CONCORD (AP) — New Hampshire’s decades-long debate over school funding again landed in front of the state Supreme Court on Thursday, when justices began reviewing a trial court ruling that left both sides unsatisfied.
In several landmark rulings in the 1990s, the court ruled that the state is required to provide and pay for an adequate education. In response, the Legislature began sending each school district a set amount of aid per pupil — currently $3,636 — but four districts in southwestern New Hampshire sued the state and the education commissioner last year, arguing the formula used to set that amount is unconstitutional because it doesn’t account for the real costs of transportation, teachers, or facilities.
A trial judge agreed but declined to order the amount be nearly tripled as the plaintiffs requested, prompting both sides to appeal to the high court.
“What we ask of the court is that the court issue a specific injunction prohibiting the governor and the commissioner from underfunding the petitioning school districts and make sure they receive the full $9,929,” said Michael Tierney, the attorney for the Contoocook Valley, Mascenic, Winchester, and Monadnock school districts.
Not a single district in the state can or does provide an adequate education with the allotted amount, he said, and all spend at least $12,000 per pupil. But Solicitor General Dan Will, representing the state, said those numbers don’t prove that the districts have been deprived of their constitutional rights.
“That’s sort of like trying to divine the cost of say, an engine, by looking at the sticker price of a car,” he said. “The real disparity is between actual costs and what adequacy costs are. Actual does not equal adequacy.”
While the court considers the case, a commission created by the Legislature to study school funding continues its work. Earlier this month, it released a report that concluded that current system is inequitable for both students and taxpayers. The report, prepared by the American Institutes for Research, found that poorer communities have higher tax rates, fewer educational resources and lower student outcomes.
The commission, which will submit recommendations for the next Legislative session, has been discussing a model based on the relationship between spending and student outcomes such as assessment scores and graduation rates.