The Herald weighed in editorially on the school funding issue after an editorial board visit by Executive Councilor and lead Claremont case attorney Andy Volinsky:
The fight over education funding in New Hampshire has, at least for now, moved from courts of law to the court of public opinion.
The lead lawyers in the landmark 1997 Claremont II education funding lawsuit, which affirmed New Hampshire’s constitutional duty to provide every K-12 student an “adequate” public education, acknowledge that despite favorable rulings from the state Supreme Court, disparities in educational opportunities have not gotten better over the past 20 years. In fact, they have gotten worse.
In an effort to persuade legislators to make the letter of the education law match its spirit, they have embarked on a campaign to explain to the public why the state’s current education funding system consistently fails students and taxpayers who live in property poor communities.
In an op-ed for the New Hampshire Bar News, Claremont II co-counsel John Tobin Jr. explained: “Even if we were to go back to court and win, it will still be up to the Legislature and the governor to solve it.”
Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, another Claremont II co-counsel, Tobin and others have held more than 30 meetings with citizens and community leaders across the state, including both Dover and Portsmouth, presenting a program called “Education Funding 101.”
In a meeting with Seacoast Media Group’s editorial board Wednesday, Volinsky said their goal is “to more broadly educate people on how school funding works in New Hampshire and why it’s so problematic.”
Volinsky suggested that because the number of communities struggling to meet their children’s educational needs through local property taxes has greatly increased over the past 20 years, the potential for meaningful legislative change has grown.
The goal of equitable funding is to provide every student, in communities both rich and poor, with an education that will make them “competitors in the marketplace of ideas,” Volinsky said.
This is not happening now, Volinsky said, because New Hampshire remains overly reliant on local property taxes to fund public education. Roughly 75 percent of school funding comes from local property taxes and just 20 percent of adequacy aid comes from the state.
“This makes us the last in the nation for state support of K-12 public education,” Volinsky said.
The state currently provides $3,636 per student in adequacy aid, with incremental supplements for economic hardship, English language learners and special education. The statewide average cost per pupil is $15,864.
New Hampshire’s dependence on property taxes to fund education does not work in the vast majority of communities because the value of their real estate is not sufficient to cover the gap between the money the state sends to schools and the actual cost of providing students with an adequate education, a concept known as the equalized valuation per pupil….
Rochester, for example, has an equalized value per pupil of $593,282 and therefore assesses $13.41 per $1,000 in value to spend $13,657 per pupil in its school district. Portsmouth, on the other hand, with a $2.6 million equalized value, taxes property owners just $6.68 to raise $18,346 per pupil, said Volinsky, providing figures from the state Department of Education.
Dover, which has a lower equalized value per pupil of $912,749 and also has a tax cap in place, charges property owners $11.90 per $1,000 of valuation to spend $12,234 per pupil. This explains why per pupil spending in Dover is below the state average.
While reliance on property taxes is hurting taxpayers and students in poorer communities, it also dampens economic opportunity, Volinsky said. Businesses won’t locate or expand in high tax communities, young families with children won’t move to communities with struggling schools, poorer towns also tend to pass tax caps further dampening money available for schools. Affordable housing, which potentially adds students to the schools is discouraged. The result is high taxes, poor schools and those with the ability to leave town doing so.
Volinsky did not pitch a specific solution. Instead, he urged the Legislature to create a funded commission to bring in experts to help it understand the problem and find acceptable solutions.
While we agree the solution to the problem is not obvious, we are grateful to Volinsky, Tobin, Doug Hall and many others for taking the time to educate the public and its elected representatives. We do have an education funding problem, which is a drag on our economy, particularly in rural areas, and it’s getting worse. It’s up to us to work together to improve it.