A Key Civics Lesson

People in New Hampshire may feel like their state Supreme Court gave them the worst possible way to start the new year: with a roaring debate over tax policy.

In fact, the Granite State's highest court has simply done what similar courts in numerous other states have done over the past three decades. On Dec. 18, it struck down New Hampshire's traditional reliance on local property taxes to fund public schools.

And the reasoning was the same as in those other states, most recently neighboring Vermont. No matter how you slice it or bolster it with state or federal aid, reliance on the local property tax causes wide disparities in per-pupil spending from district to district. Some towns just have a lot more valuable property to tax than others. But many state constitutions, including New Hampshire's, make the state responsible for providing an adequate, or in some cases, an equal, education to all students.

The tension between the way things are done and the way they ought to be done, in accord with a state's basic charter, are obvious. Kids in poorer towns, by and large, get poorer schooling. Of course, it has ever been so. But courts are increasingly unwilling to let it be.

New Hampshire prides itself on its unique rejection of any broad-based tax, whether on sales or income. Now it faces the prospect of having to formulate just such a tax to respond to the court's demand for more equitable school spending.

It could go the way of Vermont, which responded to its high court decision of last February by legislating a state property tax system that siphons tax income away from property-rich resort and ski towns and shares it with towns that have sparse tax bases. This approach, however, has sparked near revolt in the usually placid Green Mountains. The citizens in targeted "gold towns" are loudly complaining that they're being forced to scale back their children's education. Cries of "local control" and "socialism" are sure to resonate next door in New Hampshire.

So far, only Kansas and Vermont have taken the route of redistributing property taxes statewide. A number of states, like New Jersey, have labored under court order for years without coming up with a solution. Still others have taken court orders as opportunities to revamp not just the funding system, but the whole educational structure, setting out new criteria for what an "adequate" education should mean. The best-known example of that approach is Kentucky, whose wide-ranging reforms, impelled by a court ruling in 1989, have sometimes been held up as a model.

But few models apply across the hugely varied breadth of American public education. Local decisionmaking won't soon be subsumed by states (and, in fact, some of the best reforms have widened local options for parents and educators), and, as the current debate over national standards illustrates, state and local prerogatives aren't likely to be eclipsed by federal initiatives.

But clear inequities - like widely divergent spending - together with the national need for well-educated workers, will continue to force change.

The need in New Hampshire, or anywhere else, is to steer discussion toward what best serves all children within a state, and away from pride and the rancorous debate that tends to divide states and communities along economic and class lines. The kids, after all, are watching, and getting a lesson in civics.

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