N.H. court says state education falls short

Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2002

CONCORD, N.H. -- New Hampshire is not doing enough to hold schools accountable for providing all children an adequate education, a divided state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The 3-2 ruling said that defining an adequate education -- and how to provide it -- are jobs for the governor and Legislature, which means the long fight over state education funding isn't over.

But the ruling is an important one in the 11-year-old case filed by five school districts whose officials sued the state, contending New Hampshire's tax system hurt poor students.

''We got almost all that we wanted,'' said Scott Johnson, a lawyer for the five towns.

The attorney general's office, which represented the state, had no immediate comment.

The state had argued that its myriad education laws govern everything from minimum school standards to curriculum frameworks.

But the court said the law excuses schools in financially strapped communities from meeting minimum standards. It said that violates the constitutional requirement that the state guarantee enough money so school districts can provide an adequate education.

The ruling also said that state assessment tests given in third, sixth and 10th grades fail to hold districts accountable because districts don't have to respond to the results.

''While the state may delegate this duty, it must do so in a manner that does not abdicate the constitutional duty it owes to the people,'' the court said. ''The state's duty cannot be relieved by the constraints of a school district's tax base or other financial condition.''

Officials in Claremont, Allenstown, Pittsfield, Franklin and Lisbon sued the state in 1991, saying the state's heavy reliance on widely varying local property taxes discriminated against children in poor towns. The court ruled in 1993 that the state constitution guarantees all children an adequate education.

Four years later, the court said the heavy reliance on local property taxes was unfair to poor communities. It told the state to come up with a new, fairer financing system.

The Legislature responded in 1999 by passing a statewide property tax, under which wealthy communities -- so-called ''donor towns'' -- send excess state taxes collected for education to the state for redistribution to poor towns.

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