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Adequacy, Equity and Broad Based Taxes

June 23, 2012

This originally appeared as an op ed piece in the Valley News, our regional newspaper. It was written at a time when the legislature was trying to come up with a definition of “adequacy” that wouldn’t require huge sums of money

The recent court ruling in New Hampshire, which found that the State failed to define a “constitutionally adequate education”, comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the issue of education funding in New Hampshire. For decades the state legislature has grappled with the issue of funding equity, a seemingly impossible task given the state’s heavy reliance on property taxes to fund public schools, and over the years they have repeatedly fallen short of the mark. While the court ruling last week did not address the issue of equity directly, the legislature will be faced with the equity issue when it addresses the court’s mandate to “define and determine the cost of a constitutionally adequate education, further define the requirements of accountability, and establish a uniform tax rate by the end of fiscal year 2007”.  Following this legislative session, the Court will reexamine the funding method enacted and may take further action, if necessary, to ensure that the State provides a constitutionally adequate education.

In order to meet the directive set forth by the court, it seems to me that unless the legislature defines “adequacy” at a minimal level, they will be faced with two distasteful choices: raise tax revenues in the state or redistribute the existing funds raised in the towns. As an educator, I am concerned that the state will base their definition of “adequacy” on the economic realities they face and shortchange the opportunities for future New Hampshire students.

As a superintendent who has worked in five different districts in four different states, I can attest to the reality that local communities and state legislatures often define an “adequate education” based on political and economic realities. In Bethel, Maine in the early 80s an 1890 vintage elementary school was “good enough for my kids because it was good enough for my grandfather”. In Brentwood New Hampshire in the mid 80s physical education, art and music programs were viewed as “frills”. In Western Maryland in the 90s class sizes of 25 were sufficient in elementary schools and class sizes of 35 or more were acceptable in upper level middle school courses. In all of these districts an “adequate wage” for teachers and administrators was so low that turnover was a fact of life— and the teachers and administrators who left the district were inevitably the best and brightest. These standards were not based on any dispassionate definition of adequacy. They were based on economic constraints.

Based on my experience as a school administrator, and given the urgency to have all students achieving at the highest level possible, I believe that the definition of an “adequate” education should be based on the explicit and implicit standards set by the highest performing districts— without regard to cost. If those standards are used, an “adequate” education would include the following:

  • Kindergarten
  • Class sizes of 18-22 in the primary grades
  • Class sizes of no more than 25 in intermediate grades
  • Art, Music, and Physical Education at least twice per week in the elementary grades
  • A media center in each school equipped with internet access
  • A computer classroom in every school large enough to accommodate a class
  • At least one computer in every classroom with internet access
  • Opportunities for High School students to enroll in courses that prepare them for SAT II tests in all content areas
  • Opportunities for High School students to enter the workforce upon graduation with pre-apprenticeship skills
  • Funds for each teacher to pursue graduate level courses and/or professional growth opportunities throughout their career
  • Teacher compensation levels that attract and retain talented and creative college graduates
  • Clean, well maintained schools

These “adequacy” standards are needed if we hope to graduate students who can compete in the global economy. But today these standards cannot be reached across the board in New Hampshire because of disparities in the property tax base. This conundrum may lead the legislature to revisit the notion of redistributing “excess” property tax revenue from relatively wealthy communities to poorer communities in order to avoid a broad based State tax. As Californians can attest, this approach is self-defeating since it will eventually cause the wealthier towns to depress their property taxes to avoid sending the “surplus” to other communities and institute user fees to retain the higher standards in their community.

In the weeks ahead, I urge you to share your “adequate education” standards with the candidates for the legislature in your communities. If the legislators tell you those standards require more funding, ask them how they plan to provide the funding needed to achieve these standards or to share their definition, for that definition will determine the fate of our students for the years ahead.

 

 

 

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