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NH Senate passes school funding amendment

By Kathy Mccormack
Associated Press / March 30, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H.—New Hampshire lawmakers would have full discretion to determine the amount and methods of raising school aid under a proposed constitutional change passed by the Senate on Wednesday

The state Senate voted 16-8 in favor of shifting control over school funding from the courts to lawmakers.

The House, which earlier this month approved a similar amendment that would reverse a 1997 state Supreme Court ruling requiring the state to adequately fund public education, will take up the proposal. If approved, voters will get to weigh in on the amendment in the November 2012 election.

Sen. Sylvia Larsen, D-Concord, said the courts determined years ago that New Hampshire residents had a fundamental right to an education, just like freedom of speech. "This amendment takes away the enforcement of that right," she said and would give legislators an absolute power.

But Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said legislators have the opportunity to give voters a voice in education funding, something they've never had.

"This is our opportunity to make it happen," he said. "Let us not falter."

A key difference between the amendments is the Senate's acknowledgement that the state has the responsibility to define reasonable education standards and to mitigate local disparities in educational opportunity.

The Senate's amendment is not identical to the one that passed in the House and both chambers must agree on a proposal to for it to be placed on the ballot. It takes 60 percent of each chamber to put an amendment on the ballot, and two-thirds of the voters to change the constitution.

Republican House Speaker William O'Brien proposed the House amendment that would give lawmakers discretion to decide how much, if anything, to pay in school aid. O'Brien argues the court stripped local control of education by shifting responsibility to the state from communities. He argues education decisions should be made at the local level.

Amendment critics say turning the clock back 14 years will mean increasing local property taxes to make up for lost aid. They say giving full discretion to the Legislature to decide who gets money will mean that communities with the most representatives in Concord will decide aid distribution. As a result, small towns court be hurt.

Both amendments would let lawmakers target aid to the neediest communities and would nullify the court'ss requirement that the state provide an adequate education to all public schoolchildren. They propose giving the Legislature the authority to define educational standards, determine the amount of state school aid and mitigate disparities among communities.

O'Brien's amendment is among more than four dozen that have been proposed to address the court's ruling. It was the first passed by the House.

The state has struggled over the school funding issue for years. In 1991, Claremont and four other property-poor towns sued over the state' reliance on local property taxes to pay for schools.

The court said in a series of rulings that the state must define an adequate education, pay for it and hold schools accountable for providing sufficient programs. The amount doesn't have to be the same for every pupil, but the court rejected aid systems that helped only select towns. The state enacted a new aid system funded by a variety of state taxes, anchored by a state education property tax.

Both amendments would allow the state to repeal the state property tax and eliminate the need for property-rich towns sued over the state's reliance on local property taxes to pay for schools.

If the state's education property tax is repealed, communities would have to raise their local property tax rates to make up for any lost aid. In its 1997 ruling, the court had thrown out that system because it relied on widely varying local property taxes to pay for schools and said that was unfair to children in poor communities.

Gov. John Lynch does not have a direct say in whether an amendment passes the Legislature, but the popular governor could influence how voters judge it. Lynch supports targeting school aid, but believes the House amendment would allow the state to abandon responsibility for public education, which he does not support. He has not said he supports the Senate version, and instead consistently has said he wants an amendment that affirms the state's responsibility for public education.