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An important BIA statement supporting a constitutional amendment to allow targeting of education funding

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The Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire, New Hampshire’s statewide chamber of commerce (BIA) is a strong supporter of New Hampshire Public Education. The rational is to build the workforce so critical to the future of New Hampshire, its businesses and its families. But the BIA’s engagement goes deep, bringing business and schools together, and supporting important legislative and local initiatives.

So the BIA statement, written by senior vice president/public policy David Juvet, on amending the provision of the New Hampshire Constitution that guarantees each child the opportunity for an adequate education is important.  Here, with our commentary, is the statement, printed in a recent Union Leader Sunday News:

It’s been two decades since Granite Staters went from using “Claremont” to refer to the city in western New Hampshire to referring to Supreme Court cases. It’s been argued that the landmark Claremont cases are the most significant state rulings in a generation.

The state Supreme Court’s order that New Hampshire must provide a constitutionally-adequate education for its students has had long-lasting fiscal, educational and political effects that are still not resolved 20-plus years later.

You may ask, “Why is public education a concern of the business community?” New Hampshire businesses are the largest contributor of real dollars to the state Education Trust Fund (the so-called “statewide property tax” is really just a pass-through).

Additionally, businesses have a vested interest in the type of education our young people receive. An educated workforce is a key component of New Hampshire’s continued economic vitality, and we look to secondary and post-secondary schools to prepare the 21st century labor pool for the modern economy.

BIA supports legislation that adheres to our core principles for funding education in New Hampshire. We believe primary and secondary education are a shared responsibility between municipal, state and federal governments. While the sources of funding for education are worth debating, we feel the more pressing issue today is how those funds are distributed.

BIA believes state education funds should be maximized through thoughtful targeting of aid to cities and towns most in need, instead of a uniform allocation to all districts regardless of financial or academic capability.

This is the key statement.  It embodies the balance that the many previous amendment proposals have not been able to find. Some limited targeting happens now, as Mr. Juvet points out below, but there is wide agreement that there should be much more.  The hurdle is that the commitment the Constitution makes is to each New Hampshire child, including those in wealthy communities.  There is no prohibition against sending additional funding, over and above, to property poor communities, but that requires additional funds.

There are some communities that simply do not have the ability to raise funds the way their neighbors can. A property-rich town like Rye can meet the financial thresholds of an “adequate education” with fewer complications than Seabrook can, a mere 10 miles away. This is true throughout the state. Berlin is greatly disadvantaged compared to Bedford. Haverhill is greatly disadvantaged compared to Hollis. Warren is greatly disadvantaged compared to Waterville Valley.

Likewise, there are certain individual schools that have been determined to be underperforming by state or federal standards. These squeaky wheels need more attention than a different school in the same district that has obtained proficiency. In order to achieve compliance with those standards, more resources are often needed to improve the situation.

This is a critically important statement in New Hampshire, especially at a time when the chairman of the House Education Committee advocates private school vouchers because some schools “don’t cut the mustard.”  But the State has never had the funds to help schools that need attention.  It’s always been a matter of some additional federal funds and a kind of self-help process with the support of the department of education and other nearby schools.  Resources for this kind of support would be a far greater benefit to New Hampshire children than vouchers.

While it’s not a given that more money automatically means better results, it does mean that those schools have fewer resources to retain experienced teachers, modernize their facilities, and create the kind of vibrant classroom experiences for students to thrive.

It’s true that some targeting is happening now. Districts with higher percentages of low income students, or those with a higher number of those who speak English as a second language, receive some additional state funding. But this “targeting,” to the extent that it happens, is far less than it could be or should be because tens of millions of dollars in state education adequacy aid are instead being sent to our most affluent communities.

New Hampshire is limited in its ability to use targeted aid to improve educational outcomes. The past and current thinking regarding education funding is that “Claremont” required New Hampshire to first define an adequate education, calculate its cost, and then distribute that amount uniformly (on a per pupil basis) across the state. The effectiveness of this model has not been good. News reports say those communities that sued the state in the 1990s are no better off financially since winning the original Claremont case.

To change the system and allow the state to put the aid where it’s actually needed is a complicated and difficult task. Since the high court is unlikely to reverse its view on what the state constitution requires for an adequate education, the only way to effectively give the state some level of flexibility in funding education is to amend the state constitution.

BIA is not proposing to amend the constitution to provide some kind of “escape clause” for the Legislature to shirk its responsibility to provide an adequate education. We in the business community very much want to see highly skilled, highly motivated young people graduate from our schools. We want students with exceptional A’s, not merely adequate C’s. Providing targeted aid will ensure the likelihood students in the North Country or the Upper Valley have the same opportunity to succeed as those on the Seacoast or along the Merrimack.

The challenge, as this statement acknowledges, is to find a politically acceptable amendment that maintains the commitment to educational excellence while allowing fair and equitable targeting. It is worth noting the difference between this statement and Governor Sununu’s apparent rejection of targeting as the rational for an amendment in favor of “taking the courts out of it.”

It is not fair or sensible to take students who are disadvantaged by the tax base of their community, or their lack of access to academic excellence, and provide them the same amount of aid as students in districts with stable financial resources. You can’t level a playing field by spreading an even layer of soil across the moguls and divots. You must pour it where it’s needed and fill in the gaps.

Absent a well-crafted amendment that allows New Hampshire to better target aid to those districts most in need, many students will continue to struggle, running uphill and tripping in holes unlike their peers with a head start.

Source: BIA Business Perspectives: Distributing state funds for schools | Union Leader

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