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  November 1, 2016
 
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SCHOOL FUNDING CAP VIOLATES STATE CONSTITUTION NEW HAMPSHIRE COURT FINDS

In September, Superior Court Justice Brian Tucker granted most of plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment, in City of Dover v. State, holding that the state's statutory cap on State school funds sent to cities and towns denied Dover adequacy funds to which it was entitled under the State constitution and granting a permanent injunction.

The court noted in its ruling that the State did not oppose plaintiffs' motion for declaratory and injunctive relief, but instead the Senate President and Speaker of the House intervened to oppose the motion. The intervenors argued that plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the case. The court did not agree, explaining that because the Dover plaintiffs argued that the loss of funding impaired their ability to furnish a constitutionally adequate education they had standing to challenge the cap.

The court observed that New Hampshire school children have a constitutional right to an adequate education. Citing New Hampshire Supreme Court precedent in Claremont Sch. Dist. v. Governor (1993), the court explained that the State constitution "imposes a duty on the State to provide a constitutionally adequate education to every child in the public schools in New Hampshire and to guarantee adequate funding." The court also stated that the State Legislature must define a constitutionally adequate education and pay for it, citing Londonderry Sch. Dist. v. State (2006).

A New Hampshire statute provides a definition of a constitutionally adequate education and identifies the annual per pupil funding amount based on the cost of providing that education, including upward adjustments for students with various needs. Despite New Hampshire's cost-based calculation, beginning in fiscal year 2010, State law directed the Department of Education to limit State aid distributions by applying a 15% cap on any increase over the 2009 amount. Dover received less than the cost-based calculation in 2010, and subsequent years.

The next question for the court was under what standard to review the challenged statutory language. Because education is a fundamental right in New Hampshire (Claremont 1997), the court used strict scrutiny to determine whether the cap violated the constitution. When governmental action impinges on a fundamental right, strict judicial scrutiny applies, the court noted. The court did not find the cap "necessary to achieve a compelling interest" and "narrowly tailored" to do so, as strict scrutiny requires.

The court declared the cap unconstitutional and issued a permanent injunction against its use. Plaintiffs will recover the funding lost due to the cap from September 15, 2015, and thereafter. This decision also benefits a handful of other school districts and towns that were similarly shortchanged.

"The court in this case correctly upheld the essential right of students to an education," said David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center. "This ruling benefits New Hampshire students and the State itself because better educated students today means a stronger economy and civic discourse in the future."  

Education Law Center Press Contact:

Molly A. Hunter

Education Justice, Director

mhunter@edlawcenter.org

(973) 342-7921

 
     
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