The debate over education funding in New Hampshire has always had an element of fear in it ever since the original Claremont rulings. Some fears are well founded, but many are exaggerations not necessarily based in fact or actual history. Fears of the constitutional amendment being considered today are no different. The actual amendment is a tempered response to Claremont that will allow sensible lawmaking and forestall nothing of importance.
While most conservatives support an amendment and have supported one for decades, the current version finds one subset of conservatives still skeptical. This group worries most of all about local control and posits the amendment as a state takeover of education, an elimination of local rights, and suggests instead the Legislature simply ignore the court decision.
The court’s original decision was certainly a contorted definition of the ambiguous phrase “cherish the interests of arts and sciences, and all seminaries and public schools.” Beginning with his “Letters to Educators,” my colleague Eugene Van Loan has continually demonstrated the over-reach of the court interpretation.
Ignoring the decision has been one option available to lawmakers, but not one with any hope of success. Each Legislature has a few dozen politicians willing to tell the court that it wrongly decided Claremont and they choose not to be bound by that decision. In the absence of that possibility, an amendment must be considered.
Critics are in fact correct that the current amendment does limit the Legislature’s options. In fact, the language of the amendment would not allow the Legislature to abandon the funding of education entirely. Today, state aid to education amounts to $1.03 billion over 10 different aid programs. The current amendment would not allow the Legislature to spend zero dollars. Then again, no one seriously proposes that the state do nothing (not that the fear of such an outcome isn’t regularly raised by the left) so that concession forestalls nothing in reality.
Some wrongly worry that the amendment would eliminate local control of education decisions. They worry the amendment will “centralize control” of education decisions, not just funding, and move authority from the towns to the state. In fact, the amendment clarifies that the state may in fact delegate authority it has and has always had down to the towns.
From the beginning, the state has controlled education. For our entire history, the state has mandated curricula and teaching credentials. The very first education laws of the state stipulated the credentials required to be allowed to teach, and they mandated curricula — one curriculum in most towns, a different curriculum in shire towns. In the first few years, curricula were loosened, credentials were tightened.
The misunderstanding stems from language in our constitution, borrowed like most of it from Massachusetts, that gives towns the “right of electing their own teachers.” The basis and understanding of that right is at the center of a group’s opposition to the amendment.
That right never allowed towns to elect absolutely anyone for any reason with any credential. From the beginning, the state specified minimum standards to be eligible to be selected and requirements for what that person could teach. To the modern mind, we might ask what good that right was if the state nonetheless dictated who might be eligible for election.
Remember that under the original constitution that right was for “Protestant Teachers of Morality and Piety.” The phrasing was not simply anti-Catholic bigotry. It reminds us that the line between teacher and minister was not so clear as we see it today. The former colonists did not want ministers or teachers imposed on them by an Anglican Bishop and instead wanted the right to elect a minister they chose — low church, not high church, Congregational not Anglican. They liberalized the laws so the town could choose and the teachers would not necessarily have to possess a credential from a bishop in England.
Regulation of teachers’ credentials was done by the state before, during and after the constitution. Curriculum requirements were established before, during and after the constitution. However, the good Congregationalists across New England made it clear that they wanted the right to pick the specific, qualified individual lest some community with dissenting sympathies have a Church of England teacher forced on them.
We should all work to oppose laws dictating every detail of education in local public schools. But the state has had that power for 230 years, and the fact that this amendment does not radically undo that original understanding of the state’s authority is no reason to avoid doing the sensible thing.
Charles Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank based in Concord. He can be reached at Arlinghaus@JBartlett.org.