A N.H. school-funding parable

The governor spoke at a conference I recently attended, and his comments turned to school funding and the proposed constitutional amendment that he supports.

The governor told us that the state cannot innovate in the area of education policy because it is bogged down in debates about school funding. He also told us that the amendment was necessary to allow the state to better target its education aid. The governor did not mention the aspect of the proposed amendment that all but removes court oversight of the Legislature on school funding issues. This, in my opinion, is the greatest problem with the proposed amendment and good reason for its rejection.

The governor’s talk occurred just before the latest school-funding plan was released. The latest plan is another disaster for schools that are poor or rural. The plan is designed to maintain the current level of funding, but slants that funding to favor the more urban areas of the state. It would truly be ironic if the state now adopted a plan to solve the school-funding issues that directly hurt the poorer towns that brought suit back in 1990, Claremont, Allenstown, Lisbon, Franklin and Pittsfield.

The governor’s speech included an amusing parable about a visit to the State House by a group of 4th-graders that in many ways was prophetic. The parable made me think of my own children.

In his parable, the 4th-graders were upset when they learned that legislators are only paid $100 per year. The governor asked all the children to raise their hands if they were willing to contribute a part of their weekly allowances to give legislators a raise. With a smile, the governor told us that not a single child raised a hand. “See,” the governor said, now turning to the luncheon gathering, “we must stay within our budget, even the 4th-graders know this.”

I hope that my own children would have responded differently. Our oldest, first, would have challenged the governor on the absence of children in the Legislature.

“Where are the children?” he would have asked. “Surely, you cannot expect to make decisions about what happens in our classrooms and what might affect the rest of our lives without our direct input!”

Our middle child, the compassionate one, certainly would have kept her hand raised to contribute at least a little bit. She then would have asked the governor, “Where can we bring non-perishables for the legislators?”

Our youngest is a high school senior now, but I can remember her as a little girl with pigtails. She would have asked, “Do the legislators deserve a raise? Have they completed their school-funding assignments on time?” “And,” now pacing, “what about economic development? If you help me increase my allowance by a dime, I’ll contribute a nickel of it.”

These may be demanding times, but as even the children know, we must act with three considerations in mind with respect to resolving school-funding issues.

First, we must think beyond the present and consider the consequences of our actions for future generations. A proposed amendment that relieves the Legislature of judicial oversight leaves our children to suffer at the political whim of the powerful. A failure to invest in our schools now endangers our future prosperity.

Second, we must act with compassion for those in need. School-funding decisions do not eliminate costs, they only downshift them to property taxpayers, some of whom are stretched beyond their limits.

Third, and finally, leaders should be held accountable. They must lead, set good examples and innovate. Repeating prior mistakes while expecting different results will lead only to the loss of our New Hampshire advantage.

Andru Volinsky, an attorney who manages Bernstein Shur’s Manchester office, is lead counsel for the school districts in New Hampshire’s school-funding cases.

Categories: Opinion