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N.H. Districts Still Pursue Finance Suit After Court Setback

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Despite a recent defeat in state court, a group of 35 low-wealth school districts in New Hampshire is planning to continue its challenge to the state's school-finance system.

The plaintiffs are currently awaiting a response by Merrimack County Superior Court Judge George L. Manias to a motion to reconsider his decision last month upholding the existing method of funding the schools.

If Judge Manias does not alter his opinion, the plaintiffs will appeal the case in the state supreme court, said Arpiar Saunders, a lawyer for the districts.

The ruling was handed down amid an intensifying clash over a proposal by the state board of education to eliminate certain statewide minimum standards, including caps on classroom size and requirements for hiring art, music, and physical-education teachers.

The debate has pitted the board against Commissioner of Education Charles H. Marston, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, and the state school boards association, who contend that dropping the standards could exacerbate the disparities between rich and poor districts.

"I was very disappointed,'' said Judith Reever, the president of the school boards group. "If it isn't the right of all children in the state of New Hampshire to have equity in education, then I'm living in the wrong state.''

No Constitutional Mandate

In their suit, the poor districts contend that the state fails to provide adequate and equitable funding to its public schools. Per-pupil spending for the 1990-91 school year ranged from $2,899 in Milan to $9,554 in Newington.

Although the gap between the highest- and lowest-spending districts is not as wide as in some other states, New Hampshire's finance system is exceptional in that virtually all school funding comes from local property taxes. The state has neither an income nor a sales tax.

State education aid has consistently made up about 7 percent of districts' budgets, according to Sally D. Fellows, an analyst at the state education department.

In the state with the next-lowest share of state funding, Nebraska, state aid provides 23.5 percent of district budgets, according to the Education Commission of the States. On average nationwide, states provide about half of local school spending.

In his ruling last month, however, Judge Manias dismissed the plaintiffs' claims on the grounds that the state constitution "contains no language regarding equity, uniformity, or even adequacy of education.''

He noted the constitution does not impose either a qualitative standard of education that must be met or any quantifiable financial obligations.

"There is no mention of funding or even of 'providing' or 'maintaining' education,'' he wrote. "The only 'duty' set forth is the amorphous duty to 'cherish ... public schools' and 'to encourage private and public institutions.'''

Leaders of the school systems involved in the suit said they were dissatisfied with the decision. "My personal reaction to it is, if you cherish and promote something, how do you do it unless you are willing to support it with money and backing?'' asked Carl Hesse, the interim superintendent in Claremont, one of the five districts that initiated the suit in 1991.

Clash Over Standards

Members of the state board argue that their proposal would put a greater emphasis on student achievement, rather than resources, and would strengthen local control of education.

Critics charge, however, that the proposal could widen the gap between rich and poor districts, because the standards are needed to justify local education expenditures.

Commissioner Marston said he opposed dumping the standards without any comprehensive plan in place to help schools restructure and develop their own new standards.

"I've taken the position that deregulation by itself is not good public policy and [is] unlikely to bring about the kind of systemic improvement that we would acknowledge is needed in public education,'' he said.

The board was scheduled to hold hearings and to vote on the proposal this week.

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