Carolyn McKinney - The Legislature Must Assert its Authority Over Education

By Carolyn McKinney, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire.

The incumbent Republican Legislature has competently delivered on promises to balance the state budget, reduce the size of government and encourage private-sector economic growth, but in the area of educational funding reform, this Legislature has unfortunately wavered in its commitment to local control of education and must reverse course for the good of the families of New Hampshire.
 
The Legislature is now considering “compromise” language for an educational funding amendment to the state Constitution (CACR 12). But the language being considered risks permanently damaging the founders' intended relationship among children, parents, local communities and the state by firmly establishing a centralized, one-size-fits-all system that will ensure no child's education is ever more than “adequate.” This runs completely contrary to the spirit of the state of New Hampshire.

Granted, the Supreme Court in its infamous Claremont decisions has already sent New Hampshire down the path to centralized control of education, but the Legislature was never bound by the court's erroneous opinion that the word “cherish” in Part 2, Article 83 of the Constitution somehow means “pay for.”

After all, the Constitution is very clear about when the Legislature must pay for something, as it is in Part 1, Article 15 when it says the people have the right to counsel “at the expense of the state.” The Constitution is also very clear that the Legislature has the authority to set state education policy when it says in Part 1, Article 12 that New Hampshire citizens are not “controllable by any other laws than those to which they, or their representative body, have given their consent.”

Thus, the Legislature should act without hesitation on education statutes that slowly restore a system in which local communities pay for their own schools and set their own educational standards, just like Part 1, Article 6 now says: “the several … [local] bodies … shall at all times have the right of electing their own teachers, and of contracting with them for their support or maintenance, or both.” The Legislature could always decide to supplement the cost of education for local bodies―or not.

If the state were to continue to set standards for education, those standards should be recommendations rather than requirements, which would allow parents, working with local communities, to adjust those standards as they see fit to ensure their children receive an excellent education, and not just an adequate one. Parents and local communities are much better equipped to deal with the needs of local children than bureaucrats in Concord.

If any constitutional amendment is needed, it is one to give the Legislature “full power and authority to mitigate local disparities in educational opportunity and fiscal capacity” so the Legislature could provide more local aid to communities that need it and less or none to those that don't. CACR 12, this term's constitutional amendment on educational funding reform, should be used solely for this purpose. A resulting funding formula could be based on any number of policies, but in any event, those policies should be set by the Legislature. 

Additionally, the Legislature should present a constitutional amendment to the people that cleans up the language of Part 1, Article 6 to clarify that parents, working with local communities, are responsible for the “support and maintenance of teachers and schools … and of defining and establishing their own curricula.” CACR 8, a constitutional amendment still alive in the House, could be used to advance this language.

Unfortunately, the current compromise language for CACR 12 would permanently enshrine the Claremont decisions in the constitution, giving the Legislature “the responsibility to maintain a system of public elementary and secondary education” (emphasis added). If the Supreme Court can bend the meaning of the word “cherish” to mean “pay for,” what will it do with the phrase “responsibility to maintain”? This language will certainly lead to higher taxation to make sure none of the state's public schools ever fall below their current level of funding.

But that's not the worst of it. The compromise language also gives the Legislature “full power and authority to make wholesome and reasonable standards for elementary and secondary public education.” This change to the constitution could remove parents and local communities from the educational decision-making process, and the state Legislature would take total control over what children are taught at school. To anyone who cherishes the traditional role of parents to raise and educate their own children, sometimes in partnership with local communities, this would be a troublesome development.