Panel Reviews Court Rulings In Search of Fair Plan To Fund NH Schools

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John Tobin of NH School Funding Fairness Project talks to the Commission to Study School Funding Monday about the inequities in the current school funding system and how it violates the Supreme Court’s decisions in the Claremont education funding lawsuits.


CONCORD — Court decisions on the state’s education funding system were reviewed Monday for members of the Commission to Study School Funding as they begin to craft a new more equitable plan for state schools.

Department of Justice Solicitor General Daniel Will and attorney John Tobin of the New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project, and one of the original attorneys in the Claremont education lawsuit, presented different pictures of what led to the original decision and why the commission is trying for the third time to craft a more equitable system.

Tobin said there are two main points to the decisions: the state has a duty to pay for an adequate education for every child and the rate of the taxes raised to pay for it has to be the same everywhere.

“The court was very clear that it is a state obligation,” Tobin said, “and it has to give kids the ability to compete in today’s marketplace not a 1950s education.”
Tobin, who with fellow Claremont attorney Andru Volinsky, who is on the Executive Council and running for governor, have traveled around the state highlighting they say the inequality of the current system that has left some communities in crisis with more teetering on the edge.

Tobin noted that poorer communities have a much more difficult time raising money for education, which drives up property tax rates, while property wealthy communities have a much easier time raising the money for education and much lower rates.

He said local property taxes and the state education property tax pay 73 percent of the $3.5 billion cost of education in New Hampshire and that has a growing impact on taxpayers.

From 2008 to 2018, education costs have grown more than $600 million and property taxes have increased $570 million, he noted. 

“New Hampshire has a low tax burden but it is heavily reliant on property taxes,” Tobin said. “The legislature has backed away from paying for education (in the last decade) and cost-shifted it back to the property taxpayers,” Tobin said.

Commission member Bill Ardinger asked if the court decision really helped the poor communities, noting there is a funding gap between property wealthy and property poor communities.

“Is a remedy for that a direct appropriation from the state to fill that gap?” Ardinger asked.

Tobin said there are two problems, tax rates and spending, and Ardinger’s suggestion would help with spending.

Tobin and others noted that the court’s ruling requires the state to pay for the cost of an adequate education, but the state sets the costs of an adequate education at about $3,800 a student when the state average per pupil cost is more than $16,000.

He said the court’s rulings are not about equality, but about defining an adequate education, determining how much it costs, and finding a constitutional funding mechanism that has the same rate across the state.

Solicitor General Will discussed the history of the Claremont lawsuit and the various court rulings since the original ruling in 1990.

The court ruled 30 years ago that the state has a duty to provide an education for all its children and to pay for it with taxes that are “proportional and reasonable,” which Will said means fair.

He said the court left it to the legislature to define an adequate education, what it costs and how to pay for it.

Ardinger said there is the sense the court greatly constrained the legislature in what it could do to address education funding, that it “really does not have the authority to construct something that would fix it.”
But Will said the court has repeatedly said it would only go so far and it was up to the legislature to cost it out and fund it.

“The court identified the right and the broad parameters but said it’s now up to the legislature,” Will said. “The court said the state has to provide an adequate education, not equality.”
“At no time did the court tell the legislature what it should look like or how to fund it,” he added.

Ardinger asked if any of the court rulings say the education in the five communities that brought the Claremont suit was inadequate and Will said the rulings did not.

He said the latest education funding suit filed by the ConVal School District and several others is currently on appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Will said the school districts claim the state did not include all of the costs of an adequate education in its formula like transportation and nursing services so local districts have to pay those costs.

The court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor last year.

This is the third commission established to determine the cost of an adequate education and the most equitable method to distribute state education aid.

The commission was included in one of a series of education funding bills introduced last session to address the inequity of the current education funding system and the reduction in stabilization grants to school districts.

The commission is to determine what constitutes an adequate education today, and what it costs, and suggest an equitable and constitutional funding system to pay for it.

The commission next meets at 2 p.m. Feb. 21 in rooms 210-211 of the Legislative Office Building. 

Garry Rayno may be reached at

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