May 5—As early as next month, a judge could decide what constitutes an adequate public school education in New Hampshire and what it costs to fund it.
In Rockingham Superior Court on Friday, the lead attorney for the state and the Board of Education and the main litigator for the ConVal school district and roughly 16 other districts suing the state over its requirement to fund a constitutionally adequate education gave their closing arguments in a case that has simmered for years.
The court’s ruling may boil down to the judge’s decision on whether adequate education follows the state Legislature’s definition, limited to the costs of providing education in 11 core subject areas, or also includes expenses that support that education, such as teacher and staff salaries, benefits , retirement packages and facilities.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court ordered Rockingham Superior Court Judge David Ruoff to define what legally constitutes an adequate education and determine the per-pupil cost.
Samuel Garland, chief of the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Civil Litigation Unit, argued that those decisions rest with the legislative and executive branches — not the judiciary — and by defining an adequate education and its price tag, the court will violate the separation of powers.
Manchester attorney Michael Tierney, representing the school districts, argued that state statutes require schools to provide many essential elements that guarantee equal access to education that should be considered in the definition and reflected in the state’s financial contribution.
“It has always been the case. How school districts are run is dictated by state Board of Education rules,” Tierney said.
“It’s entirely the state’s responsibility to include (the executive and legislative branches) to cost out education and guarantee that there are adequate funds to educate every child in the state of New Hampshire. Not just the least expensive child, but every child.”
The state currently pays roughly $3,800 toward the education of each student in New Hampshire’s public schools, plus other subsidies that school districts apply for, including for special education services. The balance is raised by local school districts and depends on contributions from taxpayers. Communities differ greatly in their abilities to raise the funds and how they spend them.
Experts testing for the school districts argue that the state’s contribution should reflect the real-world price — a number they say is close to $10,000 per student.
The cost of a constitutionally adequate education includes the cost of all components and requirements, which are “lawfully required to provide instruction in mandated content areas” from language arts to math, science and technical education.
“The right to a state-funded education is a fundamental right,” he said. “The constitution requires this state to cherish education and that real-world costs be provided for all students.”
Garland, lead attorney for the state, argued against the legality of shifting all costs to the state, especially since the definition of a constitutionally adequate education differs from student to student. It can depend on the individual and what the school district elects to provide above the minimum.
For funding purposes, “Only the minimum standards should constitute the definition of an adequate education,” Garland said. Only those rules that relate to learning areas identified by the state Legislature should be considered in the formula. Considering more costs and line items require legislative approval, he said.
“The question is what does the legislative definition require,” Garland said.
“It’s where theory and real world costs collide. I’m trying to figure out where that line is drawn by the legislature,” Ruoff said.
Garland argued that the plaintiff had not met standards of proof that a constitutionally adequate education had been denied.
Diverse opinions of the definition should have been considered, he said. “A final report explaining the inputs used to come up with universal cost” would inform the court’s decision.
“When you start to identify numbers, that’s when you invade the legislative process,” Garland said.
But, Ruoff said, the New Hampshire Supreme Court “already found that this is subject to judicial review.”
Ruoff asked both sides to submit their summary legal statements. He said it would be at least a month before he could review them and make any decision.