wretches. Open in case of Claremont solution."

That bottle has been collecting dust since 1997, as New Hampshire continues to struggle with the state Supreme Court's Claremont II decision regarding education funding, and we ink-stained wretches try to make sense of it.

In the anniversary year of the decision, the problem remains as vexing as ever, according to a report released last week by the N.H. Center for Public Policy Studies in Concord. After crunching the data on tax rates and per pupil expenditures in each municipality, the center concluded that not much has changed despite 20 years of lawsuits, attempted constitutional amendments and a wide range of legislative initiatives.

Communities with high residential property values, lots of commercial property, or both, can spend twice as much on education as property-poor communities, which tax their property owners at much higher rates. This was the foundation of the Claremont lawsuits (one, two and three) in the first place, and it's remarkable how little has changed.

There really has never been a time since 1997 when the Legislature wasn't messing with the educational funding formula or trying to constrain its liability. Even before the Center for Public Policy Studies report was released, a bill had already passed both House and Senate (and is now awaiting Gov.Chris Sununu's signature) to create yet another committee to study education funding and the cost of an adequate education.

That committee, created by HB 356, is required to report its findings and recommendations by November of this year.

A day after the release of the study, newly appointed Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut announced that his department would also launch a committee to study the same issue.

"I appreciate the good work of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy," Edelblut said. "It should not, however, come as a surprise that we have work to do in the area of school funding."

The Department of Education committee will be chaired by the head of the Bureau of School Finance and comprised of business administrators from school districts around the state. Edelblut met with the administrators at their annual meeting on Friday to lay the groundwork.

"I believe it is an important role for those of us in education to lead by coming up with ideas and solutions we can bring to the Legislature," he said.

While no one questions the accuracy of the report, reaction fell predictably along ideological lines. Gov. Chris Sununu, never a fan of the Claremont rulings, said the solution is to get the courts out of educational funding and put the responsibility where it belongs, in the Legislature.

Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, the lead attorney for Claremont and other property-poor communities in the Claremont lawsuit, says the state has just not been willing to spend enough, even though it spends 40 percent more on state aid to education now than it did 20 years ago.

The Business and Industry Association weighed in with a statement of its own on Wednesday, calling yet again for a constitutional amendment to neutralize the courts on the issue, so the state can target more aid to the most needy and give less to the rest.

"Most states across the country target state education aid to districts most in need," said BIA President Jim Roche. "It's time New Hampshire adopted this fiscally sound, responsible approach to public school funding. To get there, we need a constitutional amendment."

The closest the state ever came to such an amendment was in 2012, when a proposal by Democratic Gov. John Lynch failed to get the necessary three-fifths majority in the House in order to appear on the November ballot.

Although approved by the Senate and endorsed by the popular governor, the measure got only one Democratic vote in the Senate and zero in the House.

Until there is a broader consensus among lawmakers and the public that the Legislature will do the right thing if granted unilateral authority on education funding, the deadlock is likely to continue and that bottle of Brut is likely to keep collecting dust.

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