March 2, 2012
In their column asking us all to support the state Senate’s version of a constitutional amendment on education funding (“Finally a school amendment everyone should like,” Monitor Opinion page, Feb. 25), Martin Gross and Eugene Van Loan urge us to accept a constitutional amendment that they characterize as a compromise. The so-called “compromise” would give the Legislature “full power and authority to determine the amount of, and the method of raising and distributing, state funding for public education.” This language is not the language of a compromise; it is a wholesale sellout of public education.
There are two components to the Senate amendment. The first is the proper role of the courts in overseeing the responsibility of the Legislature to fund education. There are those who believe that how much money the state provides for education should be a purely legislative decision. They say if the voters are unhappy at the level of state funding for education, the people will elect representatives who will look more favorably on education and who will provide the appropriate level of funding in the future.
The second component is the question of whether the state should be able to target money to poorer communities (those that have lower assessed valuation and therefore less ability to raise money for education). Given that the state has limited resources to spend on education, every state dollar sent to a wealthy community is a dollar that can’t be sent to a poor community. We all know that it is harder to raise, say, $12,000 per student, for education in Berlin than it is in Bedford. If we are ever to have an equal opportunity for students in Berlin, we need to give more state aid to Berlin than we give to Bedford. That is why most people, including residents of property wealthy communities, support the concept of targeting money.
These two concepts, the proper role of the courts in overseeing education spending and whether we can target money to property poor communities, are entirely separate concepts. But some political leaders have chosen to combine the concepts into one constitutional amendment. The reason has been that some people on both sides of the first issue have supported targeting as a way to lessen the state’s responsibility to fund education. But targeting does not mean spending less state money on education unless it is coupled with language that allows it.
The decision to couple the authority of the legislature with targeting, whether calculated or not, has prevented us from solving the school funding dilemma.
The solution is relatively simple: Give the people the opportunity to vote on the two concepts independently. Let them decide once and for all what role the courts should play in overseeing the funding of education.
If the voters want to give the Legislature full discretion to fund, or not to fund, education, so be it. Let the voters decide. But don’t prevent the voters from also deciding whether to approve the concept of providing additional funding to communities that lack adequate resources to fund education. And most important, don’t call an amendment that gives the legislature “full power and authority” a compromise.
(State Rep. Gary B. Richardson of Hopkinton is the House Democratic floor leader.)