by Ed Mosca
John Lynch claims he wants to define an adequate education first, and then “have a discussion as to its cost.” Don’t believe him. He already has a good idea of what his definition will cost, and he already knows how he wants to fund it. The problem we face is that the cost is in excess of $2 billion, which means we’re looking at an income tax if Lynch then doesn’t get his targeted-aid constitutional amendment passed. To borrow a phrase from Al Gore, Lynch’s approach to education funding is a risky scheme.
Lynch has proposed making the State's existing school approval standards and curriculum frameworks the “starting point” for defining an adequate education. The standards and frameworks are voluminous, covering in excruciating detail every aspect of the operation of the public schools from curriculum, class size and teacher qualifications to janitorial services. This means that what it has cost us to fund the public schools should give us a good idea of the minimum cost of Lynch’s definition. In 2004-2005, the most current school-year for which data is available, the cost was about $2.2 billion. No wonder, then, that Lynch wants to put off discussing the cost of his definition to another day.
While Lynch doesn’t want to talk about cost yet, his definition does provide that the resources needed to provide that education will “vary from school to school” based on students' needs, “requiring more resources in districts with greater challenges.” What this signals is that Lynch is going to bring back the funding scheme that he proposed in 2005.
In a nutshell, that scheme was based on a per pupil cost of an adequate education of $8,290.00. Each town was formulatically assigned a “measure of risk,” which was simply the percentage of the $8,290.00 that was to be funded by the State. For example, Allenstown = s measure of risk was .5733, which meant that the State would have paid 57.33%, or about $4,753.00 per pupil in that town. The remainder of the $8,290.00 per pupil cost, $3,357.00, would have been paid for with local property taxes. Londonderry, in contrast, was assigned only a .1465 measure of risk, which meant that it would have received only $1,215.00 of State funding per pupil. As a result, it would have had to pay for $7,075.00 of adequacy’s per pupil cost with local property taxes.
Substitute an updated per pupil cost of an adequate education, say between $9,000.00 and $10,000.00, for the $8,290.00 used in 2005 and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Lynch’s 2007 education funding scheme will look like. This explains why Lynch intends to offer a “narrow constitutional amendment” to allow the State to target aid before he unveils his funding scheme. Towns like Londonderry would not support his amendment if they knew how poorly they would fare under his funding scheme compared to towns like Allenstown.
The problem with Lynch’s approach is that it puts the cart before the horse. If his definition is passed, but his targeted aid amendment either is not passed by the Legislature or is passed but then loses at the ballot box in 2008, we will be forced to choose between increasing State taxes by more than $2 billion to comply with Claremont and confronting the Supreme Court. To borrow a couple of other phrases from Al Gore, Lynch is playing income tax roulette and gambling with the New Hampshire advantage.
The best course would be if the Legislature did not define an adequate education. Let the Court be the one to tell the people of New Hampshire that their constitutional right to an adequate education comes with a $2 billion income tax string attached. Then we’ll have a true idea of just how popular the right to an adequate education is with the voters.
Given that Democrats and Republicans-in-name-only make up a plurality of the Legislature, that obviously is not going to happen. What conservatives need to do is to make it clear to everyone that a vote for Lynch’s definition of an adequate education is a vote for an income tax because there is no guarantee that Lynch’s targeted aid amendment will pass.
Conservatives also should not allow themselves to be stampeded into voting for a constitutional amendment. They need to take a long, hard look at Lynch’s targeted aid amendment, and oppose any amendment that writes any aspect of the misbegotten Claremont decisions into the constitution because such an amendment will make a bad situation worse.