The New Hampshire Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday in a case that’s the latest in a decades-long debate over whether the state pays enough for public education.
Multiple New Hampshire School Districts are suing the state for not meeting its constitutional obligation to fund an adequate education for all students.
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NHPR’s Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Natalie Laflamme, one of the attorneys representing districts who support the lawsuit.
Note: This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity
Rick Ganley: Can you first explain what this case means in the context of this long, drawn out battle that’s between public schools in the state?
Natalie Laflamme: Sure. So, as you correctly said, this is a long, long battle. The first Claremont decision [when] the first time the court declared this constitutional right came out in 1993, just for reference for everybody. And more or less people have been fighting about it ever since. So this recent lawsuit, as you said, was brought by four school districts in the southwestern part of the state. Our amicus brief represents 26 other school districts throughout the state. We have big districts, small districts, regional districts, rural, urban. And it really just shows not only how long this has been happening, but that it affects so many people in the state, a really diverse number of districts.
Rick Ganley: And, of course, it always hinges on this definition of of an adequate education. And again, to be clear, you’re not arguing in front of the Supreme Court today, but as you said, you’re filing a brief on behalf of additional districts who say the state’s current funding formula is unconstitutional. What essentially is the argument?
Natalie Laflamme: So the argument that the petitioners made — theirs was a little more focused on themselves in a way. So they argued that the state owed them a certain amount of money. Because of their definition of adequate education, they left out a number of important factors that their districts had to pay for, specifically transportation, building costs, school nurses, superintendent. So their argument to the trial court was the state is not funding all of these categories that go into adequate education. They owe us money. And the trial court ended up looking at the statute. The court said this is unconstitutional. It’s irrational, doesn’t make any sense. It’s clearly doesn’t meet an adequate number.
But the state has appealed that. And so we, the amicus, have come in and just said the trial court was absolutely right. And the other issue at play here, besides adequate education, is about taxing fairly. So to fund that adequate education, we rely on property taxes. And another constitutional obligation of the state is to fund those proportionately, to tax proportionately. So our brief really focuses a lot on that issue, which the trial court didn’t reach. And we also back up the petitioners and say on the adequacy argument they’re right. The court’s right. This is completely irrational and unconstitutional.
Rick Ganley: As you said, the districts say it costs way more than the state pays to cover the cost of providing what they deem a constitutionally adequate education. What do they say is the actual price tag the state should be paying?
Natalie Laflamme: So the way it works is the state sets a number, they call it the base adequacy grant, and right now that’s about $3,700 per student per year. And then the state also gives differentiated aid. So extra money for how many students are on free and reduced lunch, which is a measure of poverty. How many are English language learners? How many are in special ed? So they get a little more money for those.
But even overall, the state basically pays $4,500 dollars per student per year to the districts. The average cost in the state for one pupil per year is about $16,000 to $17,000, and that’s right around where the petitioners are. So the petitioners are arguing you’re only paying about a third of our actual cost, and there’s no way that that small amount of money would fund an adequate education. And the state argues, yes, that is adequate. School districts might be paying more, but they’re choosing to add more aspects to their schools that are above and beyond adequate.
Rick Ganley: And again, a district’s ability to be able to do that would really depend on local property taxes.
Natalie Laflamme: Exactly, and specifically how much property value is in their district. And so on average, there’s about $1.1 million of property value per student. So that’s the property that you are able to tax to fund one students education. But this varies wildly. As you can imagine, different districts have different properties, property values, different features. So on one end of the scale, you have a town like Moultonborough that has over $7 million of property that it can tax for each student. On the lower end, you have a place like Berlin that has about $370,000 dollars of property value to get their education taxes from. That’s it. And in general, a lot of these districts can’t raise the same amount of money, so they end up funding their schools less amount per pupil.
Rick Ganley: Now, you grew up in Berlin, didn’t you?
Natalie Laflamme: I did.
Rick Ganley: How did the debate play out in your school in Berlin?
Natalie Laflamme: So I don’t know how aware people are of the issue. Like, obviously, everyone knows the taxes are high and that always comes up every year when the city council debates the budget. But I think people don’t have an awareness necessarily of how disproportionate is across the state. And I think that’s something that’s starting to get in people’s minds now. But I do like pointing out, just for perspective, that the first Claremont decision came out when I was pre-kindergarten, and now I am several years out of law school and we’re having the exact same arguments. The same issues are at play, and the state hasn’t really done anything. So I think that this is going to start playing out differently in towns, that people are putting more pressure on the state. They’re starting to realize, hey, it’s not our fault necessarily that our taxes are so high. We’re working from such a small property value, and the way the state has chosen to fund schools really puts us at a huge disadvantage. And I think everyone’s always intuitively known that, but now it’s kind of really coming out in the numbers and people are talking about it a lot more.