by Peter Bearse Ph.D.

Thanks are due to the state senators who voted against release of CACR18 and/or CACR19 from committee – bills that would amend the state constitution to effectively transfer education from local to state control. We now have a chance to take a deep breath, give the education issue(s) more careful consideration, and formulate a more proactive approach to reform of an educational system that has become a “bottomless pit” of financial requirements that threatens imposition of either state income or property taxes.

Besides preservation of local control, the other key issue is educational “adequacy.” A major problem with debates over the Governor’s proposed constitutional amendment was the separation of adequacy from amendment even though the two went together like hand in glove. This made the amendment a fraud on the public because the “fiscal note” to the bill defining “adequacy” claimed “no fiscal impact.” This claim was, at best, misleading and, at worst, an outright lie since independent estimates of the additional financing it would take to honor the Supreme Court’s “Claremont” decision ranged $0.5-1.4 billion. State income tax, here we come!

What the debate ignored is the fact that local control and “adequacy” go together. Proponents of the amendment assumed that a more centralized system, in terms of state funding, standards and “accountability,” would be needed to address the Court’s intrusion into education, something tha is, constitutionally, the prerogative of the legislative branch of state government.

The key for a systematic solution of the educational issue is to recognize that decentralized, local control of education and NOT centralized state control, is the answer. If there is one lesson that has been learned worldwide since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is that centralized, bureaucratic systems do not work. What works is competitive market (private sector) or market-like (public sector) systems. Unless we want to repeat the mistakes of states proven to be dysfunctional, like California, for example, the only appropriate state role in the educational system is to promote competition and accountability, and NOT to assume responsibility for funding and standard-setting (curriculum, et al.). Competition provides incentives for innovation and a search for excellence and not just “adequacy” [which would devolve into lowest common denominator “teaching to the test”].

The state of NH could promote competition in a variety of ways; e.g., by promoting school choice (vouchers, et al.), charter schools and home schooling, and providing a competitive educational innovation grants program. The state should assume responsibility for “accountability” by establishing an educational performance benchmarking (PBM) program. The word “should” is appropriate here because no individual school is likely to have the resources to collect and analyze all the data that would enable it to learn where it stands, performance-wise, relative to other schools in the state, region or nation.

A well-designed accountability information system would also help promote competition. When schools and teachers actually see where they stand in terms of PBM measures and indicators relative to school leaders, they would want to take steps to improve, and they could see specifically where improvements were called for if their performance was lagging.