N.H. Court: Accountability A Constitutional Duty
New Hampshire's highest court, in a decision that school finance experts around the country will likely be studying in the coming months, has ruled that the Granite State is not doing enough to hold local schools accountable for the quality of education they provide.
The new ruling comes in the state's 11-year-old finance case. But rather than address education funding issues this time around, the court focused on whether having a strong accountability system is part of the state's constitutional duty to provide an "adequate education."
On that score, the New Hampshire Supreme Court said in its April 11 opinion, "we conclude that the state needs to do more work." And inadequate funding, the court added, is no excuse for the state to relax its expectations.
Nationally, school finance experts said the decision was important because the New Hampshire court could be the first of the states' high courts to view school accountability as a constitutional issue in and of itself—separate from questions of whether the state is providing fair and adequate funding.
"I haven't heard anybody say that anywhere, and I haven't heard anybody litigate on that," said John G. Augenblick, a Denver-based consultant who has helped several states overhaul their systems of paying for precollegiate education.
The court's decision, which came on a 3-2 vote, was the 10th in a case brought by five New Hampshire towns with little property wealth. The towns, known as the Claremont coalition, successfully charged that the state's education finance system was unfair because it relied too heavily on local communities to pay for schools.
For many New Hampshirites, though, the ruling is just the latest blow in a case that has already forced the state to adopt a new funding system for its schools and a new statewide property tax to help pay for it. ("N.H. Lawmakers OK Finance Plan, But Debate Lives On," July 11, 2001.)
"It is unfortunate that a majority of the supreme court has seen fit to continue to interfere in a legislative issue, " said Speaker of the House Gene G. Chandler, a Republican. "It is time for that thin majority to let this legislature do its job without repeated judicial interference."
Not Far Enough
Like the Claremont case itself, the question of how—and whether—the state should hold schools accountable for education results has been sensitive in New Hampshire, which is famous for its penchant for local control.
The state has curricular standards, tests students in grades 3, 6, and 10 on their ability to meet those standards, and reports the results. But, there are no student- performance targets that districts have to meet, and districts are not required to develop plans for improving student test scores.
"An output-based accountability system that merely encourages local school districts to meet educational standards does not fulfill the state's constitutional duty," the justices said in their majority opinion.
The court also criticized the state because it allows financially strapped districts some leeway when they cannot meet minimum state requirements for facilities and personnel.
"The state may not take the position that the minimum standards form an essential component of the delivery of a constitutionally adequate education and yet allow for the financial constraints of a school or school district to excuse compliance with those standards," the justices wrote.
In contrast, the state and the two dissenting justices argued that New Hampshire's existing standards and testing system adequately met the state's constitutional duty.
Nonetheless, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, seemed to endorse the majority opinion in a written statement on the case. "What was a good idea is now a constitutional requirement," said Gov. Shaheen, who has been a persistent advocate for tougher school accountability measures.
She also noted that the new law reauthorizing the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act already requires the state to take a firmer hand with lagging schools than it has in the past.
Under the law, known as the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, schools that fail to meet their growth targets after four years could be closed, taken over by the state, turned into charter schools, or put under private management.
The federal law was a catalyst for a bill in the current state legislative session that would inject a measure of accountability into the state's schools. Sponsored by Sen. Jane E. O'Hearn, the Republican chairwoman of the upper chamber's education committee, the bill would set statewide educational goals, require districts to draw up improvement plans, rank districts according to their test scores, and form a commission to examine how New Hampshire schools should comply with the new federal law's requirements. It passed the Senate on a party-line vote soon after the supreme court decision, and was overwhelmingly approved by the state House of Representatives last Thursday.
But Ms. O'Hearn acknowledged that the bill still might not have the teeth that some accountability proponents have called for. "You can't put teeth into legislation unless you have schools buying in to what the teeth are," she said.
Experts said it's too soon to tell whether the New Hampshire court decision will inspire other state courts to follow suit.
What is clear, said James W. Guthrie, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., is that courts are increasingly prodding states to take a stronger hand in their schools.
"In state after state," he said, "courts are ruling that the state has plenary authority and it better exercise it, and you can no longer claim local control as an excuse."
Vol. 21, Issue 33, Pages 18,21