SOME INCONVENIENT TRUTHS ABOUT EDUCATION FUNDING

By Ed Mosca

It’s about time that some of the myths being ventilated about education funding get cleared up. So let’s start with three that are particularly relevant to the current legislative effort to define an adequate education by the Court’s July 1, 2007 deadline:

Myth #1: “If the Legislature doesn’t define an adequate education, the Supreme Court will do it for them.” The truth is that for as long as the Legislature and the Governor continue doing the Claremont kowtow, the Court, not the Legislature, will be the branch of government that ultimately sets education policy. This should come as no surprise because the Court said just that in Claremont I. Specifically, it said that it is the Legislature’s task “in the first instance” to define adequacy. In plain English, the Court gave itself the power to rewrite some or all of the definition.

Even a cursory review of the Claremont litigation demonstrates that the contention that the Court will defer to the legislative definition cannot be taken seriously. In response to Claremont I, the State Board of Education wrote a definition of an adequate education. In Claremont II, the Court struck down that definition without ever giving any substantive reasons why the definition wasn’t any good, and then decreed that the definition of an adequate education must be based on seven guidelines taken from a 1989 decision by the Supreme Court of Kentucky. The Legislature then dutifully wrote a definition that parroted the Kentucky case. In Londonderry I, the Court rejected that definition because it did not “allow for an objective determination of costs,” and told the Legislature that they had until July 1, 2007 to write a proper definition or else.

The Court’s jurisprudence makes it clear that it considers any legislative definition of an adequate education merely a rough draft for the Court to edit as it sees fit.

Myth #2: “Defining an adequate education will allow us to finally determine the cost, which will allow us to adequately fund the schools.” What a crock. One cannot look at the components of whatever we decide an adequate education is, and determine their respective costs. It is not like pricing a cheeseburger. With the cheeseburger, one can accurately figure the cost of the patty, the cheese, the bun, the lettuce, the ketchup and mustard, and what you’d need to pay someone to put it together. Try doing that with “proficient in calculus,” “fluent in French” and “knows American history.” It’s impossible.

What’s more, numerous other variables, besides funding, affect education performance. These include the competence of administrators, the quality of teachers, the talents and motivations of students and the involvement of parents. Because of these variables, the cost of an adequate education necessarily varies not just by school district and not just by school, but by student. As a result, even if one could somehow figure a generic cost of, for example, “proficient in calculus,” one would still need to account for, on a student-by-student basis, the effect of non-financial variables to reliably figure the actual cost.

If adequate funding is the real goal, then give parents vouchers that can be used at any school, private or public. That will get the dollars where they should go.

Myth #3: The purpose of the constitution’s education clause was to make education an entitlement. According to the Court, the purpose of the education clause of the New Hampshire Constitution was that students get career skills: “Mere competence in the basics –reading, writing, and arithmetic– is insufficient in the waning days of the twentieth century to insure that this State’s public school students are fully integrated into the world around them. A broad exposure to the social, economic, scientific, technological, and political realities of today’s society is essential for our students to compete, contribute and flourish in the twenty-first century.”

While the founding generation was high on public education, it wasn’t to prepare students to compete in a global economy against the English and the French. Rather, public education was seen as the best means to preserve the republican governments they had established. The founders believed that a virtuous and enlightened citizenry would be the best check against the tendencies of governments to become corrupt and tyrannical. The irony of the Claremont decisions, then, is that the Court, in the name of effectuating the constitution’s education clause, has engaged in the very sort of governmental overreaching that the State’s founders hoped that public education would thwart.