Editorial: Education funding is still broken

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

Last week, several hundred students, teachers and parents marched from Franklin High School to city hall to protest budget cuts that are decimating faculty and shortchanging Franklin’s children. The district is slated to lose 14 positions. That’s on top of the 14 positions the school district cut over the past two years.

Franklin’s tax cap deserves some of the blame for the situation, but the protesters’ next march should be on the State House. There they should ask the legislators of both parties who’ve routinely failed to comply with state Supreme Court rulings to adequately fund public education to look them in the eye. Lawmakers should hear from Franklin freshman Jada LePierre, who told Monitor reporter Leah Willingham that she was “sick of the stereotype that ‘Oh, you’re from Franklin – you’re not going to go anywhere.’ . . . That’s not a burden we should have to bear as kids.” No, Jada, it isn’t.

Last year, the New Hampshire Center for Pubic Policy Studies reported that essentially nothing has changed since the historic Claremont school funding decisions were issued two decades ago. Property-rich school districts still spend two or more times as much per pupil as property-poor school districts like Franklin. Tax rates in property-poor districts are still four or five times higher than the rate in wealthy districts.

Since the report was issued the inequities have worsened. In 2015 New Hampshire’s miserly Legislature decided to phase out the stabilization grants designed to hold school districts financially harmless when enrollments decline. The communities that sued the state – Claremont, Franklin, Pittsfield, Allenstown and Milan – are among those hardest hit by the decision. Franklin’s state aid is declining by $160,000 per year, roughly enough to retain two or three teachers.

It’s time for talk of another school funding lawsuit to lead to action. Property-poor communities have nothing to lose. Property-poor cities and towns with underfunded, struggling schools have little or no chance of attracting employers or the movers, shakers and volunteers who can bring a place back to life.

The Legislature, and governors current and past, have thumbed their noses at the Constitution with impunity for two decades. In a state where average per-pupil spending tops $16,000 per year, it’s absurd to pretend that the state can provide an adequate education for every child for $3,600 per year. The so-called statewide education property tax of $2 and change is nothing but a surcharge on local property taxes. The money is collected and spent locally and never sent to the state. Lawmakers responded to the whining of property-rich communities, who dubbed themselves “donor towns,” by allowing them to keep rather than share money raised by the tax that’s in excess of their per-pupil state adequacy aid. That’s unequal taxation and thus unconstitutional.

If property-poor communities sue, and they should, they should begin with the statewide property tax.

The Legislature capped the amount it raises with the tax at $363 million per year, which doesn’t account for inflation. The cap should be scrapped. If education is a statewide responsibility there can be no such thing as donor towns. It’s time to end that nonsense and send the money raised by the statewide property tax, which was initially set at $6.60 per $1,000, to the state.

Nothing prevents the state from targeting education aid based on need once it pays for a truly adequate education of every child. That aid should come from a higher statewide property tax and go to places like Franklin, where the future of the city’s children is being sacrificed by the state’s refusal to fairly fund public education.

Join The Movement #iBELIEVE


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