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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A way to fix state education funding


Because of the state budget crisis, most of the efforts made on education funding over the last two years will have to be changed. The Legislature has the ability and the opportunity to craft a new plan with the potential to end the constant battle with the courts.

Every month brings news that the state's general tax revenues are not just a little behind the budgeted estimates of a few years ago but are in decline, getting worse, and contributing to a budget hole that will require hundreds of millions of dollars of spending reductions.

The education funding plan that passed last year would require state grants in the next two years of about $100 million more than we will spend in the current two-year budget. But government doesn't have an additional $100 million. On the contrary, we must cut that $100 million and more.

It is not reasonable to believe that we will cut almost every department, division and program of state government but add $100 million to one of the four major state education aid programs (even as we cut or eliminate the other three).

If the amount is to decline, and it almost surely must, then the plan must be revised in total. The necessary revision is an opportunity.

The Legislature can and should draft an education funding plan that starts with the constitution and what legislators think it allows and does not allow. It is the duty of the Legislature to do just that. If lawmakers think a sensible plan that directs aid where it's needed is permissible, they should pass such a plan with an explanation of why they believe it fully complies with their duty to "cherish all seminaries and public schools."

Many who supported some sort of a constitutional amendment did so believing they were changing not the actual constitution but merely rebutting the parts of court decisions they believed were either in error or too inflexible in their interpretation of six words. Many who don't support an amendment believe that flexibility exists within the confines of the court decision.

Without a doubt, some degree of compromise will be necessary. A good starting place for compromise is in the governor's original funding proposal from 2005.

Shortly after his election, Gov. John Lynch proposed a targeted aid plan he believed was constitutional, which eliminated the statewide property tax and sent more aid to towns universally regarded as needy and sent less aid to towns generally regarded as having less need.

The details of which criteria ought to be used and some of the nuances of construction will have to be gone through, but in its broad outlines that plan could command wide support. At the time, it had the support of most of the Democratic leadership and a good portion of the Republican leadership.

Those of us of a more conservative cast were happy to eliminate the statewide property tax. Currently, it merely renames an existing local resource and leaves the money with the local community. But a budget crisis could see the state take over a share and start using it to fund its own shortfalls.

Those of us who asked the governor to include a constitutional amendment with his plan made clear that we thought the Constitution didn't prohibit what he wanted to do, but we were afraid the Supreme Court would say it did. We thought attaching an amendment to the plan was one of the best chances of passing an amendment.

With just five months before a plan must be in place, now is the time for bold action on the part of the governor. The piece of state aid for education that we call "adequacy" will have to be reduced. The best way to make sure that the funds we have are targeted most effectively is to go back to a plan that explicitly targets.

The plan should be sensible and constitutional. It should include a preamble or introduction that explains in detail why the supporters believe it is constitutional. The idea is to attack neither the constitution nor the court. Instead, the governor can explain how he started at a different point than the status quo and how he and the legislators who pass the bill believe it is good policy and constitutional at the same time.

Faced with such a sensible and reasonable effort, the five men and women sitting on the Supreme Court would certainly give due consideration to the argument. More important, instead of trying to figure out what the court wants, the Legislature will have done what it thinks is right.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.

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