N.H. Weighs Education Adequacy; Shaheen Unveils Funding Proposal

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What's adequate for one state might not be adequate for another.

At least that's what the members of a New Hampshire group, handpicked by the governor, have learned during their quest to define "educational adequacy."

The panel, which is expected to wrap up its work this week, is responding to the state supreme court's decision in December in Claremont School District v. Governor. In that case, the high court ruled that the state's heavy reliance on local property taxes for funding public education violated the state constitution's guarantee of an adequate education for New Hampshire children.

The court left it up to the state to define an adequate education, put a price tag on it, and find the money to pay for it.

Gov. Jeanne Shaheen

For nearly a month, the working group--which includes business and education representatives--has been sifting through education laws from other states to find models to follow and settle on an "adequacy" definition that best suits New Hampshire.

The court recommended that lawmakers start by following the example of Kentucky, which enacted a far-reaching school reform law in 1990 in the wake of a similar court decision there. But the panel is also looking at the wording of education legislation in North Carolina and has read material about how several other states arrived at their definitions.

Debating Adequacy

The governor-appointed committee isn't the only group tackling this task. Legislators in the state Senate and House are also working on a definition.

"It seemed that everyone wanted to do their own thing," said Dean Michener, the director of information services for the New Hampshire School Boards Association. "At some point, when we're going through the hearing process, some combination of all of these will get churned up together."

Meanwhile, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, has unveiled her plan for financing whatever educational standards New Hampshire decides to adopt.

Calling it Advancing Better Classrooms--or the ABC plan--Ms. Shaheen has recommended setting a uniform local property-tax rate across the state, which would replace the basic "foundation aid" funding that schools now receive.

Her plan, she argues, would preserve local control because the property-rich towns and counties that raise more than they need to deliver an adequate education would be able to keep the extra money.

Running the Numbers

Those districts that can't raise enough to meet the standard would get supplemental state funding.

It's estimated that the governor's plan would cost somewhere between $100 million and $200 million a year, depending on the ultimate per-pupil cost. Ms. Shaheen has recommended a 23-cent hike in the state cigarette tax to generate $43 million of the money.

To run some numbers, the governor has been using a hypothetical cost per student of $4,500. But Andru Volinsky, the lawyer for the five poor districts that filed the Claremont lawsuit, said he is "worried that [that figure] will stick."

"It's based on a definition that excludes capital outlay, transportation, and other costs," he said last week.

He added that he believes Gov. Shaheen's plan would "allow significant disparities in tax burdens to continue."

"It's a completely politically motivated effort to keep from rankling anyone," he asserted. "The ABC plan flunks."

Several other options for financing schools--including a statewide property tax and an income tax--have also been proposed. Currently, no other state relies more heavily on local property taxes to pay for schools. Less than 10 percent of what is spent on education comes from the state.

A telephone survey of 372 state legislators, conducted by the Concord Monitor newspaper, found that the governor's plan might have the best chance of getting serious attention.

A total of 169 legislators said they would vote for Ms. Shaheen's funding proposal, while another 97 said they were still undecided on the ABC plan.

On the other hand, only 106 said they would support a constitutional amendment to overrule the court and keep the current funding system--an idea backed by Republican Sen. James M. Rubens, the chairman of the Senate education committee and a candidate for governor.

Another 67 legislators said they hadn't decided if they would support an amendment.

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