N.H. High Court Refuses School-Aid Case Pending Ruling on 'Merits'
Ruling that the "fundamental threshold issue" of whether students in wealthier New Hampshire school districts actually do better academically than those in poorer districts remains unresolved, the state Supreme Court has sent a challenge to the state's school-finance system back to a lower court for further proceedings.
In a three-page order, the justices argued that despite a "massive record" of background material in the suit, the lower court had not made findings of fact on that central issue. The justices said they did not intend to go through the "thousands of pages" to do so themselves, but noted that without such a determination, there would be no point in considering broader constitutional issues raised by the seven property-poor districts that brought the suit against the state in 1981.
Court's Orders a Surprise
The court's orders, issued late last month, came as a surprise to the lawyer representing the plaintiff districts, because the plaintiffs had expected, the lawyer said, that the supreme court would resolve several constitutional questions about students' right to equal educational opportunity before sending the case back to a lower court for trial on the merits.
The plaintiffs claim, for example, that average per-pupil expenditures range from $900 to $1,000 in school districts with low tax bases to about $4,000 in the wealthiest districts.
The state has acknowledged in court documents that disparities in per-pupil expenditures do exist among school districts, but contends that the plaintiff school districts have not proved that those differences have an impact on student achievement.
In returning the case to Merrimack County Superior Court, the supreme court said that since there is disagreement between the state and the plaintiffs on the relationship between expenditures and quality, it must be addressed before the case can continue. The high court has asked Superior Court Judge William Cann to decide, in effect, whether such factors as building conditions, equipment, and teachers' experience make a difference in students' academic performance and therefore should be considered in the case.
Arthur H. Nighswander, lawyer for the plaintiffs, said last week that the state supreme court's orders were "unexpected" and would result in a substantial delay in the case.
The suit, Jesseman v. State of New Hampshire, was filed in October 1981 by school districts with relatively low property-tax bases. The districts argued that the state's system of financing the public schools relies far too heavily on local property taxes, resulting in inequities among districts.
Furthermore, they contend, although the state created a foundation-aid program to assist poor districts, the legislature has never appropriated enough money to carry out the purpose of the fund.
This year, the foundation received about $3.6 million in state funds for distribution to local districts, far less than the $50 million needed for full funding, according to the New Hampshire Department of Education.
7 Percent State Aid
Based on 1981-82 data, New Hampshire contributed the lowest proportion of state aid to local schools in the nation; only about 7 percent of the schools' total revenue comes from the state, compared with a national average of 48 percent.
"Our case is built on the issue of [equal educational] opportunity,'' said Mr. Nighswander. "Whether you spend the money wisely or unwisely is another question."
A new factor in the discussion of quality in New Hampshire's schools is a recent report from the U.S. Education Department that ranked New Hampshire students first in the nation on Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.
Citing the influence of the rankings, Mr. Nighswander said, "There's been a lot of talk about sat's; it's now become a political issue. But that's really irrelevant to the case."
Leslie Ludtke, the assistant state attorney general who is represent-ing the state in the case, declined to comment on the court's action. In recent court documents, the state reiterates its contentions that public education is not a fundamental right under the state constitution and that the state is not required to provide equal funding for all school districts.
Question of Cost and Quality
According to Mr. Nighswander, the state has raised the question of cost and quality, saying that there is insufficient evidence linking student achievement with the amount of money spent by each district. "They're saying what goes out isn't necessarily determined by what goes in," he explained.
"Our case is built on input," Mr. Nighswander said. "What we're doing is comparing districts with low property taxes with those with high property taxes. What we're saying is this violates the Equal Protection clause."
"We don't care how the legislature funds [education]," Mr. Nighswander added. "We only say they have a duty to help districts that don't have an adequate tax base."
As of last week, no hearings had been scheduled in Merrimack County Superior Court to consider the state supreme court's orders.