NO SHAME AND NO SENSE

By Edward C. Mosca

In an Op-Ed in the February 2nd Union Leader, ersatz Republican Mark Carter called for a grand compromise on education funding: a constitutional amendment that allows “targeted aid,” but that also “allows for legal action should the state ever abuse its obligation to our communities.” Now I’m just as opposed to obligation abuse as the next person, but think for a minute about what this lovely euphemism means. It means that whenever anyone doesn’t like the result produced by democracy, he can run into court and sue to get his way.

Ersatz Republican Carter claims that this “preserves the checks and balances power of the judicial branch.” What poppycock. The way that our system of government is supposed to work is that in matters of policy, and that includes education funding, we are supposed to attempt to persuade each other, and then decide the issue by voting. We are not supposed to sue each other.

Carter’s amendment would also write into the State Constitution the canard that the quality of public education is determined by the amount we spend on public education as it requires the State to provide financial assistance whenever a school district lacks the “fiscal capacity” to provide the “opportunity for an adequate education.” This myopic approach ignores that a variety of factors affect education performance besides spending. These include the competence of administrators, the quality of teachers, the talent and motivation of students and the involvement of parents. Because of these variables, the cost of an “adequate education” varies not just by school district, but by student. This means that in order to reliably calculate the cost of an “adequate education” the calculation must be done on a student-by-student basis and the calculation must account for the particular effect of non-financial variables on each student’s performance.

For this and other reasons, defining an “adequate education” and determining its cost is the proverbial fool’s errand. Yet Carter would make this fool’s errand a permanent part of the State Constitution. What Carter and his ilk apparently don’t understand is that the State does not have an education funding problem it has dysfunctional government.

We have thrown billions of additional dollars at our public schools since Claremont II was issued in 1997. According to the U.S. Census, on a per pupil basis we were the 17th biggest spending state in the country for 2003-2004. Yet there is no evidence that this spending has increased the quality of public education in New Hampshire, and we keep hearing that we need to spend more. Education funding is not a problem in the sense that the public schools are not getting enough money. They are getting more than enough by any objective standard. Education funding is a problem only in the sense that no amount of spending will ever satisfy some folks.

The real problem is that the members of the representative branches of State government have been running around like chickens with their heads cuts off for a decade --convening commissions, hiring consultants and holding hearings-- all because they have been told that the Supreme Court has said that it is their constitutional “duty” to do so. Have these folks no shame or sense?

Why in the world are we letting five lawyers in black robes drive the State’s education policy? They have no special training in setting education policy or budgets and far less regular exposure than elected officials to the conditions in the public schools. They must wait for the appropriate lawsuit to set education policy, whereas legislative bodies can change education policy as often as necessary. They are limited to listening only to the litigants’ hired-gun “expert witnesses,” whereas legislative bodies can listen to anyone who might be helpful. Most importantly, unlike elected officials, judges in New Hampshire are unaccountable to those affected by their decisions.

There will always be those, like ersatz Republican Carter, who maintain that the democratic process hasn’t produced an adequate education. But even assuming this is true, there is no reason to believe, as Carter and his ilk assert, that making education policy in the courtroom would improve things. As Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others that have been tried. Making education policy in the courtroom, which is all that Carter’s grand compromise would accomplish, is as likely to give us an adequate education as Soviet style central planning is likely to give us an adequate economy.