In backroom conversations, New Hampshire’s elected leadership have recognized for years that the adequacy formula determining state funding for public education is unconstitutional. The Legislature had set the funding level unrealistically low – currently $3,636 plus some other targeted forms of aid – and just hoped to keep the issue in the background as long as possible.
The string ran out on that strategy this year as schools closed or dropped important courses and the NH School Funding Fairness Project led by Andy Volinsky, John Tobin and Doug Hall held 35 forums (and counting) around the state explaining the system and the damage it is doing to students, property poor communities and property taxpayers. While the Fairness Project and hundreds of active supporters pursued a legislative remedy, ConVal and 3 other school districts went to court in March to challenge the formula.
Judge Ruoff issued his 98 page opinion yesterday. And it was sweeping. Some key quotes:
- “RSA 198:40-a,II(a) sets the current base adequacy aid award for all schools at $3,562.71 per student, based on a formula determined by a legislative committee in 2008. The parties agree that not a single school in the State of New Hampshire could or does function at $3,562.71 per student.”Because of the dearth of evidence in the legislative record to support such a
determination, the Court finds RSA 198:40-a,II(a)—which is essentially the gateway to an adequate education in New Hampshire—unconstitutional as applied to the Petitioning school districts.”
- “”The Court construes the fundamental right at issue as a right to the opportunity to a fully State-funded adequate education.”
- “Labels aside, we are simply unable to fathom a legitimate governmental purpose to justify the gross inequities in educational opportunities evident from the record…”
- “The distribution of a resource as precious as educational opportunity may not have as its determining force the mere fortuity of a child’s residence. It requires no particular constitutional expertise to recognize the capriciousness of such a system.”
- “As repeatedly found above, the Joint Committee’s [that determined the adequacy funding formula] conclusions were not only unsupported by the legislative record but were clearly or demonstrably inadequate according to the Legislature’s own definition of an adequate education.”
- “As every court decision on the matter has recognized, school funding is no small task, and the burden on the Legislature is great. Yet, as every court decision has similarly recognized, the Legislature is the proper governmental body to complete it. As has been the result in the past, the Court expects the Legislature to respond thoughtfully and enthusiastically to funding public education according to its constitutional obligation.”
Judge Ruoff did not agree to rewrite the formula. He said that the Legislature must determine the true cost of a constitutionally adequate education and then to fund it.
Governor Sununu issued a statement saying, “”The state is reviewing the order, but we continue to believe these critical funding decisions are best left to local elected leaders — who represent the people of New Hampshire — not judges in a courtroom.”
But the opinion is sure to be appealed. As Doug Hall observes in an email to advocates,
Judge Ruoff compiled the history of the effort to define and cost “adequate education” subsequent to the Claremont decisions in considerable detail. He was more than ruling, he was preparing for the next step. He has put everything together so the Justices on the Supreme Court will have a ready reference and won’t accidentally miss an important point when this case gets to them.
Judge Ruoff’s thorough and well-written decision suddenly brings the school funding question into sharp focus and place it at the center of the public debate until the state comes up with a credible response.