Endless Battle Over NH School Funding Continues After State High Court Ruling

Despite the pleas of poor districts, the state’s high court says it’s not clear whether $3,600 per student is adequate.

(Pixabay image via Courthouse News)

BOSTON (CN) — The New Hampshire Supreme Court passed up an opportunity Tuesday to end a decades-long battle over how much money the state must provide to poor school districts, instead sending a case back to a local judge for further proceedings that could stretch years into the future.

The state currently spends almost $19,000 per year on average to educate its public school students, but only $3,636 of that comes from the state. The rest comes from local property taxes, and poorer school districts without a lot of tax revenue claim that the amount provided by the state is so woefully inadequate as to be unconstitutional.

The battle over funding in the notoriously tax-averse Granite State has been ongoing since the 1990s, when the state’s high court first held that the state has an obligation to fund an “adequate” education.

Since then there has been a continual debate about how much funding is adequate.

Under the current scheme, districts get $3,636 per student plus roughly $1,800 for students who get subsidized meals, $700 for students for whom English is a second language and $2,000 for special education students.

Four school districts brought the current lawsuit, although they were joined by 26 other districts and the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed amicus briefs. The plaintiffs are seeking an increase in funding to about $10,000 per student.

“No school district can provide a constitutionally adequate education on only $3,636 per pupil,” the plaintiffs argued.

A trial judge in Keene, New Hampshire, ruled that the current funding scheme was inadequate. But the Supreme Court reversed that ruling and ordered the judge to conduct a much more thorough examination of what exactly an “adequate” education involves and what sort of costs are required.

The judge must examine the role of ancillary expenses such as transportation, food services, school nurses, building maintenance and teacher and staff benefits. Teacher-student ratios should also be considered.

The ruling is a setback for the school districts, but their lawyer, Michael Tierney, said he thought the districts could make their case to the trial judge fairly quickly.

“We’re very happy with this,” he said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity to present what the costs actually are, and what the components of those costs are, and having the Superior Court make a determination as to what the level of underfunding is.”

Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican, said he believes that funding should be up to state lawmakers and not judges.

“Today’s ruling reaffirms that this is an issue that belongs in the legislature and not in legal limbo,” he said in a statement.

“As the most representative body in America, the New Hampshire legislature must have the authority to make education funding decisions.”

Last year a commission led by Democrats recommended changes to the funding formula, including a statewide redistribution of property taxes, but the resulting bills have not advanced far in the Republican-controlled legislature.

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