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A judge says NH needs to change how it funds public schools — again. Now what?

Sarah Gibson
/
NHPR

New Hampshire judge has ruled that the state's method for funding public schools is unconstitutional. But it isn't the first time a court has reached that conclusion.

Monday's decisions in a pair of lawsuits are the latest in a decades-long fight, in the courts and the State House, over who should pay for public schools and how much that should cost.

NHPR Education and Demographics Reporter Sarah Gibson has followed this for years, and she recently joined All Things Considered Host Julia Furukawa to explain what this means.


Transcript

Sarah, the decisions this week are on two separate lawsuits in Rockingham County Superior Court. Let's start with the first one, known as the ConVal case.

Yeah, it's called that because it was brought by the ConVal School District in Peterborough, along with over a dozen other school districts. Their basic argument is that the state is not giving school districts enough money to pay for education.

This is a little bit of deja vu. Basically, similar arguments have been made in the courts here in New Hampshire for going on 30 years, and the state Supreme Court has often weighed in. The central question is this thing called a "constitutionally adequate education" — it's serious legalese, but it's basically about what constitutes an education that the state is obligated to pay for.

This case really revolved around districts' costs — things like teacher pay, transportation, facilities — and how much of that the state should cover. Right now, districts are spending about $19,000 per year, per student, but the state only chips in about $4,000 per year, per student. And so a lot of the public school cost is shouldered by local taxpayers.

In the courtroom, there was a ton of discussion and debate around specific expenditures by districts. And in the end, the judge sided with the schools. He actually came up with a very precise calculation of what the state should be paying. He said, with extremely conservative calculations, the state should chip in at least $7,356.01 per student. That is a big increase from what it currently is. I'm also told this is the first time a judge has actually gotten that specific with the numbers, in what is now close to 30 years of court cases similar to this.

Don't want to miss that cent.

You do not.

(You can read the full decision in the ConVal case here.)

What about the second case?

The second lawsuit is a lot more narrow. It's basically about how the state raises money to pay for public schools, specifically an extremely confusing scheme called the Statewide Education Property Tax, otherwise known as SWEPT. This is a state tax, but it doesn't really function like other state taxes. It's raised and then retained locally. So the rate is not uniform across the state.

Some plaintiffs came to the court, and they're from property poor towns where the tax rate is higher, and they basically said this is unfair and unconstitutional. And the judge agreed with them.

(You can read the full decision in the SWEPT case here.)

OK, a lot to unpack here. What are state officials saying so far about these decisions?

As is often the case, this is really falling largely along partisan lines. Democrats and public school advocates are feeling pretty vindicated. And Republicans and critics of public school spending aren't happy. That includes the governor, he called the rulings a big overreach. He also noted that New Hampshire currently spends more per pupil than nearly any other state.

And I will say that is accurate. We're really high on the spending list compared to other states per pupil, but we're at the bottom when it comes to what proportion of public school costs are covered by the state — it's largely paid for by local taxpayers.

How are other people reacting to this news?

I spoke to a few attorneys on these cases, and they said it was a modest step in the right direction. One of the people I spoke to was Natalie Laflamme, she's a lawyer on the SWEPT case. She actually grew up in Berlin and went to school there when that district was part of big school funding lawsuits back in the nineties, so she's kind of seen this happen throughout her lifetime. And she said the state's objections now are feeling pretty familiar.

"Well, the state has raised kind of arguments before of just how disruptive this would be," she said. "And, you know, we get that. But it's also like, you can't just let it keep happening because it's going to be a pain to change the system. Like, too bad — it's been unconstitutional for a long time."

Others really disagree with this position.

Drew Cline is the chairman of the state Board of Education. I spoke to him in his capacity as the president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, this is a free-market think tank, and he basically says, after all the wrangling in the courts, we still don't really have a good sense of what an adequate education should cost.

"So we have legislators decreeing what they think it should cost. They're probably wrong. We have the school districts saying, 'Well, this is what we actually spent.' But what you spent is not the same as what it should actually cost. So they're probably wrong," he said. "And then the court takes both of these claims, does a little math to it and says, 'Well, I've determined what the real cost should be.' Well, judges don't know either."

So as expected, mixed reactions here. But what happens next?

The Attorney General's office declined to give details about their next steps. Many assume they're going to appeal this decision, and we could see court filings by the end of the year.

If it does move forward, it's ultimately up to lawmakers, as usual, to figure out how to comply with the court's order and fund an adequate education. And this is where things really hit roadblocks. I mean, we've seen over the decades, it's very hard for lawmakers to agree on how much the state should should put towards public education, particularly since costs continue to increase.


For more on the long history of school funding debates in New Hampshire and their implications, catch up on Sarah's earlier reporting at nhpr.org/adequate.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
Michelle Liu is the All Things Considered producer at NHPR. She joined the station in 2022 after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.
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