The New Hampshire Supreme Court heard arguments on Thursday in the latest case over whether the state is meeting its constitutional obligation to pay for an adequate education.
A group of school districts, including the Contoocook Valley (ConVal) School District, sued the state in March 2019, alleging that the state’s funding formula for sending money to districts is flawed and forces local taxpayers to foot too much of the bill for school budgets.
The state’s funding formula has been challenged in the courts and adjusted in the legislature for decades. In the 1990s, the Supreme Court made a series of decisions in the landmark Claremont cases, saying New Hampshire needed to fund an adequate education with fair and equitable taxation.
On Thursday, Michael Tierney said lawmakers have not taken this obligation seriously enough.
“In this case and for the past 25 years they have substantially underfunded, with promises that they are going to fix it next year, next year, next year,” he said.
According to DOE data, districts spend about $19,000 per pupil. Tierney argued that the state’s per-pupil “base adequacy aid” of around $3,700 doesn’t cover what the districts are obligated to provide in order for students to receive an adequate education. Instead, Tierney said, that base adequacy aid should be close to $10,000.
But Dan Will, the Solicitor General arguing for the state, said districts had failed to show what of their budget covered an “adequate education,” vs. other services the town decided to offer.
“If you’re trying to prove a deprivation of the constitutional right to an adequate education by asking everyone to look at your actual costs, it doesn’t really tell you anything,” he said.
The defendants stuck to their main argument – that districts have not distinguished between “actual” vs. “adequate” costs – even as some justices pushed Will on whether a district could fund itself with state aid alone.
“If a school district has to spend $4,000 per pupil just to fund building maintenance – and let’s assume that we find that’s part of an adequate education, because you need a building in which to educate children – isn’t that sufficient at that point, that you can’t provide a constitutionally adequate education for $3,500?” asked Associate Justice Patrick Donovan.
The Justices questioned the plaintiff’s calculations for education costs, and the impact of a judicial remedy to a perennial debate. Associate Justice Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi asked Tierney:
“There is a decision today but how does one keep up with changes in the cost items? We have COVID; people are doing remote learning; there may be fewer buildings. Things are going to change, and this number will not be static. So isn’t this just a budget event that’s going to go on every biennium?"
Parties involved in the case estimate that the court will issue a decision in 3 to 6 months. Among the options for the court is to fulfill requests by both parties, and send the case back to the Cheshire Superior Court for a trial.