By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
BRENTWOOD — What constitutes a constitutionally adequate education does not have a simple or exact answer, nor does agreeing on the true cost of paying for it if you listened to the latest education funding case before the courts on Tuesday.
Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut was on the witness stand at Rockingham County Superior Court in the lawsuit filed by ConVal School Districts and others claiming the state is failing to pay for the true cost of an adequate education.
Under questioning from the plaintiffs’ attorney, Michael Tierney, Edelblut said his department does not set policy, the legislature does, but does implement what is in the statutes and agency rules.
When asked if any school in the state could provide an adequate education for $4,000 a pupil, Edelblut said, “I have not done that analysis to make that determination.”
The state Supreme Court ruled in the Claremont education lawsuit two decades ago, the state is required to provide each student with an adequate education and to pay for it.
Today the legislatively set cost of an adequate education is approximately $3,800 per pupil, while the average state per pupil cost to educate a student is $19,399 for the 2021-2022 school year from Department of Education data.
Tierney asked Edelblut if any school in New Hampshire could provide an adequate education for $10,000 a pupil, and Edelblut said, “I have not done that analysis to make that determination.”
Tierney pressed Edelblut on costs of both public and private schools and asked if any school in the state could provide an adequate education for less than $14,000, and Edelblut gave a similar answer.
Tierney provided a spreadsheet with the average costs of all the public schools in the state and the lowest per pupil cost was a little less than $15,000.
When pressed about any school being able to provide an adequate education, Edelblut said, “I can tell you this is the amount schools have spent on education with some adjustments for certain costs.”
“How these relate to an adequate education is not clear,” he said.
Tierney asked Edelblut if a student qualified for all the differential aid outside of the $3,800 per pupil state adequacy grant, what the maximum would be, and he said about $4,400.
Similar questioning concerned what constitutes an adequate education.
Tierney and Edelblut focused on two areas, statutes and rules, which are much more detailed and cover the specifics of what is taught in content areas like math, science, English, financial literacy and technology.
Other areas include the requirements for teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, nurses and facilities and Edelblut noted other requirements are also outside the state purview and come from federal programs.
When asked do schools in the state have classes that are not part of an adequate education, Edelblut said he was not aware of that but did not know what courses were offered in career and technical schools.
When read a list of schools from poor to rich in property values, Tierney asked Edelblut if any were not offering their students an adequate education and he said he was not aware of any that were but did not know their specific curriculum.
He was questioned about the state input accountability program, and said it was an opportunity for schools to prove they are providing an adequate education.
Tierney asked if traditional public schools are the only ones providing an adequate education, and Edelblut said no, others include charter schools, the Education Freedom Account Program, private schools, and Prenda Pods, a private company the state hired to help students in small learning environments and home school programs.
Tierney asked if the other educational alternatives outside of traditional schools have to meet the same requirements such as credentialed teachers, special education, etc.
Edelblut said they do not but do have other requirements they have to adhere to for their students.
Edelblut said his department administers what lawmakers approve, and enforces those requirements, but does not set policy.
Although his department may not set policy, Edelblut was a key promoter of the state’s Education Freedom Account program, which he and others sold as a way of allowing low-to-moderate income parents find the best educational environment for their child.
In its first two years, many more students participated than anticipated and the program cost about $24 million instead of the $3.6 million Edelblut told budget writers it would.
About 75 percent of the students enrolled in the program were attending private and religious schools or being homeschooled before the program went into effect but are now receiving state money or a subsidy to offset tuition costs.
Edelblut will return to testify again, but the date was not determined.
The trial is scheduled to conclude in early May.
Another suit challenging the education funding system is slated to be heard this fall. That suit claims the state’s statewide education property tax is unconstitutional because the rate varies from town to town due to how the tax is administered by the state.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.