NH education funding ruling draws divided reactions 

By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 11-24-2023 4:33 AM

A pair of court rulings finding the state’s education funding levels to be unconstitutionally low have set off a range of political reactions — from vows to take action to rejection.

In two decisions released Monday, Rockingham County Superior Court judge David Ruoff ruled that the state’s current $4,100 minimum amount paid per pupil is far too low and should be at least $7,356.01 instead. He also found that the current Statewide Education Property Tax unfairly benefits wealthy towns and that those towns should not be allowed to keep any excess payments.

The decisions are likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court. But if upheld, they could compel the Legislature to make broad changes to the state’s funding formula. That prospect has prompted varying responses.

Public school advocates hailed the rulings as validation that New Hampshire schools have been underfunded by the state.

Under the current formula, the state pays for between a quarter and a third of what school districts spend per student — the majority is paid through local property taxes. Ruoff held that that low proportion means the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education.

Zack Sheehan, executive director of the New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project, an advocacy group promoting broad changes to New Hampshire’s school funding formula, called the rulings “big wins” for taxpayers and students.

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“The State has abdicated its constitutional responsibility to fund education for too long, and these rulings, just ahead of the upcoming legislative session, send a powerful signal that the state needs to get to work bringing school funding in line with 30 years of legal precedent,” Sheehan said.

New Hampshire teacher unions also praised the rulings. National Education Association of New Hampshire President Megan Tuttle said in a statement the decisions “confirm what we have known all along — the State of New Hampshire has failed to adequately fund public education, instead downshifting costs to local communities.”

Democratic lawmakers expressed immediate interest in pressing for additional state funding to meet the court’s new directive — even if the decisions are likely to be frozen as they await a Supreme Court appeal.

“Our caucus will closely review the court decisions released today, and we will examine legislative action to ensure that a constitutional formula is enacted,” said Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy, a Manchester Democrat.

In the House, Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm called the rulings an opportunity for legislative action. “I look forward to working with the Republican majority, as we did this spring in the state budget, to develop bipartisan solutions to meet our constitutional obligation to fully fund public education,” Wilhelm said in his own statement.

Republican House and Senate leaders did not have immediate public reactions to the rulings. But any increase to the state’s school funding adequacy formula — particularly one from $4,100 to more than $7,356 — would be a difficult political lift. This year, armed with flush state revenues, the Republican-led Legislature increased the base amount of state aid per student from about $3,800 to $4,100. Raising it to $7,356 would involve at least $537.6 million in spending every year, a more than 50% increase to what the state already spends.

Instead of discussing the funding implications, some Republicans and conservatives criticized the decision itself and appeared ready to wait for the Supreme Court to weigh in on appeal.

Gov. Chris Sununu called it an “overreach” of the court’s authority and said the matter should be handled by the Legislature.

The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank, contended that Ruoff’s reasoning in arriving at the $7,356 minimum figure was flawed. The court should not have relied on what public schools are already spending to determine what an adequate education costs, the center said in a statement.

“Trying to figure out the true cost of an adequate education by measuring what monopoly school districts spend is like trying to figure out the true cost of package delivery by measuring Post Office prices before the arrival of FedEx and UPS,” the center wrote. “The truth is that absent a competitive marketplace for education, no one knows what an adequate education really costs. All we know is what government school districts spend, and that’s not the same thing.”

Ruoff, in his ruling, said his figure was a conservative estimate based on average teachers and staff salaries as well as facility and material costs. And asserted that even the $7,356 per pupil would likely not be enough to run a school district without needing additional funding sources.

Some Republicans had other takeaways.

“Big news for all the students using an EFA who just got a 80% increase in funding!” wrote Rep. Ross Berry, a Manchester Republican, on X, the website formally known as Twitter. Berry was referring to the Education Freedom Account program; participants of that program receive the same per-pupil amounts that go to public schools but can use the money toward nonpublic school and homeschool expenses as well.