With the so-called “Con-Val” school funding lawsuit having finally reached a New Hampshire courtroom, the question of how much money is needed to provide an “adequate” education is now front and center. This adequacy debate invites historical reflection.
Consider, for example, the story of an American lad growing up on the Indiana frontier in the 1820s. Like most folks back then, he lived on a farm and didn’t spend much time in a classroom. In fact, he only went to school for about a year. But he learned the alphabet and developed basic literacy, and eventually became a voracious reader. Essentially self-educated, he sought to become an attorney. Eschewing law school, he passed the Illinois bar exam on his own and embarked on a legal career. He was later elected to the state legislature, where he drew national attention.
Then in 1860, Abraham Lincoln became our 16th—and perhaps our greatest—American president.
This Lincoln lesson is a cautionary but true tale worth pondering as the Con-Val case is heard—a case that shines a light on a partisan divide regarding “education.” Conservatives especially value assessments, accountability, and parental involvement. Progressives focus more on infrastructure, funding, and “equity.”
These philosophical differences were on full display in New Hampshire’s House Education Committee. Our Democrat friends there are good folks whose perspectives simply reflect progressive leanings that just don’t resonate with conservatives.
A civics assessment bill introduced last term is illustrative. Many progressives see civics classes as vehicles to promote activism while focusing on climate change and the like. Conservatives wanted such classes to focus on our constitution while encouraging an appreciation for our American heritage. In response to widespread concern that our students lacked basic civics fundamentals, HB320 required every New Hampshire student to pass the 128-question naturalization test that prospective new citizens must study. Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the bill, but it made it to the governor’s desk, where it was signed into law. Now every Granite State youngster will have a common civics foundation.
Also illustrative was the response to a “gifted student” bill—HB321. With New Hampshire somewhere around 50th in the country in terms of identifying and supporting gifted and talented students, this measure simply asked school districts to report what, if anything, they do in this area. There were no spending or policy requirements. Yet, citing “equity” concerns, Democrats overwhelmingly opposed this measure. Fortunately, HB321 also became law, thus at least requiring local discussion about a truly underserved school population.
This current term saw HB552 come to Education Committee. With unprecedented revenues available, this measure sought to establish a $1 million program creating incentive grants to reward schools that improve their standardized test scores while also creating best practice folders to improve learning. All 10 committee Republicans supported the bill, while all 10 Democrats opposed it.
This measure truly demonstrated the philosophical divide between progressives and conservatives, particularly in light of the Con-Val case. Here we had GOP members voting to increase funding for schools over the opposition of Democrats. Particularly relevant here is our current education funding formula providing for schools to get extra money if their third-grade reading scores are low. This perverse incentive rewards failure, with no solid provisions to follow up on how the extra money is spent.
It is up to our electorate—and now a court—to judge what funding mechanisms are fitting and proper for New Hampshire.
Is it accurate to say our state has a school funding crisis when we’re spending a record $20,000 per student in public schools where enrollment has decreased by almost 25 percent during the past 20 years, concurrent with the decline in test scores which prompted HB552?
The “equity” argument will be heard ad infinitum and ad nauseum. But while Berlin will never be equal to Bedford, nor Whitefield with Windham, our present funding formulas do have provisions to provide extra support where most needed.
Many Granite Staters see the Con-Val case as a Trojan horse allowing progressive attorneys to cynically exploit the education community to get rulings requiring new broad-based taxes to empower liberals and grow government. A case in point would be the trainwreck that California became after heading down that road.
The court should fairly consider all the education funding data which will be provided, but it should not ignore the political calculus in the process either.
And wouldn’t it be great if a lawyer for the state of New Hampshire could summon the nerve to point out that Abraham Lincoln’s humble education experience was apparently sufficiently “adequate” for him to become our greatest president?