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N.H.'s Obligation To Fund Education Is Affirmed by Court

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In a decision with profound implications for a state that trails the nationin financial support of schools, the New Hampshire Supreme Court has ruled the state is obligated to fund public education.

The unanimous decision late last month reversed a ruling by a lower court that found against a school-finance lawsuit filed by five property-poor districts.

New Hampshire ranks last among the 50 states in the percentage of funds it provides to public schools, supplying only about 7 percent of education spending.

The supreme court overturned Merrimack County Superior Court Judge George Manias's dismissal of the lawsuit.

Judge Manias ruled in 1992 that the state has no duty to fund education, since the state constitution only stipulates the "amorphous duty to 'cherish ... public schools' and 'encourage private and public institutions.'''(See Education Week, Sept. 23, 1992.)

Education leaders hailed the high court's ruling, saying it could help end fiscal inequities among school districts by forcing the Granite State to enact some type of sales or income tax.

"It's about time New Hampshire did it,'' said Richard H. Goodman, the director of the Center for Education Field Services at the University of New Hampshire.

"Of course we are very pleased by the decision,'' Arpiar G. Saunders Jr., the lead attorney for the five districts, said.

Some 70 percent of the state's 181,000 public school students live in districts with below-average property wealth, Mr. Saunders noted.

"So the decision should have a significant impact on the quality of education for the vast majority of New Hampshire's children,'' he said.

But, in a state where tax resistance is a deeply held tradition, creation of a revenue source to fund increased aid to education is likely to run into severe political opposition.

In his State of the State Address last week, Gov. Steven Merrill, a Republican, pledged to veto any effort to enact a broad-based tax to finance education.

"What the Supreme Court has said is, for the next few years we are going to have a vigorous discussion over qualitative standards of education and over the financial duty of the state to provide that basis of education,'' Mr. Merrill said in a statement released in response to the ruling.

"I don't shrink from that debate at all,'' he continued. "I look forward to it.''

Heavy Local Reliance

The five districts--Allenstown, Claremont, Franklin, Lisbon, and Pittsfield--filed the suit in 1991, contending that the state fails to provide adequate and equitable funding for its public schools.

Although other states have wider gaps between high- and low-spending districts, New Hampshire's situation is unique because local property taxes finance 90 percent of the cost of education. It is also the only state to have neither a sales nor an income tax.

On average nationwide, states provide about 50 percent of the cost of educating their students.

In the supreme court's 10-page ruling, Justice David A. Brock traced the history of New Hampshire education back to its Colonial roots, examining in particular the state's unique relationship with Massachusetts.

New Hampshire and Massachusetts were part of the same province between 1641 and 1679. When New Hampshire became a separate entity in 1680, the court noted, it "re-enacted the education laws of Massachusetts then in existence.''

Noting that the Massachusetts and New Hampshire constitutions contain nearly identical language on education, Justice Brock cited the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last June striking down that state's education-funding system. (See Education Week, June 23, 1993.)

Beyond Reading and Writing

The districts also asked the court to rule that New Hampshire's heavy reliance on property taxes to fund education is unconstitutional because it results in an "unreasonable, disproportionate, and burdensome tax.''

John H. Powers, the president of the New Hampshire Association of School Administrators, cited the example of Somersworth, a property-poor district where a $110,000 house might have a property tax of $5,000. But in affluent Newington, which has shoreline territory, an oil refinery, and two malls, that house might be taxed at $500, he said.

The supreme court ruled only on the issue of the state's constitutional duty to fund education, however, remanding the tax-equity question back to the trial court for further proceedings.

The court also declined to define an "adequate'' education or to suggest what means should be used to fund it, leaving such tasks to the legislature and governor.

But the court also added a cautionary note.

"Given the complexities of our society today, the state's constitutional duty extends beyond mere reading, writing, and arithmetic,'' the justices declared. "It also includes broad educational opportunities needed in today's society to prepare citizens for their role as participants and potential competitors in today's marketplace of ideas.''

Such language "certainly connotes an obligation of the state not to narrowly define what is constitutionally adequate, but ... that education has to be broadly defined,'' said Commissioner of Education Charles H. Marston.

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