In the nearly 20 years since state the Supreme Court issued its landmark Claremont II decision calling for equal access to an adequate education, significant disparities among communities persist, according to a recent report by the N.H. Center for Public Policy Studies.
Claremont School District v Governor of New Hampshire led to the allocation of additional state money for communities in need, yet these districts still lack sufficient funds from local resources such as property taxes.
That comes as no surprise to Middleton McGoodwin, Superintendent of the Claremont School District.
"The elephant in the room is that zip code and tax rate, those two components, are impacting opportunities for students," McGoodwin said on The Exchange. "Where a child lives should not determine the quality of their public education. In our country, everyone should have the opportunity to get ahead, everyone should have the opportunity to a free and appropriate education. But, in truth, in New Hampshire as well as other parts of our country, where a child lives determines their future.”
Though property taxes have increased in the last two decades, McGoodwin said, "lack of revenue is where the challenge is."
The report also found that if current trends in state demographics and state aid continue, by fiscal year 2022, the state could be paying approximately $16 million less to public school education than in fiscal year 2017.
Steve Norton, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Studies, said that at the time of the lawsuit, the state was contributing about $100 million to education. "And this opened the door to a conversation about just how much of an obligation it is for the state to take on here. . . And really, that's been the debate ever since: How much?"
Most education aid is provided on a per-student basis. After the Claremont decision, certain school districts, mainly those in rural communities that are most impacted by the statewide decline in student enrollment, received stabilization grants. These provide additional funding per pupil to help school districts maintain education standards.
The report found that stabilization grants do not overcome the wide discrepancy in local property tax rates between the wealthiest communities and the poorest. Local property taxes contribute significantly to local education. So even with additional money from stabilization grants, communities with lower property taxes still struggle to fund public education.
Norton said that the study is a reminder to policymakers that "property-poor towns are having a very hard time meeting their obligations with their existing resources, even though we've targeted aid effectively throughout the state."
One proposed solution: a constitutional amendment that explicitly guarantees targeted funding for poorer districts.
John Tobin, one of the lawyers on the team that brought the Claremont lawsuit, opposes the idea.
“No constitutional amendment that’s ever been proposed would actually do that. If you look at the most recent one … it actually is a permanent hall pass for the legislature. What it says is they have complete discretion about what they do, including to do nothing or very little. None of them have ever said there’s a duty to provide targeted aid. What the amendments do—what they’ve always proposed to do—is just give the legislature discretion in the hope that there might be targeted aid.”
David Juvet, of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire, supports the idea of an amendment but says the state would have to go about crafting it with great care.
"We need to recognize that if we're really going to go down the targeting road, some communities, more affluent communities, might be getting less than they're receiving now," Juvet said. "And if we can't get over that, then we're not going to be successful in coming up with a meaningful targeting program."
The report concluded that districts in Colebook, Hinsdale, Greenville, Lancaster, Berlin, Northumberland, and Newport could see a reduction by more than 10 percent in state aid over the next five years and would have to make up for that loss in other ways, such as increasing property taxes.
For the full Exchange conversation, listen here.