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Governor Sununu wants to take courts out of education funding

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The NH Supreme Court protects citizens, businesses, government and students in New Hampshire.  Governor Sununu has proposed that students be eliminated from that list, leaving  education funding levels entirely up to the Legislature.  Here, in a recent Seacoast Online report is how he makes the argument:

ROCHESTER — Gov. Chris Sununu says he supports an education funding amendment to the state Constitution because he believes the Legislature should have full authority and discretion over how the state funds its public schools, independent of the court system.

Full discretion, apparently, to contribute to public education at any level or not at all.

“The only way to undo (the current system) is a constitutional amendment, which I would fight for any day of the week – as soon as we get a Legislature that will actually pass one,” said Sununu. “I’m all for it. And even just amending to just ‘the Legislature decides.’ Your representatives, the most representative body on the planet… decide amongst themselves what the formula is, how the funds get dispersed and ensure there is an adequate education.”

In other words, the Governor proposes making education funding a purely political issue, unconstrained by constitutional limits.  Presumably, the current predictability of the funding, already levels widely acknowledged to be too low, would be eliminated, probably resulting in big swings between Democratic and Republican funding levels.  (We would become the first state in the country to do that.)

….The Republican governor voiced those remarks Tuesday at a forum in Rochester while responding to an audience question about state education aid….

A supplemental aid mechanism known as stabilization grants was added in 2012 to help poorer communities, but since a 2015 bill those grants have decreased 4 percent each year and will continue to do over the course of 25 years until the grants are eliminated. Rochester is among communities facing revenue shortfalls as a result, city and school officials said. Last month, the Rochester City Council overrode the city’s tax cap for the first time to avoid dozens of school layoffs.

Another change, which followed a city of Dover lawsuit against the state in 2015, increased limits on how much aid can fluctuate year over year based on enrollment, sending millions more to growing communities.

During his remarks Tuesday, Sununu didn’t outline the exact language he’d want to see in a constitutional amendment. He also didn’t voice the argument that Democratic Gov. John Lynch did when he proposed a constitutional amendment in conjunction with House and Senate leaders in 2011. Lynch said an amendment would be the path to better assisting needy communities disadvantaged by the structure set forth following the Claremont suits….

“The court shouldn’t be dictating anything,” he said. “The court should be simply allowing the Legislature to do their job and represent the people and the people’s money in the best and most responsible way possible.”

While there is bi-partisan support for increased targeting to property poor communities, the dozens of failed constitutional amendment proposals have all been of the take-the-courts-out-of-it variety that leaves New Hampshire children without a fundamental right to an adequate education.

Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, lead attorney on the Claremont case, sees that as no solution:

…Before Claremont I and II, Volinsky said the Legislature-controlled system had significant inequities that limited education, particularly in communities with bleeding tax bases. Volinsky questioned how returning to that system would yield a different result two decades later. He emphasized he believes the Legislature, which determined what went into the funding formula, is why children are still disadvantaged in poor, rural communities as well as in the municipalities that cut education to adhere to tax caps.

“While we made progress (early on following Claremont), the state’s leaders have compromised, compromised and comprised so much that we’re in at least as bad a situation” as when the first suit was filed in 1991, Volinsky said. “There are different ways to do it, but there has to be the commitment and the courage of our political leadership to fix the problem and we haven’t always had that.”

Volinsky said he believes many who support a constitutional amendment, particularly those who also support the state funding vouchers for private schools, would seek to remove not just the court’s requirements for the funding mechanism, but also do away with the state’s obligation to provide a free education and push the state toward privatization.

The Governor disagrees:

…“There’s a variety of ways to do it,” he said Thursday in Newmarket. “I would just leave it there. There are a variety of ways to do it, but we have to make sure the full funding power isn’t a formula just derived by the courts, (that) it isn’t something that the courts dictate what happens.”

1 Comment

  1. Michael Cahill says:

    I’ve attached a letter I submitted but the Union Leader seems uninterested in publishing:

    I would like to thank David Juvet for making the connection between business and
    . Our businesses need
    employees and customers (typically found in families) to be successful and to help pay
    property taxes – the largest source of education funding.

    Public education and its funding should be exemplary rather than adequate but in all
    candor, state aid fails to meet even this low bar. It is this penchant for the “escape hatch”
    Mr. Juvet referred to that I fear in the proposed amendment. Adequacy Aid is far from
    what is needed but it is something and without the court’s intervention, it may be nothing.

    Consider the School Building Aid program which is no longer funded by the Legislature.
    Prior to the moratorium on School Building Aid, the state would fund 30% – 60% of
    renovation/construction for schools. This favored more affluent districts where warrant
    articles passed even with “bells and whistles” poorer communities could not dream of.
    Cooperative districts received an additional 5% for every sending school. We now see
    transportation as a major education expense – go figure.

    From the capital budget, Career and Technical Center projects receive 75% state funding.
    The state plans on updating these facilities every twenty years. This is great if you have a
    CTE and can work your high school project into the plan. This was done in Salem and
    Dover during the moratorium while many other school projects were funded with only
    local taxes or failed to win the required 60% support of the voters. CTE schools are a
    great resource for many students but all of these and the vast majority of the student body
    spend more time in classrooms in their regular school building. These local schools are
    the ones families and businesses research when considering whether to come to New
    Hampshire; the ones they pay for with property taxes. How many chances do you get to
    make a first impression?

    A commission is studying education funding and I hope this will result in a higher
    priority with the requisite funding. No one expected the Claremont ruling to make all
    communities wealthy, it did help some with the basics but we can do better.

    Michael Cahill
    State Representative
    Rockingham 17
    Newfields, Newmarket

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