State lawmakers should start believing in ghosts

In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future. The ghost of Christmas Future was the most frightening of the three. “It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.” It didn’t speak, instead it merely pointed. Scrooge was shown what the future held for him, if he didn’t change his ways: the grief of the Cratchit family after Tiny Tim’s death and Scrooge’s lonely death. Scrooge fell to his knees and promised to change.

When it comes to fixing education funding, the Legislature has been as intransigent as Scrooge was before the visit of the Christmas ghosts. It consistently refuses to allow the people to vote on a constitutional amendment to permit the sort of sensible funding plans the Claremont decisions prevent. Instead, it keeps tinkering with an inefficacious stopgap plan that most legislators had not even read, let alone understood, when they voted on it. So, as the Legislature gears up to try, yet again, to fix the education funding mess, one can only hope that it is visited by the ghost of Claremont Future.

The first stop probably would be Kentucky, because the Claremont II decision imported into the New Hampshire Constitution a definition of educational adequacy produced by the Supreme Court of Kentucky in a 1989 decision called Rose v. Council of Better Education. Unfortunately for the students and taxpayers of Kentucky, things have been anything but rosy since their supreme court interjected itself into public education.

According to the nonpartisan Bluegrass Institute, per pupil revenue increased from $3,360 in 1989-90 to $7,533 per student in 2002-03. Yet test scores have remained flat. In 1990, the ACT composite score was 19.6, while in 2003 it remained 19.6. At the same time, the number of students attending public schools has decreased. The Bluegrass Institute reports that from 1990 to 2000 the percentage of students not attending public schools has increased by over one-third, from 8.62 percent to 11.72 percent, which is faster than any other state in the country.

Another stop would be Massachusetts, because our supreme court has indicated that, as far as education funding is concerned, it will “give weight” to what the Massachusetts judiciary has to say. Indeed, the original Claremont decision adopted wholesale what was said in McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, which was the decision that announced a right to an adequate education in Massachusetts.

And recently the Massachusetts judiciary has had quite a bit more to say about education funding.

In April 2004, the Massachusetts superior court issued a decision called Hancock v. Driscoll. Despite the fact that spending on public education had increased from about $3.6 billion in 1993, when McDuffy was decided, to about $10.1 billion by 2002, the court held that still wasn’t enough. It recommended that the supreme court order that the cost of an adequate education must include such things as special education, “including the cost of comprehensive professional development for all regular education as well as special education teachers who teach students with disabilities,” and preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, which “would be offered free of charge at least to those who are unable to pay.” It also recommended that class sizes of under 20 for at least pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade, and remedial tutoring, extended day and extended year programs for “at risk” students, should be considered part of an adequate education.

In sum, if the experiences of states such as Massachusetts and Kentucky are any indication where public education in New Hampshire is headed, we can expect to see increased spending with no corresponding increases in performance, and continued unwarranted judicial interference. So what can the Legislature do, if it wants to avoid this fate?

One course of action is an amendment that would overrule the Claremont holding that the entire cost of an adequate education must be paid for with state taxes. Another course is to change the way that children get educated.

The present public education system is a monopoly, whose prime beneficiary is an aggressive and politically powerful teachers’ union. Breaking this monopoly, by allowing parents to place their children where they are best educated, is the best way to contain costs and to improve performance.

If the Legislature wants to avoid the prognostications of the ghost of Claremont future, it should zealously pursue both courses.

Ed Mosca is a Manchester attorney and former chairman of that city’s Republican Party.

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